Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 17 Summary

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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 because they cannot sit comfortably in the cell; he wants to know if Grant knows anything about the request. Grant knows nothing about this plan. Guidry suspects that Grant is lying and asks his elder deputy what should be done. Clark says that Jefferson can stay where he is in the cell during visits because he is not in jail for a picnic. But Guidry decides to allow Jefferson into the dayroom for visits only if he is in shackles, and Grant is to tell Miss Emma of his decision. Guidry wants Jefferson to remember that he is a prisoner.

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