Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 2 Summary

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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 he is back at his worktable when she enters his room. Tante Lou asks if he is going to go speak to Miss Emma. Grant says he has been working on the school papers and he will soon need to leave to go to a store in Bayonne. Tante Lou says he can spare a few minutes, and Grant has no choice but to go speak to Miss Emma.

At the kitchen table, Tante Lou sits next to Miss Emma, so Grant must sit on the opposite side of the table. Miss Emma stares out into the yard and Grant waits, afraid of what Miss Emma wants to say to him. Miss Emma then says quietly, “Called him a hog.” Miss Emma says she knows the defense attorney was just trying to represent Jefferson, but the judge still sentenced him to death. Then Miss Emma tells Grant that she does not want a “hog” to go to the electric chair—she wants Jefferson to die a man. Miss Emma says Grant is the teacher, but Grant says he just teaches the children at the school the things that white people want them to learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. He does not think he has anything to offer Jefferson. Tante Lou tells Grant to mind his language and informs him that they are going to speak to Henri Pichot, the brother-in-law of the local sheriff, so Grant will be allowed to enter the jail to see Jefferson. Grant says he is leaving to go to Bayonne where he can relax, but Tante Lou says he is not going anywhere until they have seen Mr. Henri. Grant argues that Jefferson is already dead and that they cannot do anything for him now that they were not able to do for the last twenty-one years. But Grant knows his aunt will not listen to him; she has not listened to him any of the times he told her he feels like his life is the equivalent of running in place.

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Chapter 1 Summary


Chapter 3 Summary