A Lesson Before Dying Summary

A Lesson before Dying cover image summary

A young African American man named Jefferson is wrongfully convicted of the murder of a white liquor store owner. Despite his innocence, he's sentenced to death.

  • Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, asks Grant Wiggins, one of the teachers in Jefferson's former community quarters, to prepare Jefferson to face death like a man.
  • Jefferson doesn't respond to Grant's initial attempts. Grant is forced to seek the help of Sheriff Guidry, a white man, and begins to question his abilities as a teacher.
  • Finally, Grant is able to get through to Jefferson and gives him the courage to walk to the electric chair without fear. Grant is proud of this, and the novel ends on a hopeful note, as Grant dreams of a future where segregation doesn't exist.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 puts his own pride at grave risk, as he must seek the cooperation of white men such as Henri Pichot and Sheriff Guidry, who want to stifle his “smartness.”

Lashed by the righteousness of Tante Lou and the Reverend Ambrose, his chief tormentor, Grant persists and finally succeeds in befriending Jefferson, largely through simple kindness. He bolsters Jefferson’s courage, helping him to face Gruesome Gerty, the portable electric chair, with unflinching dignity.

The novel thus ends with hope, both for Grant, the protagonist, and for the South. Grant has learned that his teaching is not in vain, that his education has given him the power to help others discover their humanity. He has also earned the respect and potential friendship of a young white deputy, Paul, who holds out the promise for a future racial harmony.

Except for a few segments in which A Lesson Before Dying subtly slips into a third-person point of view and the section in which Jefferson speaks through his diary, the novel is presented in the first-person voice of its protagonist, Grant Wiggins. The reader thus closely audits Grant’s own progress from doubt and moments of self-hatred to an honest confrontation with his feelings of anger and bitterness, love and shame. His growth parallels that of Jefferson, who, by facing death bravely, at the end has become his teacher’s teacher.

A Lesson before Dying Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 quarter, Grant is a university graduate who now teaches the children of the quarter between the months of October and April, when the children are not working in the fields. At first, Grant resists the call. He has plenty on his mind, including the complexities of his relationship with Vivian, a schoolteacher in the nearby town of Bayonne who is in the process of getting divorced from her husband. Moreover, Grant is a man whose allotment of hope is just about used up. He cannot bring himself to believe that his work with the children can possibly make a positive difference in their lives. What, then, can he do for Jefferson? Who am I, Grant wants to know, to say what a man is, or how a man should die? It is hard enough to figure out how a man should live.

Even with Grant’s reluctant participation, other obstacles remain, notably that represented by the local white power structure. Miss Emma can claim a right to special consideration because of the services she has rendered to powerful white families over the years. Her claim is acknowledged by the white people she has to convince, yet they remain dubious. For one thing, it is hard for a member of the white community, in this time and this place, to understand a project the purpose of which is to affirm the humanity of a black man, especially one under sentence of death. They want the execution to go smoothly and quietly. They are afraid that what Miss Emma proposes may stir up trouble, especially as it involves this educated black man, Grant, whose correct grammar strikes some of them as a provocation. For Emma’s sake, they give their grudging consent to the undertaking.

Grant is not the only one involved in the attempt to do something for Jefferson. Grant and the Reverend Ambrose, the preacher from the quarter, often find themselves at cross purposes. For the Reverend Ambrose, what matters is not whether Jefferson affirms his human dignity but whether he finds salvation. Tensions between the Reverend Ambrose and Grant threaten to break out into conflict at any time.

The most challenging obstacle to the success of the project is Jefferson himself. He heard what his attorney said, he understood what he heard, and he is tempted to accept it. He has known few possibilities in his life, he has had very few choices, and now a freakish combination of circumstances has determined that he must die. Is this what it is to be a man? At one point, he even goes down on all fours and, hog-fashion, pushes his snout into his food dish.

At first, Jefferson resists all of Grant’s efforts, and Grant, who was never enthusiastic about the project, is prepared to admit defeat. Miss Emma and Tante Lou, however, expect him to try—even more, they expect him to succeed—and Vivian adds her voice to theirs. In a situation he would never have chosen to become involved in, Grant must commit himself to the effort. The struggle begins to pay off when Jefferson agrees that he does not want to cause further pain to his godmother. In thus concerning himself with another, in the shadow of his own death, Jefferson begins to sense his place in the human family. He is touched by a gift from the schoolchildren, and he is grateful for the radio Grant brings to him. As he lets himself know these emotions, he begins to recognize that he is indeed a man.

Grant himself is by no means untouched by what is happening. In the commitment he found it so difficult to make, and in thus opening himself to the pain of sharing Jefferson’s agony, he has begun to move toward a new realization of his own humanity.

The law takes its course. At the time designated by the state, Jefferson dies in the electric chair. Paul, a white jailer who has treated Jefferson and Grant with sympathy and respect, is able to tell Grant that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room. He also brings the diary that Jefferson has been keeping at Grant’s suggestion. Capitalization is erratic, the spelling is weak, the punctuation is uncertain, and the style is inelegant, but the message of Jefferson’s diary is clear: “tell them im a man.” Paul and Grant, white man and black man, realize that Jefferson has indeed taught them a lesson before dying.

A Lesson before Dying Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 quarter, is reluctant to help, but he yields in the face of his aunt’s strong moral cajoling and the insistence of his friend Vivian, with whom he is in love.

Before he can even visit Jefferson at the jail in Bayonne, Grant must approach the plantation owner, Henri Pinchot, who, because he is Sheriff Sam Guidry’s brother-in-law, can intercede to obtain Guidry’s permission. The prospect of asking Pinchot for help rankles Grant, because he knows he will have to pay a steep price—some of his fragile pride.

But even more troubling are his own persistent doubts about the efficacy of any effort to transform Jefferson into a man. Grant’s sense of purpose as teacher, like his pride, is very brittle. His former teacher, Matthew Antoine, preaching nihilistic futility, had already severely damaged it, and it is soon apparent that Grant would likely bolt and run were it not for Vivian, who cannot leave with him until she has obtained a divorce from her estranged husband.

Grant’s biggest problem, however, is Jefferson himself. During the initial visits to the parish courthouse in Bayonne, when Miss Emma accompanies Grant, Jefferson is almost catatonic, unwilling to communicate with either of them. When, in a subsequent visit by Grant, he does break out of his shell, his behavior shows that he has accepted his lawyer’s conception of him as subhuman. He snorts and grunts, rooting on the floor of his cell and gobbling his food like a hog—behavior that greatly distresses Grant, for it seems to confirm everything that Antoine had said.

Still, Grant does not give up. Although he has no idea of how to go about restoring some pride in Jefferson, his resolve to do so gradually grows. He opts for simple kindness, believing that Jefferson’s sense of self-worth must come from a belief that others care. Grant’s nemesis, the Reverend Ambrose, chagrined by Grant’s apparent agnosticism, pulls against him, convinced that Jefferson can find comfort only in the revealed word of God.

With patience, Grant finally begins to break through to Jefferson. He gives the condemned man a small portable radio, which Jefferson takes as a kind, caring gift, more, in fact, than he had ever before received. Then Grant encourages him to write down his thoughts and feelings, which Jefferson, in halting words, does, finally confirming his humanity. Clearly, before his date with Gruesome Gertie, the portable electric chair, he redeems his manhood; in the process, Jefferson helps Grant to find himself and earn the respect and proffered friendship of Paul, a white but sympathetic deputy. Thus, despite the awful miscarriage of justice that is the central fact of the novel, A Lesson Before Dying ends on a hopeful note.

A Lesson before Dying Summary

Before the Jail Visits
A Lesson Before Dying examines the relationship established between two men in a rural Louisiana...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

A Lesson before Dying Chapter Summaries

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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....

(The entire section is 480 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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.


(The entire section is 452 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

A Lesson before Dying 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 entire section is 624 words.)