A Lesson Before Dying

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Chapters 1–2

Summary Chapters 1–2

The opening chapter paints Grant, the narrator, as a proud black man who suffers because he lives in a racist time and place. Gaines suggests Grant might be deceiving himself, since he distances himself from Jefferson’s trial and yet claims to know exactly what happened there. Although Grant says he did not attend Jefferson’s trial because he knew what the verdict would be, Gaines suggests that Grant also stayed away because he willfully imposes a distance between himself and his family and community. Grant says he could have sat with his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother, but he chose to separate himself from them.

Grant explains his anger toward his aunt and Miss Emma by saying that they ask him to perform a difficult, perhaps impossible, task: Miss Emma wants him to undo the effects of eighteen years of racist oppression. The huge machinery of the oppressors has ground down Jefferson, and Miss Emma wants Grant to take on this machinery and give Jefferson defiance and strength of character. Like most of the people in the audience, Miss Emma understood the racism in the defense attorney’s speech and she wants to fight it.