A Lesson Before Dying: Novel Summary:chp 7-12
Chapter 7 Summary:
In this chapter Grant and the schoolchildren prepare for the annual visit of the school superintendent, Dr. Joseph Morgan. Each day, the students, clean and ready to demonstrate what they have learned, wait anxiously for the visit. When Dr. Joseph, a short, fat man with a double chin, finally arrives, he calls Grant “Higgins” even after Grant reminds him of his name. Dr. Joseph inspects the children, who do their best to make their teacher proud; but he is more interested in whether they have good hygiene than whether they are learning. He even inspects their teeth, as if they were livestock. Then he lectures them on the importance of hard work and urges them to eat beans, a cheap food that he claims is very healthy. Watching his students undergo this inspection, Grant is angry that he drilled and prepared them for this ordeal. He has complied, he knows, with a deeply unfair educational policy.
As Dr. Joseph leaves, Grant states the school’s needs: more chalk and pencils, books that are complete and more up-to-date, a better heater. Dr. Joseph dismisses these needs: “We take what the state gives us, and we make the best of it.” As he leaves, he advises Grant to drill flag etiquette and hygiene—the only subjects he sees necessary for these black schoolchildren. He tells Grant that if he can “get them off their lazy butts,” the children can pick up pecans to sell for basic hygiene supplies. He drives away, complaining about his work and not looking back.
Chapter 7 Analysis:
Set in the decade before the civil rights movement began, this novel details unfair discriminatory policies in many venues of life: in the courts, of course, and, in this chapter, in the schools. Readers may want to recall that the legal requirement during the 1940s was for “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks, established in 1896 in the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. Not until 1954, in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, did the Supreme Court overturn the idea of separate but equal facilities. Grant’s school is an example of the segregated, separate, yet manifestly unequal school that the 1954 ruling acknowledged.
Chapter 8 Summary:
The school year is passing, and the first load of winter wood arrives. The people in the quarter take it in turn to supply wood for the church/schoolhouse, and as three men unload the wood for the older schoolchildren to chop and stack, Grant remembers when he was a boy and participated in the task. He thinks about the boys he went to school with, mentally dividing them into three classes: those who are dead, those who are in jail, and those who are trapped in menial jobs. Their teacher, a mulatto man named Matthew Antoine, had predicted these fates for his students. He had contempt for his dark-skinned students, and Grant recalls that “he could teach any of us only one thing, and that one thing was flight.”
Antoine singled Grant out as a likely student who could learn, go to university, and some day take on his burden. Grant recalls visiting Antoine when Grant was in college. On these occasions, Antoine laid out Grant’s discouraging task of teaching the children of the quarter and warned him that his work would be fruitless: “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.” Antoine hates his Creole blood, yet it gives him a sense of superiority over dark-skinned blacks. Grant reports that Antoine died when he was just 43 years old, a bitter, sickly man.
Chapter 8 Analysis:
In this chapter, readers sense the burden that Grant feels he is under—to teach these poor children so that they can better their lives. Readers see that from his own childhood, Grant has learned to expect failure or flight from the people in his community. The tone of the chapter is fatalistic and discouraging.
The chapter also brings out the fine distinctions of rank within the black community. The whites that populate the novel, of course, believe they are superior to all persons of color. But among black characters there is a ranking as well, with some lighter-skinned blacks looking down on darker-skinned blacks. Antoine, a Creole, tells Grant, “I am superior to any man blacker than me.” He resents being classed by whites with all black people. Grant himself is dark-skinned, as is the condemned Jefferson.
This chapter raises a question: Will Grant be to his students the harsh and pessimistic role model that Antoine, his teacher, was for him? Or will he predict a brighter future for his students and earnestly prepare them for it?
Chapter 9 Summary:
In this chapter, Grant visits Jefferson in prison for the first time. He drives Miss Emma, who has prepared Jefferson’s favorite foods, to the courthouse in Bayonne, which houses the jail. Descriptions of the building—a red-brick castle-like building—stress the separate and very unequal facilities for blacks and whites. Emma and Grant must submit to having their persons and the food searched; then they follow Paul, a young deputy, to Jefferson’s cell, passing prisoners who call out requests for cigarettes and cash. Emma promises to share with them any food Jefferson doesn’t eat.
In the spare, small cell, Jefferson lies silently on his bunk and does not respond when his godmother tries repeatedly to engage him in conversation. His refusal to talk or even to greet his nannan brings her near to tears, yet she tries again to offer him the food she has made. “Ain’t you go’n to try some of it?” she asks. “It don’t matter . . . . Nothing don’t matter” is his reply when he finally speaks. What he does want to know is when the execution will take place: “When they go’n do it? Tomorrow?” He notices Grant and asks him if he will be the one to “jeck that switch.” Grant and Emma can’t answer the only question that matters to him, so Jefferson turns away from them toward the concrete cell wall. As they leave, Emma cries out to God in sorrow, and Grant, urged on by Paul’s glance, hugs her.
Chapter 9 Analysis:
This chapter reveals much about the character of Miss Emma. It shows her deep love for Jefferson, her godson, and her understanding of him. She knows his favorite foods and hopes they will comfort him. She undergoes his harsh rejection of her efforts without becoming angry at him. Readers see that she relies on her faith in God to sustain her after this difficult first visit, and they see that her compassion doesn’t end in her love for Jefferson. She leaves the food she brought to the deputy, saying, “If he don’t eat it all, can you give it to the rest of them children?”
The chapter also hints at Paul’s character in his sympathetic response to Emma’s distress over Jefferson’s withdrawn state: “With his eyes and a nod, he told me to put my arms around her,” Grant notes. And the scene in the cell reveals to readers what a difficult task “the teacher” has before him.
Chapter 10 Summary:
Emma and Grant’s next two visits to Jefferson have the same result: Jefferson refuses to speak or to eat the food Emma has brought, and Emma is saddened by his disengagement. Grant then visits Jefferson by himself because Emma claims to be too ill to go. Grant tries to get out of this visit, but Tante Lou calls him “boy” and points to the food Emma has made, saying, “That food waiting.” Grant threatens to dump the food in the river and accuses his aunt of betraying the goals she had for him when he was young: “Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it.” He rages that she is trying to “break me down to the nigger I was born to be,” as Antoine predicted the people of the quarter would do to him. Emma feels bad about “helping them white people to humiliate you,” but she says that there “ain’t nobody else” who can help her and her beloved godson.
Chapter 10 Analysis:
Emma and Lou, dear friends for decades, put on quite a show of fake coughs and invented excuses as they badger and bully Grant into visiting Jefferson by himself, lending the chapter a hint of comedy. However, Grant’s accusations and Emma’s desperate need are serious, and the chapter ends on a note of inevitability: Grant has to step up and help.
Paul’s character is developed in this chapter by a slight detail: As he leads Emma to Jefferson’s cell early in the chapter, he pauses after each set of stairs to let her catch her breath. His sympathetic nature is revealed in such small details.
Chapter 11 Summary:
When Grant arrives at the courthouse, the sheriff is in his office, feet propped up on his desk. He interrogates Grant briefly and has Paul conduct the required search. He reminds Grant, “Any sign of aggravation, I’ll stop all this,” reinforcing his control of the situation. Paul and Grant walk side by side to the cell, where Jefferson sits on his bunk, head bowed.
When Grant offers Jefferson food, Jefferson wants to know if Grant brought corn because “That’s what hogs eat.” Grant insists that Jefferson is not a hog and lists the foods Emma made, including candy. Jefferson says, “Hogs don’t eat no candy,” grunts, and grins. Grant tries a new tack, eating some of the fried chicken himself to tempt Jefferson to eat. But Jefferson replies, “That’s for youmans [humans]. . . . I’m an old hog they fattening up to kill.”
To make his point, Jefferson demonstrates how hogs eat, kneeling on the cell floor and eating without his hands from the bag of food, making hog-like sounds. “That’s how an old hog eat,” he declares. Grant does not react; in fact, he tells Jefferson that when he next sees Emma, he’ll “tell her that you and I sat on the bunk and ate, and you said how good the food was.” He’ll lie, he says, to protect Emma, who is already not well. But this speech has no effect on Jefferson, whose face wears “a painful, cynical grin.”
Grant tries another approach, telling Jefferson that the sheriff doesn’t think Jefferson is capable of learning, but that Jefferson can prove him wrong. “You want me to stay away and let him win?” he challenges Jefferson. “The white man? You want him to win?” Jefferson’s expression does not change, and though Grant stays for the rest of the allotted time, the two have nothing left to say. Jefferson turns his face to the wall as before, and Grant looks at the patch of tree and sky the cell’s high window reveals. As Grant leaves, Paul asks how Jefferson is doing, and Grant lies, saying that he enjoyed the home cooking.
Chapter 11 Analysis:
This chapter is pivotal in readers’ understanding of Jefferson, who till this point in the story has said very little. We see that the defense attorney’s comparison of Jefferson to a hog has affected him as deeply as it affected his godmother. He thinks of nothing but being called a hog and waiting for the execution. His actions and words, especially his repeated claim that he’s “an old hog,” reveal how deep his pain is. Grant does not succeed in reaching Jefferson through this pain. Jefferson is a problem he must learn to solve.
Readers may ask why Grant says that he will lie to protect Emma. Is he truly sympathizing with her, realizing how hurt she will be if he reports what Jefferson really said and did? If so, Grant reveals that, no matter how he holds himself apart from his community, he does feel connected to some people in it. However, appealing to Emma’s emotions may simply be a tactic aimed at Jefferson’s defiant grin.
Chapter 12 Summary:
Grant drives away from the courthouse puzzling over what to tell Emma and his aunt. He needs a lie that will convince, not a lie Emma and Lou will see through right away. He detours to the Rainbow Club, his favorite place to think. As he drinks his beer, he overhears Joe and two old men talking about Jackie Robinson, who has just finished his second season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Jackie this and Jackie that”—the men know and take pride in all the details of Robinson’s career. Grant thinks back to when he was 17 and the boxer Joe Louis received the same sort of veneration in the quarter. When Louis lost a critical match, the quarter entered a “period of mourning”; when he won in a rematch, the quarter celebrated. These thoughts lead him to remember an Irish guest lecturer who spoke at the university about the stories of Irish writer James Joyce. Grant didn’t understand the appeal of these stories at the time, but he now sees that people want and need heroes who are like them.
Yet Grant doesn’t join the conversation about Robinson. Rather, he sits and thinks, “If we could just get the hell away from here. Just get away.” He can’t stop thinking of Jefferson in his cell, and he suddenly remembers reading about an execution in Florida during which the condemned young black cried out, as he was being dragged to the chair, “Please, Joe Louis, help me. Please help me. Help me.” He wonders: Will Jefferson call out to Jackie Robinson when he goes to die?
Grant escapes the hero-worship by driving to Vivian’s school to wait for her to be done. A mutual friend and teacher, Peggy, tells him that Vivian is still in her classroom, so Grant goes in. It’s a Friday, and he wants to spend time with her. They flirt in her classroom, and he asks her to “go somewhere” away from Bayonne, where they can be alone. She wants to, but she can’t risk it: “I can’t give him an excuse to take my babies,” she says of her estranged husband.
Grant tells her what happened during his visit to the cell, and she is shocked. He repeats his desire to “just run away from this place, but she claims that he could not do it: “You love them [the people of his community] more than you hate this place.” They go out for drinks.
Chapter 12 Analysis:
Grant is clearly shaken by his encounter with Jefferson. But at this point in the story, his reaction is not to think about how to reach Jefferson, how to solve the tangled problem he faces. Instead, it is to flee, as his teacher Antoine suggested. Yet careful readers may notice that the seed of the solution lies in this chapter: The people in the quarter need and want a hero, someone like them but better than them. The hero must be someone who can help them—not Jackie Robinson, who is far removed from them geographically, but one of their own. Who will emerge as that hero is a question that drives the story forward.