A Lesson Before Dying: Novel Summary:chp 19-24
Chapter 19 Summary:
Grant’s students dedicate their Christmas program to Jefferson, and the people in the quarter turn out in support; the church is filled beyond capacity. They have brought sweet foods to share. Grant welcomes them, and the reverend opens the program with a prayer that reminds the people—and Grant, at whom the words are aimed—that “No matter how educated a man was . . . he, too, was locked in a cold, dark cell of ignorance if he didn’t know God in the pardon of his sins.” Grant lets his attention wander to the little pine tree the students have decorated and the present they’ve wrapped for Jefferson—a sweater and socks.
The students read poems and essays and sing songs; then they present their version of the Christmas story. The reverend closes the program with a prayer and another subtle criticism of Grant; then the people gather for cake and conversation. Grant, however, stays apart from the crowd: “I was not with them. I stood alone,” he remarks, unmoved by the same carols and prayers he’s heard his whole life. Irene, his student teacher, asks if he’s unhappy, but he sends her away. When his aunt sends a student over with a plate of food for him, he takes it, but he eats it alone.
Chapter 19 Analysis:
This chapter highlights Grant’s stubborn disengagement from his community. Because he has lost his faith, he can’t appreciate the Christmas pageant and prayers. Because he expects so little of his students, he can’t take pride in what they’ve accomplished by planning and presenting the program. He can’t even enjoy cake with the people he’s known all his life. Though Grant resents the reverend’s implication that he is “locked in a cold, dark cell,” his life is in fact lonely. He names many of the people from the quarter as he watches the church fill up before the pageant and reveals details about their lives. He knows them, but he refuses to be known by them.
Chapter 20 Summary:
It is now late February, and Grant is grading papers while the students are at recess. Farrell Jarreau steps into the church with a look on his face that clearly means he has bad news to tell. The date of Jefferson’s execution has been set, and Grant must leave his students in Irene’s care and go to Pichot’s house. In the kitchen, Reverend Ambrose sits at the kitchen table. Inez offers Grant coffee, which he refuses as usual. Inez says that Pichot and Sheriff Guidry will arrive in about fifteen minutes. Grant resents being made to wait in this case especially, since he has had to leave his classroom. In this serious situation, however, Pichot and Guidry do show up on time, and even less characteristically, they call Ambrose and Grant into the library rather than meeting them in the kitchen. In all his life, Grant has never been in Pichot’s house except for the kitchen.
Pichot, who looks deeply worried, says, “Have a seat.” Clearly, the setting of the execution date troubles Pichot, since it causes him to abandon class distinctions he has held his whole life. Guidry says that the execution is set for April 8th, the second Friday after Easter. He warns Grant, “I want things to go on as they have. Don’t cause trouble for him.” Then Guidry says that his wife suggested sending a doctor from town to attend Emma when she receives the news. Grant wants to know why that date was chosen; Guidry resents this perceptive question coming from a black man but tells him that the date couldn’t be during Lent or Easter; that would offend the Catholic population. Grant later learns that another execution scheduled before Easter forced Jefferson’s date to be moved back. Grant is offended that the date Jefferson will die is set for the state’s convenience, so that the governor’s office won’t receive letters from offended Catholic citizens. Jefferson is not a consideration in the scheduling.
As they leave, Grant refuses to go with Ambrose to tell Emma the date. “Not me,” he protests. Ambrose replies, “You’d have the strength if you had God.” Grant walks away, as far as he can, wishing that he could walk till he saw “nothing but miles and miles of clear blue water, then an island where I could be alone.” Then he returns to the church to get his satchel.
Chapter 20 Analysis:
Details of setting are revealing in this chapter. The conditions inside Pichot’s house suggest the death of a way of life: “All the furniture in the room was old. Faded overstuffed chairs; an old overstuffed love seat; an overstuffed couch; and a rattan rocker with a pillow. The lamp tables were old, and the lamps and the lamp shades looked just as old.” The rundown state of the house suggests that although Pichot has status and wealth in his parish, the time of his family’s greatness—the plantation days when they exercised entire authority over the quarter—has faded.
Edna Guidry, though she doesn’t appear in this chapter, is present in another of her small, nervous kindnesses to Emma. She insists that a doctor be present in case hearing the date makes Emma ill. Edna is one of the white people in the novel who, in a tentative way, want to step across the racial boundaries that divide the parish.
Chapter 21 Summary:
On his way home, Grant sees cars parked outside Emma’s house and decides that he should see her after all: “I owed Miss Emma that respect.” Many people have come to comfort Emma, who is in bed resting from the stress of the news. Grant speaks to her, but she doesn’t answer; “Her eyes were looking at something that was not in the room.”
In the kitchen, Lou has taken on Emma’s role as hostess and is making coffee. Irene is helping Lou and offers Grant a cup, but he refuses it but thanks her for teaching that afternoon. Then he goes home to warm up the dinner Lou left for him. As he is washing dishes, Vivian shows up again, knowing that he will want to talk to her about the date. They talk and decide that Vivian should go to pay her respects to Emma. At the house, Vivian leans over and whispers something in Emma’s ear that pleases Emma. Grant introduces Vivian to the people gathered in the house, and Grant notices that Irene gives Vivian a look that is “polite but cold.” Lou offers Vivian coffee, which she accepts. Grant knows that “Vivian didn’t want the coffee, but it would have seemed impolite to refuse it.”
Grant speaks privately with Emma again. She feels that she cannot visit Jefferson again for a while and says, in a voice reduced by crying to a whisper, “It’s in your hands . . . . You and Reverend Mose. I just hope—I just hope—I just hope y’all work together.” This time, moved by her sorrow, Grant says he will try.
Grant and Vivian leave to get drinks at the Rainbow Club, where Vivian makes a statement that surprises Grant: “I think Irene is in love with you.” Grant makes a comic but self-centered claim that he “can name about a dozen younger than Irene, and about that many as old as my aunt, who are in love with me.” Grant tries to change the topic to what Vivian said that pleased Emma, which is that she is praying for her and Jefferson. Then she says, “Get back to Irene,” and Grant’s long reply brings into focus a tension that leads him to object to being “the teacher.”
Black men have failed, he says, since the time of slavery to protect black women, either escaping the South or being destroyed by it. “So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious cycle—which he never does,” Grant explains, because the burden left by the men who failed in the past is too heavy to bear. Emma wants Jefferson to die like a man so that she can say, “I told you he was a man.” Lou and Irene are looking for the same reason to be proud of Grant, but their demands, their needs, are crushing him and forcing him to seek escape. Vivian wonders whether the cycle will ever be broken, and Grant pushes the challenge away, saying, “It’s up to Jefferson.”
Chapter 21 Analysis:
As the community comes together to support Emma, readers see little cracks appearing in the emotional walls around Grant. He speaks to Emma, though earlier in the day he refused to; he thanks Irene for teaching for him that afternoon. He also notices how politely Vivian accepts Lou’s offer of coffee, in direct contrast to the way Grant always refuses the offer.
This lengthy chapter also explains Grant’s reluctance to take up the role of leadership for which Lou has prepared him and which he does not want. Readers become aware that Grant feels that his choices are not his alone, but also the choices of generations of black men before him. Understanding the pressure he feels helps readers see his desire for escape as less selfish and more self-preserving than it previously has seemed. Still, it’s clear that Grant doesn’t see himself as the hero his people need. He leaves that role to Jefferson.
Chapter 22 Summary:
The next time Grant goes to visit Jefferson, Paul Bonin clearly wishes he did not have to search him, yet he does so lightly, under the chief deputy’s watchful eye. As they walk to the cell for Jefferson’s first visit since the date of his execution was set, the other prisoners are quiet and don’t hold out their hands for cigarettes and change as usual. Jefferson is at first silent, but then asks Grant what day it is; he has lost track of time. He says that he hopes the day of his execution will have nice weather, and Grant says that he hopes Jefferson gets what he wants. “The kind of day I want? I never got anything I wanted in my whole life,” Jefferson replies.
Grant does not know how to respond, but finally he asks whether Jefferson would like some fruit, or nuts, or ice cream—anything that might cheer him. Jefferson begins to smile—“not a bitter smile”—remembering ice cream. He says that for his last supper, he wants “a whole gallona vanilla ice cream” because he’s never had enough ice cream to satisfy him. Grant realizes that having something, even something as simple as ice cream, to look forward to brings Jefferson pleasure. Grant begins to tell news from the quarter and sees that Jefferson likes hearing good news about his neighbors. But then his face changes as he thinks about the decision he made to get in the car with Brother and Bear and its terrible, unjust consequences. Grant has a sudden thought—listening to a radio would connect Jefferson to the outside world again and keep him from endless thinking about his situation.
Paul agrees to deliver the radio himself as soon as Grant can buy it, and Grant decides not to wait even a day; but he doesn’t have the money to buy the radio on hand. Grant drives to the Rainbow Club, hoping to borrow some money from Vivian. He tells Joe and then Thelma about the plan, and not only do they give him some money, so do men sitting at the bar. Thelma offers Grant an ample plate of food to eat while she gets the cash together, and he accepts it. He buys the radio at Edwin’s, but not before being hassled by the white saleswoman, who doesn’t want to sell him the radio in a box and makes him wait while she gets it from the stockroom and then chats with a friend before ringing him up.
At the jail, Guidry is annoyed that Grant didn’t clear the radio with him: “The deputy can’t give you permission to bring things in here. I do.” But he allows Paul to take the radio to Jefferson, and Grant drives back to the Rainbow Club, hoping to find Vivian there.
Chapter 22 Analysis:
Grant’s conversation with Jefferson during this visit reveals Jefferson’s hidden strengths. For example, Grant offers to bring ice cream right away, but Jefferson decides to delay that pleasure as long as he can, till the very last day of his life. This shows maturity and a willingness to delay gratification.
The chapter reveals changes in Grant as well. His idea about the radio draws people at the Rainbow Club in and pleases Paul, and Grant accepts food that Thelma offers him. These are small steps for Grant, but they represent a growing willingness to integrate himself into the community, both giving and accepting help.
Chapter 23 Summary:
When Emma, Lou, and Reverend Ambrose go to visit Jefferson, he refuses to come into the day room because he would have to leave the radio behind; it hasn’t been off since Paul brought it to him. Emma has already set the table when Paul tells them that Jefferson won’t come to meet them. Emma and Ambrose didn’t know about the radio, and when they go to Jefferson’s cell, he ignores them until they force him to shut it off. He lies down on his bunk, turns his back to them, and stays that way till Paul comes to escort them out of the jail. As they leave, the sheriff says, “If that radio is causing any trouble, I’ll get it out of there,” but Emma says it’s fine. Then he asks, to their surprise, “What about Jefferson? . . . What about his soul?” They do not answer.
After Grant dismisses class, a boy comes to tell him that he’s wanted at Emma’s house. There, Emma, Lou, and Ambrose accuse him: “You know what you done done?” He has no idea. “That radio!” Lou says. All Jefferson wants to do now is listen to it—not to them. Ambrose says, “He ain’t got but five more Fridays and a half. He needs God in that cell, and not that sin box.” They object to the music Jefferson listens to; when Grant argues that Jefferson badly needs company, the reverend says, “I call it sin company.” Grant says angrily, “And I don’t care what you call it!” The tension between the two men’s perceptions about Jefferson’s needs is deepening. When Grant says that he doesn’t know about God and sin, the reverend looks at him “as if I were the devil himself” and says, “Listen to the teacher of our children.”
But Grant stands his ground: Jefferson needs the radio so that he doesn’t spend all his time thinking about death; through it, Grant has connected to Jefferson in a way that no one else has. Lou is so angry that she wants to slap Grant, who says, “Now, if you all want that radio out of there, you just go on and take it from him.” That will be the end of the teacher’s visits to Jefferson. But he warns that the radio keeps Jefferson human: “Take that radio away, and let’s see what you can do for the soul of a hog.”
Before his next visit to Jefferson, Grant asks his students to bring pecans and peanuts for him. He himself buys apples, candy, and comic books. He greets Jefferson as “partner” and shows him what he has brought. They talk about the radio a bit; then Grant asks a favor. Will Jefferson meet Emma in the day room? He agrees to. Will he listen to the reverend? He says he will. Then Grant tells Jefferson that he wants to be his friend and that Jefferson can ask anything he wants. He offers to bring a notebook and pencil so that Jefferson can write down his thoughts between visits. As he hears Paul coming to escort him out, Grant looks at Jefferson and sees that there “was no hate in his face—but Lord, there was pain.” Jefferson seems to want to speak, and finally he asks Grant, in a stammer, to thank the children for the nuts. Grant “felt like someone who had just found religion” and near to “crying with joy.”
Chapter 23 Analysis:
This chapter contains a “breakthrough” moment for the novel’s main characters, Grant and Jefferson. Both are isolated from their community, Grant by choice and Jefferson against his will. But both move back toward community at this point in the story: Grant asks the children to help him support and comfort Jefferson, and Jefferson is reconnected to the outside world through the radio and through Grant’s efforts to bring the lives of the people of the quarter into Jefferson’s cell.
Despite these positive developments, the tension between Grant and the trio of Reverend Ambrose, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou grows. Grant’s concern is with Jefferson’s comfort during his last weeks of life; Ambrose and the women are more concerned with his status after death.
Chapter 24 Summary:
Emma decides that they should all visit Grant together, and though Grant doesn’t want to, a look from him aunt compels him to go. He stops to buy the notebook and pencil and, when he arrives at the courthouse, sees that Ambrose and Lou are angry that he kept them waiting. He doesn’t tell them what delayed him. This time, the chief deputy, not Paul, searches them, saying, “Mr. Paul’s got other duties,” with an emphasis on Mr. Emma sets the table, and Jefferson arrives in his shackles. Grant begins to eat Emma’s delicious gumbo and then realizes that everyone else is waiting for the reverend to pray. The minster prays a long prayer, during which Grant thinks only about “the gumbo getting cold.” As in the past, Jefferson is withdrawn and refuses to eat, so Grant suggests that they walk around the day room. They go slowly, Jefferson dragging his shackles and Grant persuading him quietly to make his godmother happy by eating even one spoonful of her food. Jefferson nods his agreement.
Then Grant talks to Jefferson about what it means to be a hero, a person “who does something for other people. He does something that other men don’t and can’t do. . . . He is above other men.” Grant confesses to Jefferson that he can’t be a hero because he wants “to run away . . . to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else.” But Jefferson, he believes, can be the hero, against all odds. The women in the quarter have chosen the wrong man to rise up on their behalf—Jefferson should have that burden and honor, not Grant. And be being a hero, Jefferson can show the white people who convicted and will execute him that he is above them, too.
Grant tells Jefferson that in the South people live with a myth, “an old lie that people believe in.” This lie says that white people are better than black people. If a black man stood up and demonstrated “the common humanity that is in us all,” his actions would destroy the lie. This is what Jefferson can do: “chip away at the myth.” As Grant continues to speak about the need for this hero, Jefferson cries. Grant makes his argument more personal now: “I need you much more than you could ever need me,” he says. He doesn’t know how to live, whether to run away or where he’d go if he did run. But Jefferson has “the chance of being bigger than anyone who has ever lived on that plantation or come from this little town.” He wonders what Jefferson is thinking as he cries—perhaps it’s “I cry . . . because, lowly as I am, I am still part of the whole.” They return to the table, where Jefferson eats.
Chapter 24 Analysis:
The long conversation about heroism that dominates this chapter is vital to the story and deserves rereading. It reveals Grant’s insecurities and fears as much as Jefferson’s humanity and desire to have his brief life mean something. In it, Grant uses a metaphor. People, he says, are like pieces of rough driftwood. He talks about Farrell Jarreau choosing a piece of wood and crafting from it a slingshot handle by “cutting and cutting and cutting, then shaving” till the wood, formerly just trash, has a shape and a purpose. “I am still that piece of drifting wood,” he says, “and those out there are no better. But you can be better.” Grant has worried, throughout the story, that his teaching makes no difference, but his metaphor suggests that even a little cutting, a little shaving moves people toward purpose.