Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Lesson Before Dying is set in the late 1940’s, in the former slave quarters of the Marshall plantation and the town of Bayonne. Gaines takes his reader back to a time when racial segregation was both legal and endemic in the South, a time when black people could barely hope for recognition of their humanity, much less find justice in a court of law.
It is in this world that a dirt-poor, semiliterate black man, Jefferson, is accused of murdering a white liquor-store owner. In the Bayonne courthouse, Jefferson is quickly condemned to death by an all-white jury. Although he is innocent, the verdict is never in doubt. Even his attorney characterizes Jefferson as subhuman, claiming that electrocuting him would make no more sense than electrocuting a hog.
Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, aided and abetted by Tante Lou, prevails upon Tante Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins, to help Jefferson face death like a man, with dignity. Grant, the teacher in the quarters where Jefferson lived, is very reluctant to undertake the task, but the women and Grant’s girlfriend Vivian convince him that he has no choice but to try.
Grant’s initial efforts are disappointing. Jefferson has accepted his lawyer’s depiction of him as a hog, and he resists all attempts to help him break through his self-loathing. Furthermore, in order to help Jefferson, Grant must cope with his own doubts about his role, both as man and teacher. The task also...
(The entire section is 474 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
In the year 1948, in rural southern Louisiana, Jefferson, a barely literate black man of twenty-one, has been sentenced to death because he had the misfortune to be a bystander at a shooting that resulted in the death of a white man. The action of the novel covers the period between sentencing and execution. That the sentence will be carried out is never in serious doubt. The question the novel explores is the terms on which Jefferson will confront his own death.
The issue that organizes the novel arises from the plea a desperate defense attorney made to the jury at Jefferson’s trial. Recognizing that an acquittal was impossible, he made it his goal to save Jefferson from the electric chair. A man, argued the attorney, can and should be held accountable for his actions. But when you look at Jefferson, he asked, do you see a man? To execute someone so simple, he concluded, would be like putting a hog in the electric chair.
The strategy did not work, but its effects are still felt, not by the jurors, but by Jefferson and those who care about him. His aged godmother, Miss Emma, accepts that Jefferson must die, but he must not die in the belief that he is no better than a hog. Before he dies, Jefferson must learn the lesson of his own dignity and humanity.
For this lesson, a teacher is required. Miss Emma, with the cooperation of her friend Lou, turns to Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins. A product, like Jefferson himself, of the black...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines once again takes his reader to a familiar fictional setting based on his boyhood home in Point Coupée Parish near New Roads, Louisiana, which becomes the fictional St. Raphael Parish, with Bayonne as its parish seat. A small town of about six thousand inhabitants, Bayonne is one of the two main settings in the novel. The other is the old slave quarter on an antebellum plantation owned by Henri Pinchot located a few miles away, near the St. Charles River. The year is 1948, a time when segregation and racial injustice were oppressive realities for Southern blacks, a time, too, when most of them did not know that the winds of change, if ever so slightly, were beginning to stir. The basic plot is simple. A young, semiliterate black man, Jefferson, is tried for the murder of a white store owner, old Mr. Gropé; although Jefferson is innocent, the all-white, all-male jury sentences him to death in the electric chair. In pleading for his client’s life, Jefferson’s white lawyer argues that it would make no more sense to electrocute Jefferson than it would to execute a hog or some other dumb animal.
That assessment of Jefferson’s human worth deeply troubles his godmother, Emma Glenn, who enlists the aid of her friend, Tante Lou, to pressure Tante Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins, into trying to help Jefferson face death like a man, with dignity and courage. Grant, the sole teacher at the church school in the...
(The entire section is 716 words.)
Before the Jail Visits
A Lesson Before Dying examines the relationship established between two men in a rural Louisiana parish in the 1940s. One man, Jefferson, is convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The other man, Grant Wiggins, is the local schoolteacher.
The book is told from the point of view of Grant. Although he does not attend Jefferson’s trial, he is able to give details from it because everybody in their small community has been talking about it. He explains that Jefferson ended up in trouble because he had received a ride from some friends: they stopped at a liquor store before taking him home, and when the friends tried to rob the store a shoot out occurred, leaving both of his friends and the owner of the store, who was white, dead. Panicking, Jefferson took money from the open cash register before fleeing, and the all-white jury found him guilty of both robbery and murder.
His lawyer, in trying to convince the jury to not impose the death penalty, portrayed Jefferson as being subhuman, presenting him as being too stupid to knowingly be guilty of a crime: “What justice would there be to take this life?” he asked them. “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” The afternoon that he is sentenced to die, Jefferson’s godmother, who raised him, comes to see Grant, to ask him to visit Jefferson in jail before his execution and to educate him. “I don’t...
(The entire section is 1222 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Grant Wiggins attends a trial. Jefferson has been accused of murdering Alcee Grope, a local shopkeeper. Although Grant is physically present at the trial, he is mentally in another place—he does not bother to anticipate the jury’s verdict because he already knows Jefferson will be found guilty. During the trial, Grant sits either behind his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother or next to them. Jefferson’s godmother, a large woman, remains silent during the trial; she only stares ahead. Grant’s aunt watches every move made in the courtroom—but she is not really listening either because, like Grant, she knows what the verdict will be. It does not matter that Jefferson was simply caught “in the wrong place at the wrong time”—he had been on the way to the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge when he was stopped by Brother and Bear. They offered Jefferson a ride and decided to stop at Grope’s store to get liquor on credit. At the store, Grope exchanged friendly words with Jefferson, but Jefferson could see that Grope did not like Brother and Bear. Grope asked the boys if they had money to pay for the liquor, and he told them that the money they had spread on the counter was not enough. When Grope turned to put the bottle back on the shelf, Bear went behind the counter. Grope reached for his gun near the cash register, and the shooting began from both directions. In the end, Brother, Bear, and Grope were all down; only Jefferson stood.
Jefferson wanted to run away, but he could not think straight. Grope was not yet dead, and Jefferson could hear him calling, “Boy?” Jefferson was afraid Grope would accuse him, so he started to babble that Brother was the one who shot him. Then Grope died. Jefferson did not know what to do, so he grabbed a bottle of whiskey off the shelf and took a drink. He then took the money from the cash register even though his grandmother told him never to steal. Two white men walk through the door before he can leave.
The prosecutor tells a different version of the story in the courtroom. He claims that Jefferson and the others went to Grope’s store intending to rob and kill the old man. The defense argues that Jefferson must be innocent because Grope only took shots at Brother and Bear. Both attorneys liken Jefferson to an animal: the prosecutor calls him an angry, wild animal; the defense calls him a simple, cornered animal. The jury of twelve white men returns immediately after lunch on...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
On the afternoon of Jefferson’s sentencing, Grant comes home from teaching at the local school and finds his aunt, Tante Lou, and Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, sitting at the kitchen table. Grant wishes that he had tarried a little longer before returning home because Miss Emma is the last person he wants to see. He hurries to his room with the papers that he has brought home to grade. Neither his aunt nor Miss Emma saw Grant enter the house, but he knows they are expecting him at that time of day. Grant decides to go into the kitchen for courtesy’s sake, but he cannot hear any sounds coming from the kitchen. He wonders if instead he can sneak out of the house. As he nears the door, Grant hears his aunt’s footsteps, and he is back at his worktable when she enters his room. Tante Lou asks if he is going to go speak to Miss Emma. Grant says he has been working on the school papers and he will soon need to leave to go to a store in Bayonne. Tante Lou says he can spare a few minutes, and Grant has no choice but to go speak to Miss Emma.
At the kitchen table, Tante Lou sits next to Miss Emma, so Grant must sit on the opposite side of the table. Miss Emma stares out into the yard and Grant waits, afraid of what Miss Emma wants to say to him. Miss Emma then says quietly, “Called him a hog.” Miss Emma says she knows the defense attorney was just trying to represent Jefferson, but the judge still sentenced him to death. Then Miss Emma tells Grant that she does not want a “hog” to go to the electric chair—she wants Jefferson to die a man. Miss Emma says Grant is the teacher, but Grant says he just teaches the children at the school the things that white people want them to learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. He does not think he has anything to offer Jefferson. Tante Lou tells Grant to mind his language and informs him that they are going to speak to Henri Pichot, the brother-in-law of the local sheriff, so Grant will be allowed to enter the jail to see Jefferson. Grant says he is leaving to go to Bayonne where he can relax, but Tante Lou says he is not going anywhere until they have seen Mr. Henri. Grant argues that Jefferson is already dead and that they cannot do anything for him now that they were not able to do for the last twenty-one years. But Grant knows his aunt will not listen to him; she has not listened to him any of the times he told her he feels like his life is the equivalent of running in place....
(The entire section is 476 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Grant’s 1946 gray Ford is parked outside; Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Grant go out to drive to see Henri Pichot. Grant resents being forced to both see Mr. Henri and act as chauffeur for his aunt and Miss Emma. As he drives past the church where he teaches school, Grant thinks about all the work he has to do and reminds himself that he needs to see about getting more firewood for the heater. When they arrive at Henri Pichot’s house, Grant tells his aunt to stay in the car when she tries to get out to open the gate; he remarks that he has nothing to do all day but serve her. Mr. Henri’s yard is full of farming equipment, and the drive is rutted from the large tires. Grant does not go out of his way to avoid the ruts, and he can feel Tante Lou staring at him from the back seat. Grant parks the car near the back door. Tante Lou wants him to go inside, but Grant reminds her that she was the one who told him to never go in anyone’s back door ever again. Tante Lou insists, so the three go to the back door, where they are met by Mr. Henri’s maid, Inez Lane. Inez says Mr. Henri is in his library speaking to Mr. Louis, and she leaves to get him after inviting the three into the kitchen.
Grant visited that kitchen many times as a child: Miss Emma was Mr. Henri’s cook back then, and Grant would bring wood and food to the house. Tante Lou did the laundry. When Grant left to attend university, his aunt told him to never use the back door again. But here he is, watching as Miss Emma and Tante Lou look around at the changes in the kitchen.
Grant hears Mr. Henri ask Inez what Miss Emma wants, and Inez returns to the kitchen. Before Inez can go back to the library, Mr. Henri and Louis Rougon enter. Miss Emma tells Mr. Henri she needs a favor from him, and Mr. Henri says he can do nothing to change the ruling against Jefferson. Miss Emma says that she simply wants him to ask his brother-in-law, the sheriff, to allow Grant permission to visit Jefferson because she is too old to make the continual trips to the jail herself. Mr. Henri asks Grant if he believes that he can make a man out of Jefferson, and Grant replies that he does not know.
Mr. Henri tells Miss Emma to forget her plan and simply let Reverend Mose visit Jefferson. But this is not good enough for Miss Emma—she is concerned for his soul and his dignity. Again, Mr. Henri tells Miss Emma to forget her plan and go home, but Miss Emma says she has done much for...
(The entire section is 570 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Grant takes Miss Emma and Tante Lou back to Miss Emma’s house. He tells his aunt that he will eat dinner in Bayonne, not at home. He knows his aunt feels insulted by his not eating her cooking, but he wants to get away to see his girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste.
Driving along the St. Charles River, Grant looks at the fishing wharves, docks, nightclubs, and restaurants that are there primarily for whites. Bayonne is a small town that is divided nearly in half between whites and colored people. The businesses, schools, and establishments for whites are at the front of town while those for colored are at the back.
Grant turns down an unlit road to get to the back of town, and soon he sees the Rainbow Club. Several cars are parked in front of the club, including the new white Cadillac that belongs to the club’s owner, Joe Claiborne. Grant goes in and asks Thelma, Joe’s wife, to serve him shrimp stew for dinner. Then Grant calls Vivian, who is trying to get her children settled in for dinner. Vivian does not sound happy to receive Grant’s call at such a hectic time, but he says he really needs to talk to her. Vivian agrees to try to get Dora to watch the children so she can come to the Rainbow Club.
Grant returns to the counter, and Thelma has his dinner waiting. He chats with her while he eats. When he finishes, he pays and goes to the back of the club to the bar area. Joe Claiborne asks Grant what he is doing at the bar on a Monday night, and Grant says he needs a drink.
When Vivian enters the bar, everyone notices her. Vivian is a beautiful woman but does not flaunt her looks. She orders a brandy, then she and Grant move to a table in the back corner where they can be alone. Grant asks Vivian if she wants to pack up and leave the area, but Vivian says it is a crazy idea—they are teachers and have made a commitment. Grant says he needs to leave this hellhole and go somewhere where he can feel like he is really living. Vivian says she cannot leave until she is legally divorced, not just separated, and Grant admits that he will always want her in his life. Someone chooses a record to play on the jukebox, and Grant asks Vivian for a dance. He tells Vivian that Miss Emma and his aunt want him to see Jefferson at the jail, and Vivian thinks it is a good idea. Grant fears that Jefferson might come to realize the injustice in his sentencing, but Vivian encourages Grant to reach out to Jefferson anyway....
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
At school, Grant and the children pledge allegiance to the flag before Grant sends them outside to recite their Bible verses. Grant knows the children well and can predict who will recite which verse and who will have prepared for the day’s lesson. The classroom and the church are one in the same: Grant’s desk serves as the collection table on Sundays, and the children’s seats are the benches. School is in session for half the year, from October to April, when the children are not working in the fields. Because the children range from primer to sixth grade, Grant must assign the older children to teach the younger ones while he teaches the third and fourth grades so all the children are reached every day.
Grant still feels bad about snubbing Tante Lou the previous evening; although he tried to be kind to her that morning, she avoided him and pretended to do chores around the house. As a result, little things bother Grant during the school day. A young boy tries to solve a multiplication problem on his fingers. Grant scolds him with a ruler and tells him that problems are to be solved by one’s brain. The boy stares at the chalkboard while wiping away his tears before Grant snatches the chalk from him and solves the problem. Then Grant notices a girl writing a sentence on another board; her writing is on a grossly downward slant. He erases her work and tells her that now she must write six straight sentences. All the children sit with their heads down because Grant is in such a foul mood.
Grant leaves the schoolroom to go out to use the boys’ toilet. On the way, he looks at all the houses on the surrounding plantation—he knows everyone who lives there and he knows their daily routines. When Grant returns from the bathroom, he enters the room from the back and sees a boy playing with a bug on his sleeve rather than doing his schoolwork. Grant approaches from behind and hits the boy over the head with his ruler. As the boy walks out crying, Grant scolds the children and tells them about what is happening to Jefferson. He tells them that the attorney called Jefferson a “hog” and that they must be responsible and hardworking in school. Grant sees the pained looks on the faces of the children, but he offers no sympathy.
At two o’clock, Mr. Farrell Jarreau knocks on the front door of the schoolhouse, so Grant goes out to greet him. Mr. Farrell tells Grant that he can go see Mr. Henri regarding Miss...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Grant arrives at Mr. Henri’s house at ten minutes to five, and Inez opens the door for him before he can knock. She has been crying, yet she offers Grant a cup of coffee and a seat. Inez reveals that Mr. Louis is betting an entire case of whiskey that Grant cannot prepare Jefferson for his death. Grant asks about Mr. Henri’s response; Inez says Mr. Henri is betting neither for nor against him. The sheriff, Sam Guidry, does not arrive until 5:30, and Inez takes a round of drinks into the library. When she returns, she tells Grant that she does not think it will take much longer.
At 6:00, the sheriff’s wife, Edna, comes into the kitchen and greets Grant. She exclaims that she has not seen him in years and that he looks fine. Edna makes small talk and says the sheriff will speak to Grant after dinner. Inez prepares the food and asks Grant if he wants to eat dinner. Even though he is hungry, Grant refuses to eat at Mr. Henri’s dinner table. When Inez returns from serving dinner, she reveals to Grant that the sheriff thinks that allowing Grant to go into the jail is a bad idea because nothing can turn Jefferson into a man.
By the time Sam Guidry, Mr. Henri, Mr. Louis, and another white man come to talk to Grant, it is two and a half hours later. Grant is not sure how to address them: to speak with too much intelligence would insult the men but to speak with too little would insult himself. Grant tells Guidry what Miss Emma wants, and Guidry asks whether Grant thinks that it is a good idea to try to allow Jefferson to die with some dignity. Grant admits that he does not want anything to do with the plan, and Guidry says that his wife is the one who is pushing him to grant Miss Emma’s wish. Guidry tells Grant that he believes Grant is too smart for his own good and that Grant will try to put ideas into Jefferson’s head. But Guidry grants the request and says that he will call it off if he sees any sign of aggravation. Guidry wishes him luck but says he thinks it will be a waste of time. Grant waits until the men leave the kitchen before leaving and driving home.
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
The following Monday, Farrell Jarreau brings news that the Superintendent of Schools plans to visit sometime during the week, so Grant tells the children to bathe each morning and wear their best clothes to school. Each day, Grant sends one of the children outside to watch for cars coming up the road. There are many false alarms.
The Superintendent finally shows up on Thursday and stops his car in front of the church. Grant goes out to greet him; he can tell the superintendent does not remember his name. After introducing himself, Grant escorts Dr. Joseph up to the church. Dr. Joseph is a large man, and he claims that the weather is very hot even though Grant thinks that the day is particularly cool. There are only a dozen schools to visit during the year, but the Superintendent claims he is busy and tired from running around so much.
Inside, Dr. Joseph comments that things look the same as they did last year, and Grant says that it takes a long time for change to occur in such a small town. Grant offers Dr. Joseph a seat at his desk in front of the classroom. On Grant’s command, the children thank Dr. Joseph for his visit. Dr. Joseph inspects the children by grade level, calling up a few students one by one to his place behind the desk. He looks at their hands and asks them about the Bible verses they recite. He asks one boy to salute the flag and asks the older students about grammar, math, and geography. Afterward, Dr. Joseph inspects the children’s teeth. Grant remembers learning at university that slave masters did the same when buying new slaves.
After giving a speech about nutrition and the value of hard work, Dr. Joseph compliments Grant on his fine work with the children. On the way out, Grant appeals to Dr. Joseph for quality resources and supplies, but Dr. Joseph answers that all the schools are in the same situation. Grant reminds him that their textbooks are handed down from the white schools, but Dr. Joseph will hear none of it. He tells Grant that the children should work in the fields to pay for the things they need. Grant explains that all the money they make goes toward helping their families, but Dr. Joseph dismisses Grant’s comment and heads toward his car—he has another school visit to make. Grant waves as Dr. Joseph drives off, but Dr. Joseph does not wave back.
(The entire section is 420 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
A week after the superintendent’s visit, the first load of firewood for the winter is delivered to the school. Several men arrive with a large wagon; the two donkeys pulling the wagon strain to pull the weight of the load. The men joke to each other and create a ruckus. Grant warns the children that they must not become distracted and look out the window, but Grant himself looks out to see what the men are doing. When he tries to scold a boy for looking, the boy tries to win some leniency by pointing out that Grant was looking out the window, too. Grant punishes him anyway—not for looking out the window but for using poor grammar when stating his claim. It takes the men thirty minutes to unload all the firewood into the churchyard, and then one of the men, Henry Lewis, knocks on the back door of the schoolhouse. Mr. Lewis tells Grant he is leaving behind a saw and a few axes so the boys can chop the wood. Grant thanks him for dropping off the load.
Later in the afternoon, Grant stands near the fence while the older boys chop the wood. The younger boys and the girls remain inside, and they want to know why they have to stay inside studying while the older boys are outside having fun. Grant tells them that the next day they can pick up wood chips and stack all the wood while the older boys study. As the boys saw and chop, they laugh and joke with each other. Grant wonders if his teaching is having an effect on them at all.
Grant thinks back to his own time in that school when he had to chop wood along with the other boys. Many of those other boys moved to other towns, got mixed up in trouble, and died before their time. Others went nowhere and died slower. Grant remembers that his teacher at the time, Matthew Antoine, had predicted that many of the boys would die violent deaths and those who did not die would live like beasts. Mr. Antoine said that there was no other option but to run. But Tante Lou always told Grant to learn what he could from his teacher and to further his education. On visits home from university, Grant would visit Mr. Antoine at his home in Poulaya, and even then Grant could sense his former teacher’s hatred and contempt. Mr. Antoine warned him that returning to the plantation as a teacher would suck the life from him, but Grant felt like he needed his old teacher. One day, Grant took a bottle of wine to the old man’s house. While he drank, Mr. Antoine told Grant his thoughts about racial...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
At 1:30, Grant leaves the school to drive Miss Emma into Bayonne. Tante Lou helps Miss Emma into the car, and the two ladies continue their conversation. Grant says they need to be at the jail by two o’clock, and he senses both women staring at him. As they drive in silence along the river, Grant notices Miss Emma look at him only once or twice. The rest of the time, she does not look at anything in particular, lost in her thoughts. Grant parks in front of the courthouse, and they go inside. Miss Emma tells the deputy she is there to see Jefferson. He asks Miss Emma about her parcels; she has brought food and clean clothes for Jefferson. The deputy tells her that Jefferson has been quiet since he has been in the jail. The deputy checks through the basket of food and the bag of clothes, and he makes Grant empty his pockets before he pats him down. Grant and Miss Emma are then taken through the jail to Jefferson’s cell.
As the deputy escorts Grand and Miss Emma through the corridors, the black prisoners reach out of their cells and ask for money or cigarettes. Grant gives them the change he has in his pockets, and Miss Emma promises to give them any leftover food after the visit. Jefferson lies on his bunk staring at the ceiling. The deputy locks Miss Emma and Grant into the cell before he leaves. Miss Emma asks Jefferson how he is doing, but he does not answer. She tells him she has brought Professor Wiggins, food, and clothes, but still he does not answer her. She asks whether he is going to speak to her but he only continues his silence. Miss Emma looks at Grant—she is about to cry. Then Jefferson says, “It don’t matter.” Miss Emma tries to convince him that he matters to her, but he indirectly asks when he will be executed. Miss Emma is confused. Jefferson stares at Grant, who knows exactly what Jefferson means. Grant is uncomfortable and wishes he were anywhere except in the jail, and then Jefferson asks if Grant is the one who will flip the switch during his execution. Jefferson lies back down and again stares at the ceiling.
After an hour, the deputy returns, and Miss Emma tells Jefferson that she is leaving. Jefferson has turned his back to her and now faces the concrete wall. Miss Emma calls out for Jesus, and Grant puts his arms around her.
(The entire section is 424 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The next two visits Grant and Miss Emma make to see Jefferson at the jail go in a similar fashion as the first: they drive in silence, the deputy searches the food, Grant must empty all his pockets, they pass through the corridor of prisoners to whom they promise the leftover food, Grant gives the men his spare change, and Jefferson is lying on his cot staring at the ceiling or facing the wall. After an hour, the deputy unlocks the door, and Miss Emma leaves crying.
On the afternoon of the fourth visit to the jail, Grant leaves an elder student, Irene Cole, in charge of his class so he can get his car and drive to pick up Miss Emma. This afternoon she is not waiting for him. Grant waits several minutes but Miss Emma does not appear, so he puts respect aside and blows the horn. Instead of Miss Emma, Tante Lou comes out. She closes the door behind her and looks at Grant. He gets out of the car, and Tante Lou asks him if something is wrong. Grant asks his aunt why she did not tell him Miss Emma could not go to the jail that day. Tante Lou tells him it does not matter because he is going to the jail anyway.
The two go inside to see Miss Emma, who is sitting in her rocking chair by the fireplace. She is dressed in warm, heavy clothing, and Grant thinks Miss Emma is pretending to be sicker than she actually is—just that morning, Grant saw her picking up wood chips in the yard. Tante Lou sits down next to Miss Emma, and both women look at the fireplace. Twice Miss Emma coughs dryly to remind Grant of her supposed illness.
Tante Lou tells Grant he is to take the food to the jail, and then Miss Emma mutters that he does not have to go if the trip will be a burden. Grant says that Tante Lou can go with him instead, but she refuses because she is not wearing her good dress. Grant realizes that the women have had this sequence of events planned from the beginning. Grant asks Miss Emma if he can get her some cough syrup, and Tante Lou scolds him. Grant threatens to drive halfway to Bayonne and dump the food in the river. Tante Lou tells him that he had better do the right thing. Grant takes the food, but he tells his aunt that she is stripping him of his dignity. Miss Emma is now crying, and Tante Lou gets up to comfort her. Tante Lou tells Grant that she is sorry but there is no one else to whom they can turn for help.
(The entire section is 459 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
When Grant arrives at the courthouse, the sheriff is in his office. Grant goes in, and Guidry asks if he can help him. Grant asks to see Jefferson. Guidry wants to know how their time together is going so far. Grant says this will be the first time for him to visit Jefferson alone. Guidry asks Paul, the younger deputy, to escort Grant to Jefferson’s cell. Before entering the corridor, Grant must go through the usual routine of emptying his pockets. While doing so, Guidry asks Grant if he thinks he can reach Jefferson. Then Guidry reminds him that he will end the sessions if he gets any sign of aggravation.
As he approaches the cell, Grant sees that today Jefferson is sitting with his head lowered and his arms dangling between his legs. Grant tells him that Miss Emma could not make the trip that day because she has a bad cold but that she sent food along for him. Grant asks Jefferson how he is feeling, but Jefferson does not answer. After a while, Jefferson raises his head and looks out the window, where there is a view of the yellow leaves on a sycamore tree.
Jefferson asks Grant if he has brought some corn because that is what hogs are supposed to eat. Grant looks at Jefferson, who has not washed his face or combed his hair in days, and tells him that he has not brought any corn and that he is not a hog. Grant offers Jefferson the food in the basket: chicken, biscuits, sweet potatoes, and candy. When Jefferson says that hogs do not eat candy, Grant knows Jefferson is playing with him. Grant again tells Jefferson that he is a man, not a hog. Grant settles down to eat a drumstick and a biscuit, and Jefferson continues to say that he is just a hog being fattened up for slaughter. Then Jefferson gets down on the floor, shoves his face into the basket, and eats without using his hands. Grant does not make a move.
When Jefferson comes up from the basket, Grant tells him that he is not going to relay Jefferson’s actions to Miss Emma and because it will break her heart to hear that he behaved in such a way. Grant asks Jefferson if he is trying to hurt him and make him feel guilty; he also tells Jefferson that the sheriff does not think Grant’s visits will do any good. Grant asks Jefferson if he wants the white man to win. Then they sit in silence. Grant remains in the cell for the entire hour so nothing will look suspicious to the deputy. When he leaves, he says he will tell Miss Emma that Jefferson enjoyed her...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Grant knows that Miss Emma is expecting him to return immediately and relay the news of his visit with Jefferson, but he cannot tell Miss Emma what really happened at the jail. He needs time to think and concoct a believable lie, so he drives to the back of town to stop at the Rainbow Club. There are only two customers at the bar, and Joe Claiborne is serving drinks and talking baseball. Grant orders a beer and tells Claiborne that he had some business in town. The other men continue to talk about Jackie Robinson; it seems that they remember every move Robinson has made in the two years he has been playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. One of the men gets up to mimic the time when Robinson stole home plate; the other man nods, and Claiborne says he is exactly right.
Grant remembers the time before Robinson joined the major leagues—the talk then revolved around Joe Louis. Everyone in the community was excited and proud about Louis’s fight with the German boxer Schmeling, and the community lamented Louis’s loss of the fight. Even the preacher at church exclaimed that a rematch would occur. When it did, everyone huddled around the few radios that were owned by families in the quarter, hoping and praying for Louis’s victory. After Louis won the fight, blacks held their heads high.
Grant thinks back to his time at university when an Irish lecturer came to speak to the students about Irish writers. He told the students that one of James Joyce’s stories, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” was universal. Grant asked his literature teacher for a copy of the story. After reading it, Grant could not understand how the story applied to his people and his situation. But now Grant realizes that people everywhere talk about the pride they have for their heroes, just like the men in the bar speak with reverence for Jackie Robinson. Grant orders another beer and thinks about the jail and how he will have to lie to Miss Emma; he wants to think about happier things, like running away with Vivian. He remembers reading about an execution in Florida during which the boy cried out to Mr. Joe Louis for help; Grant wonders if Jefferson will cry out to Jackie Robinson.
Grant leaves the bar and drives to the school where Vivian works. He asks her to spend the weekend or at least the night with him. But Vivian does not want to take the risk; she fears that her husband might find out about her new relationship and try to take...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Miss Eloise Bouie arrives after the second church bell rings so that she and Tante Lou can walk to the service together. Tante Lou comes out and does not look at Grant as she leaves; years ago, she stopped looking at Grant when she was on her way to church. When Grant returned home from university, he told his aunt that he no longer believed in religion and that he did not want her to try to force it on him. Grant watches the ladies walk up the quarter and pick up Miss Emma on their way to the church. Grant goes back inside to try to correct more school papers. That morning, he had accomplished little because Tante Lou was up early preparing for church and singing her “Termination” song, a hymn sung every third Sunday of the month that represented where the singer is determined to spend eternity. Grant sits down to work, but all he can think about is Friday night.
When he arrived home, Reverend Ambrose and Miss Emma were at the house with Tante Lou. Grant felt guilty about coming in so late. He said hello and excused himself to his room. His aunt pushed him for details about his visit with Jefferson, and all Grant said was that Jefferson had been alright. When Tante Lou asked for more information, Grant looked at Miss Emma and said that he saw she had recovered from her cold. Grant’s sly comment angered Tante Lou, and she told him sternly to sit down and share specific details about the visit. Grant was vague, and Tante Lou asked him what they talked about. Grant said that Guidry and the deputy told him that Jefferson did not cause any trouble and that he was doing fine. Miss Emma and Tante Lou looked at Grant, and he knew that they wanted to believe him but remained in doubt. Tante Lou still wanted more information. Grant said he could not remember everything that they talked about and that he went to see Vivian after leaving the jail. Tante Lou accused Grant of possibly having avoided the jail and going only to see Vivian; Grant told her she could call the jail to check. Reverend Ambrose then asked Grant what he thought Jefferson has been thinking deep in his mind, in his soul, but Grant said he knows nothing about the soul. The Reverend wanted to know if they talked about God during the visit, and Grant said they did not. Reverend Ambrose said that on his upcoming visit, he would take a Bible for Jefferson.
Now sitting at his worktable listening to the singing coming from the church, Grant again thinks that...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Vivian has left her children with Dora so she can visit Grant—she says she missed him. Grant is happy to have been rescued from a boring afternoon. Vivian looks around the room, and Grant apologizes for its spare nature. The room had belonged to his mother and father before they left to California during the war. The furnishings are old and practical; a few framed photographs are on the mantelpiece. Vivian picks up the picture of Grant’s mother and then the picture of his father. She looks around the rest of the room and claims that it looks rustic. Vivian goes to the window and Grant comes up behind her and puts his arm around her waist. When she turns, he kisses her tenderly. Grant can see in Vivian’s eyes that she loves him as much as he loves her. He offers her something to eat, and the two go to the kitchen for coffee.
Vivian stands at the back door looking over the yard and into the field where cane has been cut. She sits down with Grant to coffee and slice of chocolate cake and says it is very peaceful here. Grant thinks Sunday is the saddest day of the week, but Vivian reminds him that the day is not sad for those who work in the fields. Vivian tells Grant that he should go to church on Sundays because she knows that he still has faith, but Grant says that he only believes in loving her.
After they finish the coffee and cake, Vivian insists that they wash the dishes to be fair to Tante Lou. Then she and Grant take a walk through the quarter. Those who are not at church stay inside their homes, and only animals are outside, leaving the quarter quiet. Vivian and Grant cross the railroad tracks and come across a cemetery where many of Grant’s ancestors are buried. Grant cuts Vivian a piece of sugar cane, and she lets some of juice run down her chin. Farther into the fields, they come across a pecan tree, and they sit under the tree to crack and eat nuts. The two begin to make love under the tree, and Vivian tells Grant indirectly that she is pregnant. Grant begins to think that he does not want his child to grow up there in Louisiana, but Vivian tells him not to spoil the moment. They play with possible names—Paul, Molly, Paulette—and Grant holds Vivian close.
(The entire section is 417 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Vivian stands with her back to Grant, and he brushes grass off her blazer and skirt. The air has become colder, so they walk faster to get back to the quarter. On the way, Vivian says that she and her class will begin their Christmas program the following week. She asks if Grant will have one too. Grant says he will ask his students what they want, but he admits that visiting Jefferson at the jail in Bayonne has occupied his thoughts. Vivian asks Grant when he will visit Jefferson again, but Grant is not sure when he will go.
They reach the quarter, and Vivian wants to know if she should leave before Tante Lou returns home. Grant tells Vivian that he wants her to stay, and he figures that his aunt will have to get used to his having Vivian around. Vivian is unsure—she wants Tante Lou to like her. Grant assures her that they will get along once Tante Lou gets to know her. Vivian wishes things were that simple in her hometown, Free LaCove. She met her first husband at university. Because he was dark-skinned, her family shunned him when she married him and brought him to visit. Her family members would not even hold their baby, so Vivian stayed away and now has little contact with her family.
Tante Lou walks down the quarter with Miss Emma, Miss Eloise, and Inez, and she stares at the house once she spots Vivian’s car. Tante Lou gives a slight nod to Vivian, but she does not look at Grant. Once the women are inside, Grant insists on making coffee because he and Vivian drank the rest of the previous pot. Tante Lou does not like being bossed around. Grant blurts out that he will someday marry Vivian, so Tante Lou should learn to get along with her. Tante Lou’s pride is wounded. She at the table with the other women, and Grant asks Miss Eloise about the church service. Tante Lou looks at Vivian and asks her about Free LaCove and the townspeople’s dislike of dark-skinned people. Vivian says that not everyone there harbors such dislike but that she does not visit anyway because she has to live her own life. Tante Lou then questions Vivian about going to church, and Vivian says that she regularly attends mass at nine o’clock. Tante Lou points out that Grant no longer goes to church and tells Vivian that she had better know what she is getting herself into. Grant orders Vivian to set the table, and he pours the coffee while she serves cake.
Afterward, Grant and Vivian go out on the porch, and Vivian says she...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Grant is walking around the schoolyard and slapping his leg with a ruler when he sees a car drop off Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose in front of Miss Emma’s house. Grant goes back into the classroom, where the children are making plans for the Christmas program. Three boys have agreed to be in charge of getting the tree, and Grant asks Clarence if this year he will be able to get a little pine tree. The previous year, the boys cut down and brought in an oak tree that had lost most of its leaves. The girls washed the tree before decorating it with cotton and crepe paper; although it was not a pine tree, it turned out beautiful. Grant indirectly asks the children to think of Jefferson during the Christmas holiday, and then he dismisses them. He sits down to mark sixth grade geography tests, and Thomas, one of the students, returns to the schoolhouse to tell him that Miss Emma wants to see him on the way home.
Grant walks the short distance to Miss Emma’s house and finds Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. The room is silent, and Grant senses that their visit to the jail did not go well. Miss Emma says that she knows Grant lied when he said Jefferson liked the food. She says that during her visit she had to hit Jefferson. A few days later, Miss Eloise visits Tante Lou, and Grant overhears his aunt telling her about the visit.
Jefferson had pretended to be asleep, and there was no place for the three to sit when they entered the cell. Finally Jefferson turned around, but he seemed to look right through them—his stare was completely blank. Miss Emma told him that she brought food and clothes, and Reverend Ambrose told Jefferson that he prays for him every night. The reverend’s words caused Jefferson to look at him coldly like he was about to say something cruel. Jefferson then asked Miss Emma if she brought corn for a hog. Miss Emma slapped him and then cried.
Now at the kitchen table, Miss Emma asks her Lord what she has done to deserve this. Miss Emma asks Grant to please go back to see Jefferson because he is the teacher and Jefferson needs help. Grant gets up to leave and says that he can do nothing—Jefferson has already treated him the same way. Tante Lou tells him not to run away from this problem; nothing will change her mind. Grant leaves Miss Emma’s house and goes back home to his room.
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
During the week, something happens inside Grant. Maybe it is because of the Christmas season, but he is not so angry anymore. He goes to see Jefferson on Friday and has to do the usual routine upon entering the jail. Grant decides to ask a few questions because the young deputy appears to be educated and comes from a good family. Grant asks if Jefferson ever eats any of Miss Emma’s food and how the other prisoners treat him. The deputy reports that Jefferson eats a little and then the rest of the food is given to the other prisoners as Miss Emma has requested. The other prisoners are curious about Jefferson, and they sometimes ask about his upcoming execution. Grant asks if Jefferson ever brings up his execution, and the deputy says he never talks about it. As they reach the landing, the deputy formally introduces himself as Paul Bonin. He admits to Grant that he has been warned to not get too close to anyone who is going to be executed, but he vows to treat Jefferson decently. Grant agrees. As they continue walking, Grant asks Paul about the daily routine at the jail, and Paul shares details about mealtimes, showers, the barbershop, and the dayroom.
When they arrive at the cell, Jefferson is sitting slumped over with his hands clasped between his legs. Grant asks him how he is doing, but Jefferson merely look outside at the sycamore tree. Grant sets the food down and says that they have to talk. He tells Jefferson that Miss Emma returned home from her visit in tears. Jefferson says that he cannot help her because he is going to die; he does not feel like he owes her anything because he did not ask to be born. Jefferson tells Grant that he is vexing him, and nothing Grant says gets through to him. Grant has been trying not to get angry, but then Jefferson insults Vivian and grins at Grant. Grant wants to hit him. Instead, Grant tells Jefferson that Vivian cares about his well-being. Jefferson looks away, and Grant sees tears in his eyes.
When Paul returns to the cell, he asks Grant how the visit went. Grant says that it went okay. As they leave the cellblock, Paul tells Grant that the sheriff would like to see him. Guidry wants to know if Grant is making any headway, but Grant says that he does not know. Guidry thinks he is hiding something, and Grant assures him that he is not. The sheriff tells Grant that Miss Emma has asked the sheriff’s wife to convince her husband to allow them to meet Jefferson in the dayroom...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
As promised, Guidry asks Jefferson if he would like to take his visitors in the dayroom even though he would be shackled. Jefferson does not care because he is going to die anyway. When Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose return to see Jefferson, Miss Emma sets up four dinner places at the center table in the dayroom just as if she were at home. Paul brings Jefferson into the dayroom, and Jefferson trips over the shackles as he approaches the table. After he sits, Miss Emma asks him how he is feeling, but he does not answer and stares down at his hands between his legs. Miss Emma serves the food but Jefferson will not eat. She offers to feed him but he does not move when she holds the spoon to his mouth. Tante Lou can see how much Miss Emma is hurting.
A few days later, Grant returns to see Jefferson, and the deputy asks if he wants to visit in the cell or in the dayroom. Grant does not mind where he meets Jefferson, so the deputy tells Paul to take Grant to the dayroom. Jefferson enters with short steps because of the shackles. He sits across from Grant.
Jefferson says he is not hungry, but Grant begins eating and encourages Jefferson to eat too. Jefferson has lost some weight since he has been in prison and Grant just wants him to eat something. But Jefferson knows Grant wants something else too, and Grant admits that he wants to talk. Jefferson says he wants to talk about the electric chair but Grant changes the subject to the Christmas program at school.
Grant asks Jefferson if he knows what moral and obligation mean. He tells Jefferson that we all owe something to someone and that Jefferson owes Miss Emma understanding and love. Jefferson says that only humans can do these things, and Grant says that since Jefferson speaks and wears clothes, he is still human. Jefferson thinks that he will die at Christmastime, and Grant must assure him that nothing will happen at Christmas. Jefferson says he will be glad when the execution is over because then he can rest. Again, Grant speaks of the Christmas program, and he tells Jefferson that the boys found a little pine tree this year.
After Grant leaves the jail, he goes to the back of town to the Rainbow Club for a couple of beers. When school is out, Grant drives to Vivian’s school and brings her back to the Rainbow Club. Grant and Vivian talk about going into Baton Rouge that night. Grant does not want to go because he is...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
The weather has grown cold, and rain has fallen for weeks. The fields and roads are muddy, so workers can neither cut nor haul cane from the fields. People remain at home and only go outside to get more wood for the fireplace or the stove. On the night of the school’s Christmas program, there is a light drizzle, but it does not keep people away. The children have told their parents and family that the program is dedicated to Jefferson, so people who have never before come to the program make an appearance.
The women who have brought food set up pots, pans, and bowls on the tables in the back of the room while the other women take seats close to the heater. The men and boys stand in the back, chatting until it is time for the play. Grant is behind the curtain with the actors. Two older students, Irene and Odessa, help Grant prepare the children’s costumes. Grant parts the curtain every now and then to see how many people have arrived. In the front row sits Miss Rita Lawrence with her large grandson Bok; next to them is Julia Lavonia, who has two children performing in the program. On the other side of the room sit Tante Lou, Miss Emma, Miss Eloise, and Inez. Behind them are many others whom Grant knows from the plantation, such as Farrell and Ofelia Jarreau, the Martins, the Williamses, and the Griffins. The church is nearly full.
At seven o’clock, Grant steps onto the stage and thanks all in the audience for attending. He invites Reverend Ambrose to lead them in prayer, and the Reverend asks God to look over every jail cell especially one in Bayonne and to go with both the guilty and the innocent. Grant and another student pull back the curtains, and the choir begins singing “Silent Night.” The children sing beautifully. Grant knows the bad weather has made it possible for the children to spend more time practicing instead of working in the fields. Grant looks at the Christmas tree—underneath it is a single wrapped gift. The children contributed spare change to buy a wool sweater and a pair of wool socks for Jefferson. After the choir sings a few more songs, other children recite poems and essays. Then the children perform the nativity scene. After the play, the children take their bows. Grant asks Reverend Ambrose if he has any last remarks. The Reverend again thanks God and reminds the audience that no one is free from sin. Grant thanks him and reminds everyone that there are refreshments and food in the back...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
It is late February and Grant is sitting at his desk marking fourth-grade math papers while the children play. Grant senses that one of them has come back into the schoolhouse, but when he looks up he sees Farrell Jarreau standing in front of him. Mr. Farrell has come to tell Grant that the date for Jefferson’s execution has been set and the sheriff wants Grant and Reverend Ambrose to break the news to Miss Emma. Grant calls the children inside from recess and leaves Irene in charge.
Grant makes his way to Henri Pichot’s house; Reverend Ambrose’s car is already parked out front. Inez lets Grant into the kitchen, and Reverend Ambrose makes small talk. Inez returns and says that the sheriff will be there in fifteen to twenty minutes. Guidry arrives on time, and Grant and Reverend Ambrose are called into the front room. As he stands in front of the fireplace, Mr. Henri looks worried. Guidry says the warrant from the governor has ordered the date of Jefferson’s execution for April 8, the second Friday after Easter. He wants Jefferson to remain as calm as he has been. Then Guidry inquires about Miss Emma because his wife, Edna, said Miss Emma may need a doctor when she hears the news. Reverend Ambrose thanks him, and Guidry says he will summon Dr. Gillory to the quarter.
Grant asks Guidry why the governor chose that date, and Guidry and Mr. Henri exchange glances. Guidry says that the execution could not occur during Lent. Later Grant learns from Paul that another execution had been ordered just before Ash Wednesday, and the governor’s aide pointed out that the state’s large Catholic population might object to having two executions at the time of Lent.
Grant cannot get the time and date of Jefferson’s execution out of his mind, and he barely hears Guidry and Mr. Henri talking about calling the doctor for Miss Emma. Grant considers the false justice in having a jury of white men rule that a black man must die and that another white man can arbitrarily set the date for his death. Grant sees the grave irony in Jefferson’s situation: he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but he will be put to death at a time that is convenient for the white men in charge of the government.
There are no more questions, so Mr. Henri thanks Grant and the reverend for coming, signaling that it is time for them to leave. Inez is crying and tells them they must have courage for Miss Emma’s sake. Reverend...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
As Grant gets closer to home, he sees two cars parked in front of Miss Emma’s house. Even though he does not want to stop in, he feels that he owes Miss Emma a visit. Inside, Miss Emma has taken to her bed, so Tante Lou has assumed the role of hostess and is in the kitchen making coffee for the other guests. Irene is in the kitchen, and Grant thanks her for taking over the class in his absence. Reverend Ambrose gives Grant a hard look, and Grant assumes that he has told Tante Lou what happened at Mr. Henri’s house because she has little to say to him. After ten minutes, Grant leaves.
At home Grant warms the dinner that Tante Lou left for him, and he lights fires around the house. After eating, Grant hears footsteps on the porch—Vivian has heard the news about Jefferson and has come to see Grant. They share coffee, and Grant asks Vivian to lie on the bed beside him. Vivian says that she thought to stop at Miss Emma’s house but was not sure if her visit would be appropriate. Grant tells her that stopping in to see Miss Emma is a good idea, and after about twenty minutes, the two get up and dress for the visit.
Grant and Vivian push through the crowd, and Grant tells Miss Emma that he has brought someone to see her. Vivian whispers something in Miss Emma’s ear, and Grant can tell from the look on Miss Emma’s face that she is pleased with Vivian’s comment. Grant introduces Vivian to the others in the room before taking her into the kitchen to see his aunt. Inez comes to tell Grant that Miss Emma wants to see him before he goes. Miss Emma tells him that she does not know when she will be able to go back to visit Jefferson and that Jefferson’s well-being is now in Grant’s hands and those of the reverend. Miss Emma hopes they can work together. Grant says he will try.
After leaving Miss Emma’s house, Grant needs a drink, so he follows Vivian back to Bayonne so they can go to the Rainbow Club. While drinking brandy, Vivian tells Grant she can sense that Irene is in love with him. Grant says that he knows, and he lists other people in town who also love him. He says they do not want an outsider to take him away from his home. Grant says that people in his life like Irene and Tante Lou just want someone of whom they can be proud, just like Miss Emma wants to be proud of Jefferson before he dies. Grant feels that black men have failed to protect their women since the time of slavery and that they have...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
Grant goes to the jail, and Paul must search him as usual. However, Grant can tell from Paul’s light touch that he does not see the need to search Grant and that he must only do so because the chief deputy is watching. Grant tells Paul that he will meet with Jefferson in his cell today, and Paul asks Grant if he wants him to remain nearby. Paul says things might be different now that the date of execution has been set, but Grant does not think it will be necessary. On the way to the cell, the other prisoners do not call out to Grant the way they have on previous visits.
Grant asks Jefferson how he is doing and sets the bag of food near his bunk. Jefferson says he is doing fine, and he asks what day it is. It is Friday. Jefferson says it looks like good weather outside and asks Grant if he thinks it will be nice outside on the day of his execution. Grant does not answer him until Jefferson turns to look at him; then he tells Jefferson that he hopes it will be the kind of day that he wants it to be. Jefferson says he has never gotten anything he wanted, and on his last day he wants an entire gallon of vanilla ice cream. Grant tells Jefferson about news from the quarter—Stella and Gable had their baby. Jefferson recalls that he and Gable were supposed to go hunting the day he got mixed up with Brother and Bear. Grant gives more news, but Jefferson does not seem to be listening. Then Grant offers to bring Jefferson a radio so he can listen to music.
When Paul returns to let Grant out of the cell, he asks how the visit went and Grant answers that it was better than all the previous visits. Paul promises to deliver the radio to Jefferson when Grant drops it off. Instead of going home to get money, Grant thinks he can borrow some from Vivian, so he goes to wait for her at the Rainbow Club. After he tells Joe Claiborne his intentions, Claiborne and some other men in the bar give Grant some money. Grant goes into the café, and Thelma serves him food and gives him the rest of the money he needs to buy the radio.
Grant goes to Edwin’s and picks out a small radio. While testing the stations, a saleswoman asks if he plans to buy the radio. Grant tells her that he wants a new one in a box, but the woman claims that the one on the shelf is new. Grant insists, and the saleswoman makes him wait fifteen minutes before returning with a new, boxed radio. Grant returns to the jail, and the sheriff says that next time he needs...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
On Monday, Miss Emma feels well enough to go with Tante Lou and Reverend Ambrose to the jail, but when they get there, Jefferson refuses to go to the dayroom because he is not allowed to take the radio out of his cell. Grant later finds out that Jefferson did not turn off the radio the entire weekend and the prisoners around him strained to hear the music he played. Miss Emma and the others wait, and Paul returns to report that Jefferson will not leave his cell. They gather up the food and go to Jefferson’s cell, but Jefferson just lies on his bunk facing the wall. When Paul returns to let them out of the cell, Jefferson turns on the radio. Paul tells Miss Emma that the sheriff would like to see her. Guidry asks Miss Emma if the radio is causing trouble, and Miss Emma says that it is not. Guidry chides Miss Emma because today she has accepted standing in the cell when before it was a problem, and he tells Miss Emma that they must work together with Grant and not cause trouble. Miss Emma says that she will speak to Grant when she gets home.
Grant is summoned to Miss Emma’s house later that afternoon. Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, and Miss Emma say that Grant has done wrong by giving Jefferson the radio because all he wants to do is listen to it. The reverend says that Jefferson needs God in his cell, not the radio. Grant says that the radio and the music keep Jefferson company, but the reverend calls it “sin company.” Grant says that he does not care what the reverend thinks, and Tante Lou yells at him to not speak that way. She approaches him, and Grant knows she wants to slap him. Grant says that he is trying to reach Jefferson the best way he can—the radio helps him to not think about death.
Grant plans to visit Jefferson again on Wednesday, so on Tuesday he asks the children at school to bring in pecans and roasted peanuts for Jefferson. In Bayonne, Grant buys apples, candy, and comic books. When Grant gets to Jefferson’s cell, he asks if Jefferson was able to catch some radio shows over the weekend. Then he asks if Jefferson will meet Miss Emma in the dayroom the next time she comes, and Jefferson agrees. Grant says that he wants to be Jefferson’s friend and that he wants him to ask any questions he might have. He offers to bring Jefferson a notebook and pencil so he can write down questions during the day or night. Paul returns to the cell, and Grant asks if Jefferson has any messages for Miss Emma....
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
Miss Emma thinks it would be best if she, Tante Lou, Grant, and Reverend Ambrose visit Jefferson all together. Although Grant does not want to be around Reverend Ambrose, he agrees to meet them at the jail. On the way through Bayonne, Grant remembers his promise to Jefferson and stops to buy a notebook and pencil. He arrives a few minutes late and Tante Lou and Reverend Ambrose are angry. Grant decides to not explain because he figures that they will not understand. Paul is not at the jail, so the chief deputy conducts the search and leads them down the corridor to the dayroom.
The women set the table before Jefferson is brought into the room. One can hear the noise of the shackles long before Jefferson enters with the chief deputy. Miss Emma has made gumbo, and she spoons food into the bowls. Grant begins to eat, but he is the only one—Reverend Ambrose is preparing to say grace. The reverend begins with “The Lord’s Prayer” and afterward begins to give thanks and blessings. At the end of the prayer, the elders say “Amen” but Jefferson and Grant remain quiet. Miss Emma asks Jefferson if he wants to eat, but Jefferson says he is not hungry. Grant chats with him about the notebook and pencil and the gifts the children had sent, all the while avoiding Miss Emma’s looks.
Grant asks Jefferson if he wants to talk, and the two stand. Tante Lou and Reverend Ambrose continue eating, but they look uneasy. Grant and Jefferson walk away from the table. Once they are far enough away from the table, Grant says that he wants Jefferson to be good to his godmother. Grant asks Jefferson if he knows what a hero is, and Grant admits that he can never be a hero because he feels stuck in his life and his career and always wants to run away. He tells Jefferson that he has an opportunity to be a hero to Miss Emma. Grant says that whites never want blacks to stand and think and that Jefferson should not let them get the better of him. Grant asks Jefferson to look at him, and he can see that Jefferson has been crying. Grant tells him that he needs him and that Jefferson has the chance to be bigger and more dignified than anyone else they know. Jefferson appears touched, and Grant also cries. They return to the table.
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary
After the visit, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Reverend Ambrose drive back to the quarter, but Grant heads to the back of town to the Rainbow Club. Grant wants to tell Vivian about the success he had with Jefferson. After their talk, Grant and Jefferson went back to the table and ate Miss Emma’s gumbo even though it was cold, which made Miss Emma proud. Grant does not want to tell her about the envy he saw in Reverend Ambrose’s eye. Vivian is not at the bar yet, so Grant decides to have a drink while he waits. Grant is in a good mood, and he wants to tell Vivian that because he is now more relaxed and not so worried about Jefferson, he will be able to be more intimate with her.
Grant overhears two mulatto bricklayers who are drinking at a table say “nigger” a few times. He has seen the men before. Like other mulattoes in the area who go into skilled trades to avoid working next to blacks in the fields and sitting next to them in classrooms, the men are prejudiced. Grant listens to their conversation and realizes they are talking about Jefferson’s execution and saying it should have been done a long time ago. Grant looks around the bar and sees that Joe Claiborne and the old men at the bar have heard the men’s rants about Jefferson. Grant tries to block out the conversation because he cannot allow the men’s talk to destroy his good feelings about the day.
Grant finishes his drink and turns to look at the men. The men see him looking and grow quiet before the taller man says something that makes the other laugh. Grant walks up to their table and says, “Shut up.” The man gets up, but Grant hits him before he can block the punch, and he falls over the back of the chair. The other man jumps up, and Grant punches him in the mouth. Joe Claiborne comes from behind the bar and yells at the men that he wants no fighting in his bar. Claiborne wrestles with one of the men, and the other swings at Grant, who keeps up his guard. Then the man hits Grant with his arm, knocking him to the floor. Grant kicks him and gets back to his feet, continuing the fight. Thelma comes out swinging a broom, and Claiborne yells for someone to go find Vivian. The men begin to throw chairs at each other, and the noise in the room is impenetrable. Then a blow to the head causes Grant to see only darkness. He can hear a voice before his sight returns—Vivian is standing over him. Claiborne tells her to get Grant out of the bar before the...
(The entire section is 471 words.)
Chapter 26 Summary
Grant asks Vivian what happened to him, and she tells him that Joe Claiborne knocked him out because he would not stop fighting in the bar. Claiborne threatened to shoot the other man so he stopped fighting, but Grant just would not quit. Mr. Gusta went running up and down the street calling for Vivian to come stop Grant from fighting. Grant apologizes and says he could not help himself, but Vivian does not believe him and says he could have just walked away. They are sitting on Vivian’s bed; in the mirror above the dresser, Grant sees that he does not look good. Vivian says he is no condition to drive home, so he will have to stay at her place while Dora watches her children. Grant says he does not want to make trouble, but Vivian retorts that he should have thought about that at the Rainbow Club. Grant says the men were talking negatively about Jefferson. Vivian says he should have just talked instead of fought. Grant tries to stand up to leave, but his head is pounding, so he sits back down on the bed. Vivian tells him to stay put and offers him dinner. Grant does not want her to be angry, but Vivian is not mad—she is disgusted.
Vivian goes into the kitchen to prepare food, and Grant follows her and puts his arm around her waist. Grant tells her about how well the visit with Jefferson went. They sit to eat, and Grant asks the blessing. When he looks up from the prayer and starts eating, Vivian does not join him. She tells him that she has heard from her husband; he will not grant her a divorce unless he can see the children every weekend. Grant wants to leave so he will not cause any more trouble, but Vivian says they will get hurt no matter what they do. Grant tells her that Jefferson only has a few more weeks left to live and that he needs her more than ever. Grant tells Vivian that he loves her, but Vivian says that love is not enough and questions whether Grant knows what love is. He says he will leave, and she tells him that leaving is the easy way out of trouble. He asks her what she wants from him. She says she wants some consideration. Grant walks out of the room and opens the front door. He does not want to go out into the darkness. Grant turns around and goes back into the kitchen to bury his face in Vivian’s lap.
(The entire section is 434 words.)
Chapter 27 Summary
After church, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, Miss Eloise, Inez, and Reverend Ambrose come back to the house for coffee and cake. Grant lies across his bed and looks out the window onto Tante Lou’s garden and Farrell Jarreau’s pecan trees. The sky is low and gray. After a while, Tante Lou comes into Grant’s room and tells him that Reverend Ambrose would like to speak with him. Grant says that the reverend can come in. Before she leaves, Tante Lou stands and looks at Grant.
When Reverend Ambrose enters the room, Grant offers him a seat but they both remain standing. Reverend Ambrose looks around Grant’s room and sees the school papers on the desk. He asks if the children are learning anything, and Grant says that he does his best. The reverend says he also tries to do his best. Then Reverend Ambrose says that Jefferson does not have much time left and that he is not saved. Grant says he cannot help that situation, but Reverend Ambrose points out that Jefferson listens to Grant. The reverend says Grant never thinks about anyone but himself. Grant says he has his own work to do, just like the reverend has his.
Reverend Ambrose says that he and Miss Emma are going back to the jail tomorrow and that he will talk with Jefferson about God. Grant is not sure this is what Jefferson needs or wants to hear. Reverend Ambrose wants Grant to help him prepare Jefferson for a better world, but Grant does not believe in another world. The reverend challenges Grant’s education by saying that even though he went to college, he learned nothing about how to deal with people or himself. Reverend Ambrose says that he is the one who is educated and that he will not allow Grant to send Jefferson’s soul to hell.
Grant says that he will not go back to the jail, but Reverend Ambrose says that Grant owes it to Miss Emma. Grant does not believe he owes anyone anything. Reverend Ambrose says that everyone has felt the same way at one time or another, but he wants Jefferson to realize that he owes much to Miss Emma. He tells Grant to convince Jefferson to get on his knees before Miss Emma on the day of his execution. Grant refuses—he thinks a man should stand. The reverend says that Grant is lost. Yet Grant stands his ground—the reverend wants Grant to lie to Jefferson about the existence of heaven, but Grant says that he will never lie to Jefferson in his last moments. Reverend Ambrose says that sometimes one must lie to relieve the...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Chapter 28 Summary
Grant enters Jefferson’s cell carrying a bag of baked sweet potatoes. Jefferson is sitting on his bunk and says he has been doing alright. The radio is on the floor next to the bed playing a sad cowboy song. Next to the radio lie the notebook and pencil. Grant sees that the lead is worn down and the eraser has been much used. Grant tells Jefferson that he can see he has been writing and asks if it is personal or if he can read it. Jefferson allows Grant to read through the notebook. Jefferson has written on most of the first page. His handwriting is large and awkward. Grant makes out that Jefferson has written about his thoughts and dreams. Jefferson has been having nightmares about walking to his execution. In his dreams, he does not cry nor beg—he simply walks. He questions why the sheriff and deputies do not just starve him or hit him on the head if he is supposed to be a hog. He reckons that a hog walks on four hooves, but he is a man who walks on his own two feet. The last few words in the notebook are hardly visible because the pencil lead had worn down to the nub.
Jefferson asks Grant when Easter will be; Grant replies that tomorrow is Good Friday. Jefferson recalls that Good Friday is the day on which Jesus Christ died and that He did not mumble even a word at the time of his death. Grant asks if Reverend Ambrose spoke with him, and Jefferson says that the reverend told him to pray. Jefferson asks Grant if he thinks Jefferson will go to heaven and whether Mr. Grope, Brother, and Bear went to heaven. Grant says he does not know. Jefferson asks Grant if he prays, and Grant admits that he does not. Grant says that he is lost, but he wants Jefferson to believe in heaven so that one day maybe Grant will too. Reverend Ambrose has told Jefferson to give up on his life on earth; Jefferson says that everyone is asking too much from him. Jefferson asks Grant if he thinks anyone else would go to the chair for him, but Grant remains quiet. Jefferson then asks Grant if he believes in God. Grant admits that he does. Jefferson says that he wants to die the way Christ died—not saying a word.
Grant asks Jefferson if he needs anything, but all Jefferson wants is for the time to go by quickly so he will no longer have to wait to meet his death. Jefferson goes to the window. He says that all his life he has worked, lived, and behaved in the ways that were expected of him. He wonders why now everyone expects him to be better...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
Chapter 29 Summary
Jefferson has written much in his diary. At first he does not know what to write because he does not have much experience writing—he has never written a letter and Miss Emma always had other children write and read letters for her. Then Jefferson has a dream about walking, and when he wakes he wants to write about it but it is too dark in the cell. When morning light comes, he has forgotten much of what he wanted to write.
On her next visit, Miss Emma brings Easter eggs for Jefferson. While she, he, Reverend Ambrose, and Tante Lou eat the eggs, the reverend asks him if he knows why Jesus Christ died. Then he gets on his knees and tells Jefferson that he must ask for the Lord’s forgiveness so that his soul will be saved, and Miss Emma starts crying. Jefferson is relieved when Paul comes to take him back to his cell.
Jefferson cannot sleep, and he thinks about the stories in the Bible. He thinks the Lord only works for white folks—Jefferson recalls working hard in the fields for the benefit of others without any mercy, not even a light breeze. Jefferson just cannot get back to sleep because he keeps dreaming about walking to a door, and he does not know if that door is where the electric chair will be or if it means death or heaven.
Jefferson writes about Grant and how he looks so tired; he always wants Jefferson to go deep and write about what is on his mind. There are only a few days left, and Jefferson hopes he will be able to see Miss Emma before he goes to the chair. He wonders whether this means love—the intense need and desire to see a person just one last time.
Later, Sheriff Guidry, Mr. Henry, and Mr. Morgan come to see Jefferson. Mr. Henri gives him a little knife to use to sharpen his pencil. Jefferson overhears the men reconsidering the terms of the bet they have made against him. Jefferson knows the men are not good; only Paul treats Jefferson decently.
Then Jefferson writes about all the children and everyone else from the quarter who came to visit him at the jail. Miss Rita wants one boy to give Jefferson one of his marbles, and the boy fishes around in his pocket until he finds the littlest one to give away. No one has ever done anything like that for Jefferson before, so when all his visitors leave and the door locks behind them, Jefferson lies on his bunk and cries. When Miss Emma comes to see him, Jefferson lets her hold him, and he tells her that he is strong....
(The entire section is 601 words.)
Chapter 30 Summary
Sidney deRogers is on his way to mow someone’s lawn when a black truck with a gray tarpaulin cover passes him. He thinks it is just another truck delivering goods to one of the stores. After mowing, the mistress of the house, Lucy, tells him that she needs white thread from Edwin’s so Sidney drives to the store for her. Parked beside the courthouse is the same black truck, and there are hordes of people standing on the sidewalk. The saleswoman at Edwin’s is trying to see what is going on, and she cannot even be bothered to help Sidney find the thread or take his money.
The night before, Tante Lou did not sleep at home—she and many of the other elders in the quarter spent the night with Miss Emma. Vivian and Grant sat together at a corner table at the Rainbow Club, but Vivian never finished her drink. She went to church after school and would go again in the morning. She told Grant that from noon until the time of Jefferson’s execution, she would have her students on their knees beside their desks. Grant left the Club at ten-thirty, but he did not want to go home, so he drove to another bar in Port Allen. He met someone there who wanted to talk about Jefferson, so he left to drive home.
Reverend Ambrose did not sleep that night. In the morning, he eats slowly, thinking about what he has to do later in the day. The sheriff has given him permission to be one of the witnesses, and he has chosen the Twenty-third Psalm to recite at the jail. He prays that God will give him strength.
Sheriff Guidry is up early on the morning of the execution so he can arrive at the jail by seven-thirty. The electric chair is supposed to arrive at eight o’clock, and he must see to it that everything is set up properly. He does not look at his wife, Edna, when he says that he has hoped this day would never come, but now that it is here, he must see that it goes smoothly.
Melvina Jack is sweeping the sidewalk outside Edwin’s when the black truck drives by and parks next to the courthouse. She and Juanita watch the men unload the wooden-backed chair from the bed of the truck. It is all Melvina can do to stay on her feet at the sight of it.
Two men and two deputies carry the electric chair into the courthouse and place it in the storeroom while the sheriff and the executioner, Henry Vincent, supervise. Vincent tells the other men to place the chair near the window so the wires can be attached to the...
(The entire section is 743 words.)
Chapter 31 Summary
Before classes begin, Grant tells his students that there will be no recess period and that they are to go home early to eat so they can return to school by a quarter to twelve. At exactly twelve o’clock, the children will have to get on their knees until word comes from the jail. Grant wants silence. He assigns Odessa to teach the primer and first grades while Irene teaches the second and third grades. The older children open their books to study, and Grant tells them that he will test them later. Grant cannot concentrate; he takes his ruler and goes outside. There are no clouds in the sky, and no one is out working in the fields or sitting on a porch. Tante Lou and others are at Miss Emma’s house. Grant walks to the back of the church and reminisces on his school days when he played ragball with the other children. He wonders if Jefferson ever hit a home run at ragball, and then he thinks about Lily Green, who used to hit them. She was tragically killed before she turned twenty years old—a wasted life. Grant wonders what life will be like tomorrow and afterward; things will never be the same.
Just before eleven o’clock, Grant sees the reverend’s car drive up the quarter on its way to Bayonne. Grant wants to run away and forget all memory of this place. He wonders what one does when he knows he only has one more hour to live. Grant knows that Reverend Ambrose is much braver than he is because he would not have had the strength to stand with Jefferson during his final moments. Grant hopes Jefferson will be brave too, and he puts his faith in Jefferson.
When the children return from lunch, Grant tells them that they must get on their knees and pray quietly to themselves. Grant walks up and down the quarter trying not to think, but how can he get these thoughts out of his head? He wonders what Jefferson is doing at this moment; he questions why he would not stand beside Jefferson and why he is not kneeling with the children. Grant sits alone under a pecan tree and waits.
Grant refuses to believe in the same God or the laws of men who judge each other so harshly and commit murder in the name of justice. A yellow butterfly with dark spots on its wings lands on a patch of blue grass not far away, and Grant wonders what has attracted the butterfly to land on that spot. It takes flight, and Grant watches it until it disappears. At that moment, he knows it is over. Grant walks back to the road—he will wait...
(The entire section is 624 words.)