A Lesson Before Dying

by: Ernest J. Gaines

Chapters 16–18

Summary Chapters 16–18

Grant goes to visit Jefferson. Again, Jefferson refuses to eat. Grant mentions the Christmas program, and Jefferson asks whether Christmas was when Christ was born or when he died. Grant responds, “Born.” Jefferson says that Easter was when “they nailed Him to the cross.” Grant asks Jefferson if he knows what “moral” means. He reminds Jefferson that human beings have an obligation to each other. Jefferson insists that he is only a hog, not a human being.

Analysis: Chapters 16–18

Grant begins to realize that he has a capricious nature. His anger waxes and wanes, and his beliefs shift quickly. Sometimes he agrees with Professor Antoine’s cynical worldview, sometimes he feels more optimistic than his teacher. Grant alternates between neutrality and near-desperation, between insisting he cannot help Jefferson and determining to reach Jefferson somehow. First, he complains to Miss Emma that he does not want to go back to Jefferson; he then tries to engage Jefferson positively when he visits him. Gaines shows how Grant begins to sense his own failings, and, in doing so, he begins to enable himself to evoke positive change in Jefferson. This change is not immediately perceptible, but even though Jefferson continues to shun his food and to sarcastically and aggressively insist that he is a hog, at least Grant begins to find some strength in these scenes.

Sheriff Guidry both embodies and defies the characteristics of the typically racist white man. Gaines’s description shows that Grant and the other black characters would face harsh consequences for displaying insolence or disrespect toward Guidry and other men of his ilk. Grant must stand and wait while the sheriff uses the phone, and he must end each sentence by calling Guidry “sir.” However, at times Guidry transcends the stereotypical behavior of the bigoted, authoritarian, white racist. Even though Grant’s visits to Jefferson have become a nuisance, Guidry cannot bring himself to end the visitation rights. He also makes a concession to Miss Emma, even though she went behind his back to ask his wife about meeting Jefferson in the dayroom. Gaines juxtaposes Guidry’s softening heart with the unfeeling reactions of the other whites in the room. Whereas Chuck has no pity for the black man, and Frank refuses to consider his plight, Guidry displays gruff feeling for Jefferson. Guidry tries to maintain his authority while granting concessions not only to his wife, but to Miss Emma, Jefferson, and possibly his own conscience.

By refusing to use his intellectual and spiritual capabilities, Jefferson becomes the negative archetype of his race. He decides to carry the mantle of inferiority placed on him, rather than fight to shake it off. From perversity and anger, he willingly embodies all of the stereotypes whites heap on blacks: he does not think or act independently; he does not fight against his oppressors; he is more animal than man. By embodying these stereotypes and acting like an animal, he throws the ugliness of stereotypes in the face of his black friends and relations. Although Jefferson insists he does not want Grant’s help, he undermines that assertion by showing Grant how much his lawyer’s humiliating words hurt him. When he roots about in his food and calls himself a hog, he wordlessly shows Grant his anger and shame at being called a hog, and asks Grant for help in digging himself out of the stereotype he has come to embody. For the first half of this novel, Jefferson is not only physically imprisoned, he is spiritually imprisoned by his own unhappiness.