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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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In the story A Lesson Before Dying, why does Grant say that Jefferson is already dead?

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What Grant's doing here is to try and talk himself out of the thankless task of preparing Jefferson for his imminent execution. When he tells Miss Emma that Jefferson's already dead, Grant means that the young man's practically given up the ghost; that he's been so stripped of his dignity by his trial that he's effectively dead to the world. That being the case, there's simply no way he can get through to him.

During that trial, Jefferson was likened—by his own lawyer, no less—to a hog. This was part of an attempt—unsuccessful, as it turned out—to portray Jefferson as nothing more than a simpleton who didn't know what he was doing. In his speech to the court, Jefferson's attorney said that he'd rather see a hog go to the electric chair than such a mindless individual. In that sense, one could say that Jefferson's humanity was taken away from him in court, not just by the unjust conviction and sentencing but by the ill-chosen words of the man supposed to be defending him. And that makes Grant's task of preparing him for his forthcoming execution all the more difficult.

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In A Lesson Before Dying, Grant is a schoolteacher who is charged with visiting Jefferson, a man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, and helping him to turn into a man before he is executed.

Grant is hesitant to visit Jefferson because he doesn't believe he can help Grant in any meaningful way in the limited time left before he is put to death.  Grant says Jefferson is already dead because he literally almost is, and because he believes Jefferson's soul, conscience, being, etc. cannot be saved in that time.

It actually becomes a learning experience for Grant, who changes his mind later on in the story.

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