A Lesson Before Dying: Novel Summary:chp 25-31
Chapter 25 Summary:
After the visit, Grant goes to the Rainbow Club. He feels good, and he wants to tell Vivian about the visit, but he decides not to tell her about “the envy I had seen in the minister’s face.” He senses that he and Ambrose are vying for control of the last weeks of Jefferson’s life—and that he is winning.
Nearby, two mulatto bricklayers is drinking and talking, and Grant gradually becomes aware that they are discussing Jefferson. Bricklayers worked by contract at manual labor that kept them out of the fields and thought themselves better than the darker-skinned people of the quarter—“dumb as hell,” Grant says of this group, “but prejudiced as hell.” The taller bricklayer dominates the conversation with his angry comments. “Should have burned him months ago,” he complains. “That kind of sonofabitch make it hard on everybody. . . . I’d pull the switch myself.” Now Grant knows exactly what the bricklayers are talking about. He tells himself to leave if he can’t stand what they say, yet as he rises to go, he hears one bricklayer say something and the other snicker. He goes to their table and says, “You shut up, or get up.” The tall bricklayer gets up, and a brawl begins. Joe yells, “Not in here,” but Grant has started to react from deep within his feelings. He does not stop, and neither does his opponent: “Those three or four generations of bricklaying genes, his hatred of the black/white blood in him, and his plain frustration with life would not let him go down.”
It takes Thelma’s intervention with a broom and Joe’s demand that a waitress go and get his gun to stop the fight—that, and a devastating blow to Grant’s head. Vivian is there when he comes to, and she takes him out of the bar before the police can arrive.
Chapter 25 Analysis:
Grant is a realistic, complex man with mixed motivations. He wants to share his success with Vivian, yet his feeling of achievement is still centered on himself, not on Jefferson. And he still views Ambrose as a rival rather than a colleague. Of Jefferson’s agreement to eat the gumbo, he says, “Sin (or the sinner) had done this,” not the reverend. At the center of Grant’s desire to talk is pride, not compassion, and the fact that he doesn’t want to discuss his conflict with Ambrose suggests that he knows his attitude is self-centered. But Grant’s pride is quickly displaced when he comes to Jefferson’s defense and takes a beating on his behalf.
Chapter 26 Summary:
Vivian takes Grant to her home and tends to his injuries. She explains that Joe knocked Grant out so that the fight would end before he was be badly injured or killed. She is angry at Grant for not walking away from the fight, but Grant says, “Can Jefferson walk out of where he is?” Vivian worries that Grant is not well enough to drive home, but for him to stay may cause trouble for her. She points out that he didn’t bother thinking about the consequences of his actions—for her job, for her divorce arrangements—when he started the fight. She is “not mad,” she says—“Just disgusted.” This is how the men she knows have always handled things—with violence.
Vivian goes to the kitchen to get dinner ready, and Grant follows her to tell her about his success with Jefferson, but she doesn’t respond. As they eat, she suddenly says that she has heard from her husband. After years of not caring to see their children, he has decided that he will give her the divorce only if he can see the children every weekend. Since he’s in Texas, this demand is just a way to force Vivian to stay married. Grant is dismayed, but foremost in his mind is still Jefferson. The problem with Vivian’s husband isn’t going away; Jefferson has just weeks left.
He gets himself another drink and protests to Vivian that he is “only human.” “One day,” she replies, “I’ll bring flowers to the graveyard.” She wants to know what their relationship means to them—is it just the sex? His repeated response is that he loves her, but she says that he’s never given her any “consideration.” In anger, he storms out to the porch to leave. But there is nowhere for him to go but back to Vivian. The chapter ends with him kneeling by her and laying his head on her lap.
Chapter 26 Analysis:
Grant has put himself at risk to defend Jefferson, but Vivian’s criticisms of him make him aware that his actions were in fact self-centered. He acted on impulse, out of honor; but that honor is as much his own as Jefferson’s, and it puts Vivian’s job and children at risk. The chapter also shows that, although Vivian is as educated as he is, he views their relationship as one in which she serves him. At one point he asks her, “Honey, you going to fix me a drink?” after she has made and served dinner and sat down to eat. It’s interesting that he switches to the dialect of the quarter when he makes this “request.” Grant feels deeply the unjustness of his rank in the white people’s world, but he still assumes that he ranks Vivian and other women.
Chapter 27 Summary:
After church on a day in spring, Reverend Ambrose, Inez, and Emma come home with Lou. Grant is lying on his bed, arms behind his head, when Lou comes in and says that the reverend wants to speak with him, so he’d better tuck in his shirt and put on his shoes. Ambrose is worried about Jefferson because he isn’t “saved” and wants Grant to help in this matter. Grant says again that he can’t help with that, but Ambrose disagrees: “That’s where you wrong. He listen to you.” Grant turns away, and Ambrose asks him, twice, “You every think of anybody but yourself?” Ambrose needs Grant’s help to “prepare [Jefferson] for a better world,” but Grant doesn’t believe in that world, though he does believe in God. Ambrose says that the people in the quarter couldn’t get through their troubles without believing in a better life beyond this one. Still, Grant refuses to help with Jefferson’s salvation. Ambrose accuses Grant of have not learned, in all his education, what really matters: “What did you learn about your own people? . . . You learned your reading, writing, and ’rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself.” Grant sees rage in the minister’s face as he says, “I won’t let you sent that boy’s soul to hell. . . . I’ll fight you with all the strength I have left in this body, and I’ll win.”
When Grant offers to withdraw from this odd competition for Jefferson’s last days, Ambrose says that Grant will keep visiting Jefferson because he owes this to Emma and Lou. “I don’t owe anybody anything, Reverend,” he answers, turning away. But Ambrose forces him to turn back and instructs him to tell Jefferson “to fall down on his knees” before his godmother. Grant refuses to teach Jefferson to kneel, but Ambrose counters, “You think a man can’t kneel and stand?” Grant insists on his integrity—on not lying about his belief in heaven for Jefferson’s sake. But the reverend says that he lies when he must, if it gives people relief from pain: “At wakes, at funerals, at weddings—yes, I lie.” Now it’s Grant’s turn: “They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie.” He catalogs the “lies” Lou has hidden over the years, the sacrifices she has silently made to provide Grant’s education. But he ends his lecture by saying that he is the educated man, because “I know my people.”
Chapter 27 Analysis:
Though it’s Jefferson who loses his life in this story, it’s Grant who, as the novel’s protagonist, undergoes the greatest change. In the previous chapter, Vivian accuses him of not giving her any “consideration”; in this chapter, Reverend Ambrose levels the same charge. Grant is still focused mainly on his own feelings, fears, and needs, not on Jefferson’s. Otherwise, he would be willing to lie for Jefferson’s sake.
In fact, Ambrose is asking Grant to do the same kind of thing that Grant asked Jefferson to do as they walked in the day room: to pretend to be hungry to spare Emma pain, to become the hero to his people by defying the facts of his situation. Readers become aware of a slight hypocrisy in Grant, who will ask Jefferson to live up to his “potentials” when he himself refuses to do so.
Chapter 28 Summary:
When Grant next visits Jefferson, the young man is more responsive than usual. Grant sees that the pencil is worn down to an unusable nub. Jefferson has been writing—about his dreams at night, about his fear of the execution, about the hurtful comparison to a hog. Grant promises to bring a pencil sharper next time and tells Jefferson that Paul would be glad to sharpen the pencil in the meantime.
Jefferson asks when Easter is, and Grant says that tomorrow is Good Friday. “That’s when He died. . . . Never said a mumbling word. That’s right. Not a word,” Jefferson says to himself. This is an opening to talk about God, so Grant asks if Jefferson talked to Reverend Ambrose. Jefferson asks, with a sad look in his eyes, “You think I’m going to heaven?” What about Mr. Gropé, he wonders, or Bear and Brother—are they in heaven? Grant can’t answer, but he says that Jefferson can pray for his nannan. Jefferson says that Emma needs no help getting to heaven and asks Grant, with “a brief cynical grin,” if he prays. Grant admits that he doesn’t, that he’s lost, but he asks Jefferson to believe so that someday he can, too. Jefferson should pray and believe, he says, to please Emma, who would do anything for Jefferson. “She go to that chair for me?” he asks. “You? Anybody? . . . No, Mr. Wiggins, I got to go myself.”
Jefferson asks whether Grant believes in God, and Grant says that he believes that God “makes children play and people sing”; he brings people together and makes things grow. “Who make people kill people” is Jefferson’s question. Grant has no answer, but he reminds Jefferson that “They killed His Son.” Jefferson replies, “And he never said a mumbling word. . . . That’s how I want to go, Mr. Wiggins. Not a mumbling word.”
They have little more to say. Jefferson doesn’t need anything, but he is tired of the waiting. Grant wishes he could help, but Jefferson states the terrible fact: “I’m the one got to do everything . . . I’m the one.” He summarizes his brief life, which has been full of labor and short on pleasure: “Cuss for nothing. Beat for nothing. Work for nothing. Grinned to get by.” Now he is somehow supposed to be better than everyone else, and he doesn’t know how to do it.
Grant looks at him and sees that he seems “big and tall” now, not stooped and burdened. He promises what he can—to do his best. “You’re more a man than I am,” Grant admits. Calm now that he has decided, Jefferson comments on the spring weather and then asks whether his death will be painful or long. “I’m all right, Mr. Wiggins,” he says, offering his teacher some of the food that Emma sent.
Chapter 28 Analysis:
This chapter marks the high point, the climax, in the story’s conflict. Jefferson is aware now not only of his quickly approaching death but also of the demands Emma, Ambrose, and Grant are making of him: “Me to take the cross,” he says. “Your cross, nannan’s cross, my own cross. . . . This old stumbling nigger. Ya’ll axe a lot, Mr. Wiggins.” The comparisons with the story of Jesus become more defined as Jefferson uses this language and decides to die without “a mumbling word.” Jefferson’s pain is intense as he confronts his choices, but when he has made his decision, the relationship between him and Grant changes fundamentally. Grant now admires him, and he takes the dominant position in their friendship, offering Emma’s food to Grant.
Chapter 29 Summary:
This chapter is the contents of Jefferson’s notebook. There are no dates because Jefferson has little by which to measure the passage of time—mostly, he sees the change of seasons through the small, high cell window. His early writings chronicle his fear and loneliness, but he begins then to question what he knows of God and of justice. God, it seems to him, mostly works for white people; how else to explain the hard lives of the people in the quarter?
But gradually, Jefferson writes of his gratitude for his godmother and for Grant’s visits. As his execution draws near, he writes that he worries about Emma’s health: “the lord kno mr wigin i hope i can see her one mo time on this earth fore i go.” This, he thinks, must be what love is.
He also writes of a visit from the sheriff, Pichot, and the chief deputy. They ask if he would like a little knife to sharpen his pencil, and he says yes. Pichot gives him a tiny, pearl-handled knife; Jefferson assures him that he’ll return it when he no longer needs it. The men look at each other and make a reference to a bet, a reference that readers understand, though Jefferson does not.
Jefferson records Paul’s small kindnesses and how glad he felt when the schoolchildren visited him. He speaks of people from the quarter visiting and of how Bok wanted so badly to give him a special marble but couldn’t part with it and so gave him a less favored one instead. Jefferson cried; he had never felt such kindnesses from others before. He meets Vivian and finds her beautiful.
Finally, Jefferson writes of his last sunset and last sunrise. As he waits to be taken to the chair, his teeth chatter and his heart pounds; his fear is palpable on the page. His last entries include: “day breakin,” “sun comin up,” “the bird in the tre soun like a blu bird,” and “sky blu blu.”
Chapter 29 Analysis:
Jefferson, who says nothing for the first part of the novel, expresses himself most fully in his notebook. His entries reveal a thoughtful, sensitive man. The irony is not lost on readers: Under more just circumstances, freed from poverty and discrimination, what might this young man have done with his life? These are questions implied by the novel.
Chapter 30 Summary:
This chapter tells of the arrival of the chair on the day before the execution and the effect of its presence. People prepare for Jefferson’s death: Lou takes up her position by Emma, Vivian promises that she and her students will pray from noon to three, the scheduled time, and Grant flees to the Rainbow Club to sit in the semidarkness. Even there, he cannot escape the talk of the execution, so he goes home.
That night Grant cannot sleep; neither can Ambrose. They and others keep vigil separately, and readers know from Jefferson’s notebook that he, too, is not sleeping. In the morning, Ambrose eats breakfast and prays for strength to stand by Jefferson through his ordeal. Sheriff Guidry, too, prays—that nothing will go wrong. He cannot meet his wife’s eyes.
In town, a black woman sweeping outside Edwin’s feels the chair’s ominous presence, while a white clerk says she’s glad the day is finally here and worries about whether the white schoolchildren will be negatively affected by what they might hear.
Fee Jinkins, another prisoner, watches the men set up the chair. Gruesome Getty, they call it, jokingly threatening Fee that if he doesn’t behave, he’ll have to sit in Getty’s lap, too. In the courthouse, people are told that if they wish to go home between twelve and three, they may. Someone mentions that Jesus died between noon and three; a woman adds that two thieves died with him.
Clay Lemon, a black man who works in a café, takes money to be deposited at the bank and overhears a white man comforting his wife after she hears the sound the chair makes as it is tested. The bank clerk tells the couple that her little boy was frightened, but that she told him not to worry: “the sheriff just had to put an old bad nigger away.” Shocked, Clay can hardly remember where he is until the clerk calls him a “dumbbell” and sends him away.
Jefferson also prepares for the execution. He has to be shaved so that the chair will work properly. Paul does what he can to lessen the humiliation of these preparations. The jail personnel are nervous; this is the first time they’ve had to go through this process. As he waits to be shaved, Jefferson asks the deputies about their families. He seems to be almost “in a trance” as he waits to die. Jefferson asks Paul to return the knife to Pichot and take the notebook to Grant; he gives away his radio to the other prisoners and his marble to Paul. He asks if Paul will be there. “Yes, Jefferson,” Paul says. “I’ll be there.”
Chapter 30 Analysis:
The tone of the novel changes dramatically in this chapter, becoming less like a subjective first-person narrative and more like a tersely worded journalistic report of the movements of people on the days before and of the execution. In somber language, the reactions and thoughts of many people pass before readers, who also see Jefferson’s calm, resigned manner as he prepares to die. The chapter makes it clear that this event is not something that is happening only to Jefferson. The decision to take his life washes over the lives of the citizens of Bayonne and the quarter.
Chapter 31 Summary:
As noon approaches, Grant, who says he has lost his faith, instructs his students to kneel on the hard church floor and pray for Jefferson until word comes that the execution is over. The weather is beautiful, just as Jefferson had wanted, but Grant’s thoughts are stormy. No workers are in the fields; everyone is keeping vigil. Grant thinks again of his childhood friends, many of whom have left the South or have died too young. He muses that “Nothing will ever be the same after today” and sees the minister and another man from the quarter drive away to stand with Jefferson. He tries not to think, not to cry; he wants to get in his car and drive far away because, he thinks, “I could not cry for all of them, could I?”
Grant wonders if God is with Jefferson at this time and hopes that he has not caused Jefferson to lose his faith. Jefferson, he admits, is not just braver than he is. He is braver than anyone in the parish. Grant realizes that, even now, he has not committed fully to anyone. He should be with Jefferson, but he’s not there. He should be with his students, but he’s outside under a tree. Deeply angry, he thinks, “Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers.” But he knows that without beliefs in higher things, people can’t be free. Thus, he admits, “I am a slave.”
Grant sees a butterfly land on a clump of grass and stay for a moment. Its wings flutter, and it flies away. Grant takes this as a sign that the ordeal is over, yet he waits for word from courthouse before going back into the school. It is Paul Bonin who brings the news and the notebook. He seems in shock, and they talk about the execution. Paul reports Jefferson’s bravery, not to ease Grant’s pain, he says, but because it is true. Despite trying not to get close to Jefferson, Paul is deeply grieved over his death. Paul compliments Grant on his teaching, but Grant denies that he made any difference. Paul says that he hopes to read the notebook someday, if Grant will let him. They talk about what Grant will do next, and Paul says, “She’s beautiful. You’re a lucky fellow, Grant Wiggins.”
Before they part, Paul tells Grant to call on him for anything he needs. He says, “Allow me to be your friend,” and he shakes Grant’s hand, asking him to tell the schoolchildren that Jefferson “was the bravest man in that room today.” Grant says that perhaps someday Paul will tell the children this himself. “It would be an honor.”
Grant walks into the school, crying.
Chapter 31 Analysis:
Chapters 28, 29, and 30 reveal how Jefferson faces and conquers the challenge he faces. In the last chapter of the novel, readers find out whether Grant, too, has learned what he needs to know—how a man should live. Despite the chapter’s terrible central event, which happens off stage, hopeful moments elevate the chapter’s tone. The landing and flight of the butterfly, a symbol of new life, is one such moment. Another occurs when Paul asks to be Grant’s friend. Grant needs to know whether anything has changed because of Jefferson, whether anything can change. Paul’s friendship suggests that everything can change. As Grant says of Jefferson, the racially divided community of Bayonne and the quarter has “potentials.”