Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 31 Summary

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Before classes begin, Grant tells his students that there will be no recess period and that they are to go home early to eat so they can return to school by a quarter to twelve. At exactly twelve o’clock, the children will have to get on their knees until word comes from the jail. Grant wants silence. He assigns Odessa to teach the primer and first grades while Irene teaches the second and third grades. The older children open their books to study, and Grant tells them that he will test them later. Grant cannot concentrate; he takes his ruler and goes outside. There are no clouds in the sky, and no one is out working in the fields or sitting on a porch. Tante Lou and others are at Miss Emma’s house. Grant walks to the back of the church and reminisces on his school days when he played ragball with the other children. He wonders if Jefferson ever hit a home run at ragball, and then he thinks about Lily Green, who used to hit them. She was tragically killed before she turned twenty years old—a wasted life. Grant wonders what life will be like tomorrow and afterward; things will never be the same.

Just before eleven o’clock, Grant sees the reverend’s car drive up the quarter on its way to Bayonne. Grant wants to run away and forget all memory of this place. He wonders what one does when he knows he only has one more hour to live. Grant knows that Reverend Ambrose is much braver than he is because he would not have had the strength to stand with Jefferson during his final moments. Grant hopes Jefferson will be brave too, and he puts his faith in Jefferson.

When the children return from lunch, Grant tells them that they must get on their knees and pray quietly to themselves. Grant walks up and down the quarter trying not to think, but how can he get these thoughts out of his head? He wonders what Jefferson is doing at this moment; he questions why he would not stand beside Jefferson and why he is not kneeling with the children. Grant sits alone under a pecan tree and waits.

Grant refuses to believe in the same God or the laws of men who judge each other so harshly and commit murder in the name of justice. A yellow butterfly with dark spots on its wings lands on a patch of blue grass not far away, and Grant wonders what has attracted the butterfly to land on that spot. It takes flight, and Grant watches it until it disappears. At that moment, he knows it is over. Grant walks back to the road—he will wait until he hears official news of Jefferson’s death.

Shortly after, an unknown car drives slowly up the road—it is Paul. He gets out and hands the notebook to Grant; he says Jefferson wanted him to have it. Grant goes back into the schoolhouse to relieve the children and then comes back outside to talk to Paul. Eyes intense, Paul tells Grant that Jefferson was the strongest man in the room. Everyone else had someone to lean on, but Jefferson walked alone and told Reverend Ambrose to let Miss Emma know that he walked. Paul says that he will never forget the sound of the generator. Paul tells Grant that he saw the transformation in Jefferson and would like to know what thoughts he wrote about in the notebook. Paul tells Grant that he wants to be his friend and to never forget this day—the two men shake hands. When Grant goes back into the schoolhouse, he is crying.

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Chapter 30 Summary