Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 19 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

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 of the room.

The children ask Grant what he thought about their performance, and he tells them it was just fine. But Grant does not look happy—he has heard the same songs and has seen the same play all his life. Nothing changes in the quarter, and Grant feels alone. Tante Lou sends a girl with some food to give to Grant, and he sits next to the pulpit eating chicken and bread. Everyone laughs and chats, and the lone gift sits under the tree.

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Chapter 18 Summary

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Chapter 20 Summary