A Lesson Before Dying
Summary: Chapter 19
The community has located a pine tree and raised enough money to buy clothes for Jefferson. Grant’s class puts on a Christmas program and Reverend Ambrose delivers the introductory prayer, commenting on the foolishness of those who believe themselves educated when they have no love for the Lord. Grant contains his irritation. During the Christmas program, a particularly dramatic recitation of “’Twas the Night before Christmas” affects everyone deeply, but Grant becomes depressed thinking about the monotony of their routine. Every year they put on the same play and sing the same songs. He wonders whether anything will ever change in his town. A young child brings Grant some food, and he sits looking at the gift intended for Jefferson.
Summary: Chapter 20
The date of Jefferson’s execution has been set, and Grant goes to Henri Pichot’s house. Reverend Ambrose has already arrived at Pichot’s, but Sheriff Guidry has not. The housekeeper assures Grant that Guidry is “on his way,” but Grant is dubious. After a few minutes, however, Guidry arrives. Guidry informs the others that Jefferson will die between noon and three on the second Friday after Easter. The Mayor did not want the execution to be any closer to Easter or during Lent. Grant bitterly thinks about the fact that twelve white men convicted Jefferson and now a white man has set the date of his death. He wonders how any man could set the date of another’s death and questions whether this procedure deserves to be called justice.
Summary: Chapter 21
Grant visits Miss Emma, who lies under a quilt on her bed, looking extremely ill. Grant badly wants to leave, but he knows he should spend at least a few minutes there. After ten minutes, he returns to his aunt’s house where Vivian pays him a visit. Vivian says she wants to stop by Miss Emma’s but does not know whether it is a good time. Grant tells Vivian he wants her to be part of his life and that his aunt will have to accept that. They get out of bed and go to Miss Emma’s. Vivian whispers something into Miss Emma’s ear and Emma looks pleased.
At the Rainbow Club, Grant and Vivian drink brandy, and he tells her why he thinks his aunt and Miss Emma ask so much of him. He says they want to take pride in him, just as Miss Emma wants to take pride in Jefferson. Vivian has put down her glass and says she does not understand. Grant says black men have historically failed to protect their women—either staying in the South and losing their will, or running away and leaving the women to look after the children. Grant insists that even those who try to change things will break because they must shoulder the burdens of all those who have failed before them. It is a vicious circle. Miss Emma and Tante Lou cling to Grant, he says, because they see that he is different from other men. They do not understand, however, that by holding on to him they force him to shoulder a terrible burden and facilitate his destruction. When Vivian asks how they can break the circle, Grant replies, “It’s up to Jefferson, my love.”
Analysis: Chapters 19–21
Although Grant wants to help his community, he feels powerless to do so. This feeling of powerlessness makes him bitter. At the Christmas program, he reflects that nothing changes: not the songs, not the clothes, not the people. Grant feels he cannot help or change these people, and in order to stop this failure from hurting him, he nurtures anger and contempt toward the people he says he wants to help. He fans the flames of his superiority and separates himself from the happiness of the group. Still, despite his best efforts to be callous, Grant notices sights and moments that depress him with their tenderness: a girl in his class gives a lovely and affecting reading of “’Twas the Night before Christmas”; a present for Jefferson sits against the pathetic Christmas tree, a present the children bought with their own contributions of nickels and dimes; a plate of food brought to Grant by a child who has noticed his misery.
Reverend Ambrose’s introductory prayer challenges Grant to show true faith. The reverend thinks that when you believe in God, you not only comfort yourself, you take a step toward fighting the injustice of a white-dominated society. God is a source of hope, change, and rebellion. Moreover, if you have faith in God, you have faith in your people. Nevertheless, Grant is not up to that challenge, at least not yet. Reverend Ambrose’s sermon is a precursor for his diatribe against Grant in a later chapter.
One can interpret Grant’s statement, that Jefferson can play a powerful role in breaking the cycle of black men’s failures, in numerous ways. The statement might illustrate Grant’s new humility, as he shows that Jefferson, not Grant, will be the real hero for black men. At the same time, the statement might indicate Grant’s renewed belief in his own task—namely, the task of helping Jefferson regain his humanity. But one might also interpret the statement more cynically, as an indicator of Grant’s continued bitterness. By laying responsibility at Jefferson’s feet, Grant might be admitting that he himself cannot play the role of savior for the community. Or, Grant might be shirking his duties by saying the choice is Jefferson’s—if Grant fails to transform Jefferson into a dignified man, he will not have to take the blame. The numerous possible interpretations point to the complexity of Grant’s character. We already know that he often acts like both a cynic and a saint; it is certainly possible that he has both selfish and unselfish reasons for making this statement.
Gaines associates Christian imagery with Jefferson: like Christ, Jefferson has been unjustly sentenced to death by a society that fears and hates him. Also like Christ, Jefferson represents the potential for human change, and the manner in which he goes to his death will do either great harm or great good to the community. In the bar, Grant refers to Jefferson as a savior. Jefferson himself seems to sense the association, asking several times about Christ’s death. When the governor sets the execution date, he avoids Easter Sunday perhaps because he wishes to avoid associating Jefferson with Christ, and making a martyr of him. Because the governor pays attention to the symbolism of Easter Sunday, he gives the symbolism more weight and importance.
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