Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 29 Summary

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Jefferson has written much in his diary. At first he does not know what to write because he does not have much experience writing—he has never written a letter and Miss Emma always had other children write and read letters for her. Then Jefferson has a dream about walking, and when he wakes he wants to write about it but it is too dark in the cell. When morning light comes, he has forgotten much of what he wanted to write.

On her next visit, Miss Emma brings Easter eggs for Jefferson. While she, he, Reverend Ambrose, and Tante Lou eat the eggs, the reverend asks him if he knows why Jesus Christ died. Then he gets on his knees and tells Jefferson that he must ask for the Lord’s forgiveness so that his soul will be saved, and Miss Emma starts crying. Jefferson is relieved when Paul comes to take him back to his cell.

Jefferson cannot sleep, and he thinks about the stories in the Bible. He thinks the Lord only works for white folks—Jefferson recalls working hard in the fields for the benefit of others without any mercy, not even a light breeze. Jefferson just cannot get back to sleep because he keeps dreaming about walking to a door, and he does not know if that door is where the electric chair will be or if it means death or heaven.

Jefferson writes about Grant and how he looks so tired; he always wants Jefferson to go deep and write about what is on his mind. There are only a few days left, and Jefferson hopes he will be able to see Miss Emma before he goes to the chair. He wonders whether this means love—the intense need and desire to see a person just one last time.

Later, Sheriff Guidry, Mr. Henry, and Mr. Morgan come to see Jefferson. Mr. Henri gives him a little knife to use to sharpen his pencil. Jefferson overhears the men reconsidering the terms of the bet they have made against him. Jefferson knows the men are not good; only Paul treats Jefferson decently.

Then Jefferson writes about all the children and everyone else from the quarter who came to visit him at the jail. Miss Rita wants one boy to give Jefferson one of his marbles, and the boy fishes around in his pocket until he finds the littlest one to give away. No one has ever done anything like that for Jefferson before, so when all his visitors leave and the door locks behind them, Jefferson lies on his bunk and cries. When Miss Emma comes to see him, Jefferson lets her hold him, and he tells her that he is strong.

When Vivian and Grant visit, Jefferson feels happy because a pretty woman kisses him and is kind. Jefferson is sorry when he cries upon hearing that Grant will not be at his execution—he is strong, but he is so grateful to Grant for making him feel like he is somebody important.

Jefferson takes his last shower and sits down to his last meal—he has requested okra, rice, and pork chops. It is the best meal his godmother has ever cooked. Sheriff Guidry asks Jefferson what he has been writing about, and Jefferson says that he has only been writing down his thoughts. The sheriff asks him if he thinks the police have treated him kindly and fairly, and Jefferson says yes. As the night continues, Jefferson can hear his own heart beating. As the sun comes up, he vows to remain strong.

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Chapter 28 Summary


Chapter 30 Summary