Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 20 Summary

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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 to twenty minutes. Guidry arrives on time, and Grant and Reverend Ambrose are called into the front room. As he stands in front of the fireplace, Mr. Henri looks worried. Guidry says the warrant from the governor has ordered the date of Jefferson’s execution for April 8, the second Friday after Easter. He wants Jefferson to remain as calm as he has been. Then Guidry inquires about Miss Emma because his wife, Edna, said Miss Emma may need a doctor when she hears the news. Reverend Ambrose thanks him, and Guidry says he will summon Dr. Gillory to the quarter.

Grant asks Guidry why the governor chose that date, and Guidry and Mr. Henri exchange glances. Guidry says that the execution could not occur during Lent. Later Grant learns from Paul that another execution had been ordered just before Ash Wednesday, and the governor’s aide pointed out that the state’s large Catholic population might object to having two executions at the time of Lent.

Grant cannot get the time and date of Jefferson’s execution out of his mind, and he barely hears Guidry and Mr. Henri talking about calling the doctor for Miss Emma. Grant considers the false justice in having a jury of white men rule that a black man must die and that another white man can arbitrarily set the date for his death. Grant sees the grave irony in Jefferson’s situation: he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but he will be put to death at a time that is convenient for the white men in charge of the government.

There are no more questions, so Mr. Henri thanks Grant and the reverend for coming, signaling that it is time for them to leave. Inez is crying and tells them they must have courage for Miss Emma’s sake. Reverend Ambrose asks Grant if he wants a ride back to the quarter, but Grant says that he cannot go home and tell Miss Emma the news. Reverend Ambrose says that if Grant had faith in God, he would have enough strength to deliver such news. Grant leaves to take a walk down by the river. Afterward, he heads back to the schoolhouse to collect his papers; he assumes that the reverend and the doctor have both gone to see Miss Emma by now.

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Chapter 19 Summary


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