Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 1 Summary

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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 Friday afternoon with a guilty verdict. The following Monday, the judge sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution for his part in the crime against Grope.

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Chapter 2 Summary