Illustration of a man visiting another man in jail

A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Chapter 4 Summary

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Grant takes Miss Emma and Tante Lou back to Miss Emma’s house. He tells his aunt that he will eat dinner in Bayonne, not at home. He knows his aunt feels insulted by his not eating her cooking, but he wants to get away to see his girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste.

Driving along the St. Charles River, Grant looks at the fishing wharves, docks, nightclubs, and restaurants that are there primarily for whites. Bayonne is a small town that is divided nearly in half between whites and colored people. The businesses, schools, and establishments for whites are at the front of town while those for colored are at the back.

Grant turns down an unlit road to get to the back of town, and soon he sees the Rainbow Club. Several cars are parked in front of the club, including the new white Cadillac that belongs to the club’s owner, Joe Claiborne. Grant goes in and asks Thelma, Joe’s wife, to serve him shrimp stew for dinner. Then Grant calls Vivian, who is trying to get her children settled in for dinner. Vivian does not sound happy to receive Grant’s call at such a hectic time, but he says he really needs to talk to her. Vivian agrees to try to get Dora to watch the children so she can come to the Rainbow Club.

Grant returns to the counter, and Thelma has his dinner waiting. He chats with her while he eats. When he finishes, he pays and goes to the back of the club to the bar area. Joe Claiborne asks Grant what he is doing at the bar on a Monday night, and Grant says he needs a drink.

When Vivian enters the bar, everyone notices her. Vivian is a beautiful woman but does not flaunt her looks. She orders a brandy, then she and Grant move to a table in the back corner where they can be alone. Grant asks Vivian if she wants to pack up and leave the area, but Vivian says it is a crazy idea—they are teachers and have made a commitment. Grant says he needs to leave this hellhole and go somewhere where he can feel like he is really living. Vivian says she cannot leave until she is legally divorced, not just separated, and Grant admits that he will always want her in his life. Someone chooses a record to play on the jukebox, and Grant asks Vivian for a dance. He tells Vivian that Miss Emma and his aunt want him to see Jefferson at the jail, and Vivian thinks it is a good idea. Grant fears that Jefferson might come to realize the injustice in his sentencing, but Vivian encourages Grant to reach out to Jefferson anyway. They plan to see each other on Friday night in Baton Rouge, where they can be alone.

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