Introductory Lecture and Objectives

A Lesson before Dying eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture 

Like the characters he so richly brings to life, author Ernest J. Gaines was born on a plantation in rural Louisiana. Gaines’s childhood home of Pointe Coupee Parish provided the inspiration for Bayonne, the setting of all his fiction. The author is perhaps most well-known for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Gaines’s fictional rendering of the life of a black woman who was born a slave and lived long enough to witness the rise of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Gaines’s work examines with compassion and honesty the black society of the South, conveying a warm sense of community and tradition, while exploring such difficult and painful subjects as the devastating effects of racism and the fissures within tight-knit black communities etched by conflicts of belief, religion, race, and class. 

The complexity and lifelike nature of Gaines’s characters issue in part from his boyhood experiences on the plantation and the biographical material from which he draws in crafting his novels. In the New York Times Book Review, Gaines credits “working in the fields, going fishing in the swamps with the older people, and, especially, listening to the people who came to my aunt’s house” with helping him develop characters that leap off the page and inspire readers to celebrate their successes and feel acutely their personal pain as if they were flesh-and-blood acquaintances and relatives. 

A Lesson Before Dying is set in the late 1940s. The inhabitants of the Cajun community in which the novel takes place notice the changes brought about by World War II, yet in many respects the social order has remained constant for hundreds of years. The novel opens with the conviction of Jefferson, a young black man, for the murder of a white store owner, a crime he did not commit. However, it is his attorney’s defense of Jefferson that is most notable. Jefferson, he says, is incapable of thought and planning, lacking even a modicum of intelligence. He tells the all-white jury, “What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn,” concluding that he “would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” The jury disagrees and sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution. This statement forever changes the trajectory and destiny of this small community. It sets Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, on a mission to make Jefferson a man before he dies. The person tasked with that mission is Grant Wiggins, a cowardly schoolteacher forever wondering if his only chance at a better life is leaving the imperfect and sometimes deeply flawed community in which he was raised. It will bring into fractious contact members of the black and white communities, the faithful and the cynical, children and elders. 

Gaines’s novel succeeds through a carefully wrought tension presented to readers. We balance precariously, straddling feelings of empathy and encouragement on the one hand and frustration and judgment on the other, when characters ignore or frustrate opportunities for education of all kinds: moral, spiritual, and academic. Gaines explores on multiple levels important themes that continue to resonate for us all: our understanding of justice and fairness, our obligations to one another, and our rights to personal happiness. He requires us to take a long look at what makes us human. A Lesson Before Dying concludes with tragedy but also with a profound sense of salvation, and ultimately, hope. 

By the end of the unit the student will be able to: 

1. Explain how Jefferson is transformed from a “hog” into a man. 

2. Describe the roots of Grant’s escapism and trace his journey of self-discovery. 

3. Identify the many layers and permutations of racism and prejudice and discuss their impact on individuals and on society. 

4. Describe the various strengths and styles of the strong women that impact Jefferson and Grant, including Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Vivian. 

5. Examine how Jefferson is “sacrificed” for the community. 

6. Discuss how the setting of the novel, both time and place, shapes the lives of the characters. 

7. Describe the different ways in which people can be educated. 

8. Discuss the legacy of familial and cultural traditions, good and bad, that are explored in the novel and assess the possibility of change as presented by the author.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom. 

Student Chapter Guide 

  • The Chapter Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Chapter Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace. 
  • Chapter Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content. 
  • Before Chapter Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension. 
  • Chapter Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novel that vary in difficulty. 

1. The vocabulary lists for each chapter are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them. 

2. Working from the lesson plan’s chapter vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each chapter that are most appropriate for them. 

Discussion Questions 

The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty. 

1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry. 

2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion. 

Multiple-Choice/Essay Test 

Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty. 

1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences. 

2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novel. 

3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.

Before students read through the book, point out to them the following themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed in the novel: 

  • Cultural traditions, upholding vs. breaking with traditions, rebirth 
  • Reality vs. perception (stereotypes, self-perception) 
  • The antebellum South 
  • Prejudice/racism/classism 
  • Fairness/justice 
  • Courage 
  • Dignity/respect 
  • Nature vs. nurture (rising above one’s circumstances) 
  • Freedom 
  • Power 
  • Empathy vs. sympathy 
  • Responsibility to the community vs. individual needs 
  • Faith 
  • Education 

Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs: 

  • Food 
  • The natural world 
  • Strong women 
  • Running away/escape 
  • Sacrifice 

A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have your students talk about how the author uses the following symbols and look for other symbols on their own as they read: 

  • Jesus/savior 
  • The butterfly 
  • Pichot’s back door 
  • Wood 
  • Hog 
  • The notebook 
  • The courthouse 
  • The marble, pocketknife, and gold chain 

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. Identify and discuss the various ways in which characters in the novel who are victims of prejudice pass on that intolerance by acting similarly toward others. If they are able to recognize how destructive prejudice is, why do they do so?

2. Of all the white characters in the book, Alcee Gropé and Paul, the deputy, consistently behave civilly toward blacks, specifically toward Jefferson. Compare and contrast these two characters and their roles in the novel.

3. Jefferson is characterized as being almost childlike in his thinking. How does this aspect of his character further the intent of the novel? Using examples from the novel, demonstrate how Jefferson is represented as an innocent by the author.

4. Compare and contrast Jefferson to the character of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

5. Why does Gaines write the story from Grant’s point of view? What themes is he able to explore by doing so and in what particular ways?

6. Explicate Chapter 29, “Jefferson’s Diary,” tracing the themes and ideas evident in Jefferson’s writing.

7. Describe how the era in which the novel is set affects the events of the novel. If the story were moved twenty years earlier or later, would the same themes still resonate? Could the novel be set in contemporary society and remain similar? Why or why not?

8. Explain, using examples from the book, what Grant...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Chapter 1


babbling: jabbering, chatting

bales: large bundles of hay or straw

Bill of Rights: the first ten amendments of the Constitution

bystander: an onlooker, a witness

clean-cropped: shaved, or with hair cut very short

conspiracy: a shared, secret plan to commit an unlawful act

court-appointed attorney: legal the attorney representing the defendant in a criminal prosecution whose fee is paid by the state

gaping: staring

immobile: unmoving

merely: only

modicum: a small measure, a bit

murder in the first degree: legal murder that was planned beforehand and may have been committed in conjunction with another criminal act such as robbery

nannan: Creole godmother

prosecutor: legal the attorney who initiates a legal prosecution; the attorney for the people

racketeers: persons who engage in dishonest business dealings

trait: characteristic

verdict: the final ruling by a jury in a civil or criminal case

Study Questions

1. As the novel opens, what are the narrator’s comments related to the trial and his involvement? What mood is conveyed by the narrator’s attitude toward the proceedings?

The narrator says while he did not attend the trial, still he “was there.” While the reader cannot be certain as to whether the narrator actually attended the trial, there is a sense of doomed inevitability in the narrator’s saying he did not need to enter the courtroom to know the outcome of the proceedings: “I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be.” All the black folks knew the outcome, we infer, including the narrator and the defendant’s godmother, because a “white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die.”

2. According to the defendant’s story at trial, where was he going when Brother and Bear picked him up, and why did they do so? When the defendant told Brother and Bear “he didn’t have a solitary dime, it was then that Brother and Bear started talking credit, saying that old Gropé should not mind crediting them a pint.” What reasons did they have for thinking Gropé should offer them credit?

The defendant’s story is that he was on his way to the “White Rabbit Bar and Lounge” when Brother and Bear picked him up and offered to give him a ride, presumably to borrow money from him with which to buy liquor. When the defendant said he didn’t have any money, the two men averred that “since [Gropé] knew them well, and he knew that the grinding season was coming soon,” he should let them take liquor on credit, knowing “they would be able to pay him back then.”

3. Describe Alcee Gropé. How did he behave toward the defendant before the crime was committed? How did he behave toward the other men?

Alcee Gropé is the “old storekeeper” who minded the store where the men went to buy liquor. Though he was white, he was cordial, even friendly, to the defendant, whom we now know is named Jefferson. He asked after Jefferson’s godmother when the men entered the store. “Jefferson told him his nannan was all right. Old Gropé nodded his head. ‘You tell her for me I say hello,’ he told Jefferson.” However, Gropé did not “like” nor “trust” the other two men, because he “could see that the boys had already been drinking, and he became suspicious.” He refused to give them the liquor because they didn’t have enough money: “Money is slack everywhere. You bring the money, you get your wine.”

4. How and why did the shooting start? What was the outcome?

When Bear moved to go behind the counter and take the...

(The entire section is 1651 words.)

Chapter 2


arithmetic: mathematics

boulders: large rocks

cane: sugarcane; plants from which sugar is derived

crabgrass: a weedy grass with creeping or sprawling stems that root freely at the nodes

grinding (season): the time when sugarcane is processed to produce sugar and molasses

illegible: unreadable

jimsonweeds: tall poisonous weeds related to the potato

Parain: Creole godfather

the quarter slang: an area or district in a town inhabited by a certain population, here non-whites

satchel: a shoulder bag, a schoolbag

Tante: Creole Aunt


(The entire section is 1003 words.)

Chapter 3


antebellum: occurring or existing before a war, especially the American Civil War

chauffeur: a person employed to drive a private automobile

gingham: a lightweight cotton checked cloth

icebox: a refrigerator

kerchief: a handkerchief; a piece of fabric used to cover the head or worn tied around the neck

pin-striped: made of a fabric with very narrow stripes woven into the cloth

Study Questions

1. Where are Grant, Tante Lou, and Miss Emma headed in Grant’s car? Why?

They are going to Henri Pichot’s house to talk with him about Jefferson. Pichot is the brother-in-law of the...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Chapter 4


jukebox: a coin-operated machine that plays selected musical recordings

parish seat: the administrative center for a district in Louisiana, equivalent to a county seat in other states

pending: incomplete, waiting

slaughterhouse: a place where animals are slaughtered for food

wharves: places to which a ship may be moored to load or unload cargo

Study Questions

1. What does Grant say he is not going to do that insults his aunt so deeply?

In a deeper context, what does food represent in the novel? When she says she is going home to cook, he replies that he will eat in town. Food clearly operates as a symbol of...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

Chapter 5


attain: to reach

averted: avoided, stopped

corrugated: marked by a wavy surface

grits: coarsely ground cornmeal boiled with water or milk

innate: inborn, natural

khaki: a stiff brown fabric

petrified: terrified, scared

plaits: braids

primer: the beginning grade in an elementary school; a class equivalent to kindergarten

pulpit: a raised platform in a church from which the preacher delivers sermons

tyrant: an oppressor, a bully

ventilation: the circulation of air

Study Questions

1. Explain the significance of Grant’s saying of his students, “I knew, too, which of them would...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Chapter 6


accord: agreement

aggravate: to make worse, to irritate

cynicism: a basic and rigorous distrust of human nature and motives

diploma: a certificate awarded for completion of a course of study

maneuver: a movement or series of moves requiring skill and care

Study Questions

1. Why has Inez been crying?

Louis is trying to bet Pichot a case of whiskey that Grant “can’t get [Jefferson] ready to die.” She tells Grant, Pichot “ain’t betting ’gainst you. He ain’t betting on you neither.”

2. Describe what transpires when Edna Guidry enters the kitchen. How would...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Chapter 7


cattlemen: people who raise cattle for a living

clasped: held, clutched

crude: rough, basic

drilling: asking a lot of questions quickly

grimy: dirty, filthy

hide-the-switch: a game in which children search for a hidden branch and the first player to discover the branch is allowed to strike another child with it before hiding it again for the next round

humanitarianism: a belief that people should work to better the lives of others

hygiene: the science of maintaining health and/or cleanliness

mustard greens: the leaves of the mustard plant eaten as a cooked vegetable

precede: to go before

recitation: a presentation, a reading


(The entire section is 620 words.)

Chapter 8


bastard: a person born to unmarried parents

bony: thin, skinny

contempt: disdain, disrespect

cowardice: weakness, fear

Creole: a person of mixed European and black descent (originally born in the South of French or Spanish immigrants)

frail: fragile, weak

grudgingly: reluctantly, unwillingly

Ku Klux Klan: a social organization that advocates extreme racist and anti-Semitic beliefs and actions; formed by white men in the South after the American Civil War and noted for acts of terrorism and intimidation

manslaughter: legal the crime of killing a human being without malicious forethought or planning

mulatto: a...

(The entire section is 874 words.)

Chapter 9


chinos: pants made from a twill (khaki) fabric

clabber: soured, clotted milk or cream

coveralls: a full-length protective outer garment

deputies: assistants who exercise full authority in the absence of their superior officers

ice picks: sharp, pointed implements with handles used to break ice into small pieces

long johns: a warming underlayer with closely fitted legs that extend to the wearer’s ankles

quartered: kept

Study Questions

1. Who travels to Bayonne to see Jefferson?

Miss Emma and Grant go; Tante Lou stays behind.

2. Characterize the mood...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Chapter 10


kin: family, relatives

Study Questions

1. What is the routine that each subsequent visit to Jefferson follows?

Grant and Emma arrive, and their food and Grant’s pockets are searched. They are led to the cell and begged for food and change by the other inmates. Emma promises they can eat the food Jefferson doesn’t eat, and Grant gives them change. Jefferson has no more to say than he did during their first visit: “Jefferson always lay on the bunk, either looking at the ceiling or facing the wall.” Each visit ends the same way: “Each time, Miss Emma left the cell crying, and both times she told the young deputy to give the...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapter 11


chiseled: carved, etched

patronizing: acting in a superior manner or attitude toward someone

trusty: a convict considered trustworthy and allowed special priveleges

youmans: Jefferson’s word for humans

Study Questions

1. What is Jefferson’s view from his cell? What is his attitude toward it?

The view is very limited: “From the cell, all you could see were the yellow leaves on the sycamore tree and the pale-blue sky.” Jefferson seems to take quite an interest in the view, perhaps remembering the natural world outside and contrasting that with the artificiality of the cage that contains...

(The entire section is 322 words.)

Chapter 12


Jax: a brand of beer

universality: applying to all of humankind

Study Questions

1. Why does Grant go to the Rainbow Club instead of to Emma’s?

He hasn’t yet thought of a plausible lie to tell her about how things went with Jefferson.

2. Grant describes the conversation he hears in the bar: “Jackie this and Jackie that. Nothing about any of the other players, nothing about the Brooklyn Dodgers as a team. Only Jackie. Jackie this and Jackie that.” To whom does “Jackie” refer, and why are the patrons of the bar so interested in him?

“Jackie” refers to Jackie...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapter 13


backsliders: people who fall back into previous undesirable patterns of behavior

christened: baptized

determination: willpower, resolve

gravity: significance, importance

inquisitor: a person who asks questions

rack: a torture device once used to elicit information

shrill: piercing, harsh

theological: relating to the study of God or religion

uppity: snobbish, arrogant

Study Questions

1. Why does Lou go to church and Grant does not?

When Grant returned from college he told Lou he “no longer believed” and didn’t want to be pressured to attend church. Whether Grant means simply...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Chapter 14


alighted: landed on

boxcars: enclosed railroad freight cars

brassiere: a bra; a woman’s undergarment

chifforobe: a type of dresser with drawers and hanging space for clothes

derrick: a crane with a movable pivoted arm for moving or lifting heavy weights

headland: a strip of unplowed land at the ends of crop rows or near a fence

kettle: pot; teakettle

pastoral: related to rural life, often idealized

rustic: rough; lacking amenities or luxury

whorish: in the manner of a prostitute

Study Questions

1. What pictures are displayed in Grant’s room, and what do they suggest about him and his...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Chapter 15


caste: a social class of people

dishpan: a large basin where dishes are washed

pocketbook: a handbag

walking Indian file: walking in a single line

Study Questions

1. What is Vivian doing at her school that she reminds Grant he should do?

It is nearly Christmas time, and she is planning the students’ Christmas program.

2. What caused the dissolution of Vivian’s marriage and still threatens to cause issues between Vivian’s and Grant’s kin?

While at the university in New Orleans, Vivian met and married a dark-skinned boy in secret. When she finally took...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Chapter 16


crepe paper: thin, crinkled paper used for decoration

polo shirt: a casual cotton shirt with a collar and several buttons at the neck.

slop: waste scraps and garbage fed to hogs

Study Questions

1. What is the boys’ job to do in preparation for the Christmas pageant?

They are to go and harvest a Christmas tree. Grant asks if they might find a pine this time: “The year before, the boys had brought in a small oak tree. They had dragged it through the mud all the way from the pasture, and by the time it got to the school, it had lost many of its leaves.” After the girls washed and decorated it, however, Grant admits it...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Chapter 17


inflamed: reddened, irritated

precedent: an earlier event or action regarded as an example for consideration in subsequent similar circumstances

shackles: chains and irons used to restrain someone

stock: the descendants from one family

vexing: irritating, annoying

Study Questions

1. What change occurs in Grant before the next time he visits Jefferson? How does he explain it? Why is it important?

Grant no longer feels “angry inside” and has let the anger go. Grant tries to pass off the importance of his accepting his role with Jefferson: “Maybe it was the Christmas season and the children rehearsing...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Chapter 18


inflection: a change in pitch, loudness, or tone of a voice

wool-gathered: slang confused

Study Questions

1. What does meeting in the dayroom do for Emma? Does it seem to affect Jefferson?

Meeting in the dayroom normalizes the situation a bit more, humanizing Jefferson. Instead of meeting in a cage, the reverend, Lou, Miss Emma and Jefferson sit at a table like people.

‘This go’n be his place, and this go’n be my place,’ she said. My aunt said that Miss Emma, still humming to herself, passed her hand over the table to make sure there was no dust, no...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

Chapter 19


alabaster: a white stone used to make vases and decorative objects

ascending: climbing upward

beseeching: begging, pleading

coon: slang an offensive term used to describe a black person

crokersacks: burlap bags or gunnysacks

drizzle: to rain lightly

gayer: happier, livelier

inclement: harsh, severe

peculiarity: an odd or unusual feature or habit

slicker: a raincoat

snickered: laughed, sneered

suspended: hung

Study Questions

1. Describe the quarter as Christmas approaches.

It is bleak. People living in the quarter have become isolated...

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Chapter 20


bayous: marshy outlets of lakes or rivers; swamps

Lent: the period preceding Easter that in the Christian church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence

ragball: a ball made from rags used for playing games

rattan: woven from the tough stems of a type of palm

Study Questions

1. What news are Grant and the reverend to deliver to Miss Emma?

They have set a date for the execution.

2. In what small ways are the minister and Grant afforded respect at the Pichot house? What might be behind the change in the sheriff’s behavior?

The sheriff does not keep...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapter 21


Christian Brothers: a brand of brandy

galoshes: rain boots

mosquito bar: mosquito netting draped over a box-shaped frame

Study Questions

1. What reception does Grant receive when he stops by Miss Emma’s house? Who stands by him?

Miss Emma does not acknowledge him but lies in bed, staring into space. Grant can feel the palpable disappointment and anger at his cowardice from the reverend and Lou. Grant says that when Lou heard him talking with Miss Emma, Lou “turned from the stove to look at me. I could see in her face that she and Reverend Ambrose had had a conversation about me, and he had probably said some things...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapter 22

Study Questions

1. Why does Paul search the food Grant brings to the prison? How does Paul feel about searching it?

Paul doesn’t want to search any of it, and Grant can see that in his eyes. However, Paul is under the control of the chief deputy, who insists it be done, probably more for humiliation and control than for actual safety concerns.

2. When Grant offers to buy Jefferson special treats, what does Jefferson say he wants, and why? What change does it signal?

Jefferson wants his “last supper” to be “a whole gallona ice cream.” Grant sees “a slight smile come on his face, and it was not a bitter smile....

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Chapter 23

Study Questions

1. What occurs during Miss Emma, Lou, and the reverend’s visit to prison following Jefferson’s receiving the radio?

Because Jefferson is unable to bring the radio to the dayroom, he won’t leave his cell. Lou helps Miss Emma move the food to his cell, coming to him instead. However, Jefferson won’t interact with any of them and remains listening to the radio while lying on his bunk. It becomes clear one of them turns off the radio during the visit as Jefferson angrily turns it back on when they leave. The sheriff becomes angry with the group, and wonders if the radio is causing trouble. He tells them to work with “that teacher” who has a way with...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Chapter 24


brogans: stout ankle-high leather shoes

filé: sassafras powder used as a thickening agent

forefathers: ancestors

gumbo: an often spicy Southern stew containing meat or seafood and okra

Study Questions

1. What does Grant buy at the drugstore for Jefferson?

Grant buys him a notebook and a pencil so that he can record his thoughts and write down questions to ask Grant later when he visits him.

2. With Paul not at the prison that day, what differences does Grant note?

The chief deputy is racist and rude; he exhibits behavior meant to demonstrate his authority...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Chapter 25

Study Questions

1. When Grant goes to the Rainbow Club after the visit, what does he want to share with Vivian? What does he want to omit? What does his omission imply?

Grant wants to tell her that he was communicating with Jefferson and Emma. He wants to share how they had “eaten the gumbo though it was cold, and how his nannan was so proud.” He wants to tell her that Jefferson took the pecans, the peanuts, the tablet, and the pencil with him when he was taken back to his cell. In short, he wants to tell Vivian that he is succeeding in making Jefferson a man. He does not want to tell her that the reverend is envious of his success with Jefferson. Grant is not happy that the minister...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Chapter 26


guillotine: a machine used to cut off people’s heads

prejudiced: biased, holding untrue (often racist) thoughts

Study Questions

1. How did the fight end?

Claiborne hit Grant because he wouldn’t stop fighting, and he threatened to shoot the others.

2. What does Grant tell Vivian in regard to why he fought the men?

He tells Vivian he had reached his limit: “I had to do it, honey. I had to. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

3. What news does Vivian share with Grant? Why is it significant?

Her husband won’t grant her a divorce unless she agrees that he can see their...

(The entire section is 190 words.)

Chapter 27


gump: slang idiot

poled: affixed bean plants to poles for support

wakes: gatherings to mourn the dead

Study Questions

1. What does Reverend Ambrose discuss with Grant? What is Grant’s response?

The reverend is concerned that Jefferson’s soul is not saved. He has come to ask for Grant’s help, which Grant refuses to give, saying again that religion is the minister’s territory.

2. Ambrose tells Grant, “You far from being educated. You learned your reading, writing, and ’rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing.” What does he mean?

He means that Grant has gone to school, but there is...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

Chapter 28

Study Questions

1. What has Jefferson been writing about in his notebook?

In his writing, he is trying to differentiate himself from a hog.

2. Why has Grant gone to see Jefferson?

He is trying to do as Ambrose asked. Grant asks Jefferson to pray so that he can get into heaven and be with his nannan. He asks him to listen to the minister and to be better than the example Grant is setting for him.

3. When Jefferson argues he has never had any earthly possession to give up to enter heaven, what does Grant say he can give?

Grant now knows “there is something greater than possessions—and that is love.” He asks Jefferson to...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Chapter 29

Study Questions

1. What is different about this chapter? From whose point of view is the chapter written?

This chapter is a transcript of Jefferson’s diary, the thoughts he wrote down in the notebook Grant gave him. The punctuation and spelling reflect Jefferson’s limited abilities with language. Though

it’s a diary, the chapter takes the form of a series of letters, since Jefferson addresses Grant directly throughout.

2. According to Jefferson, what does Miss Emma say he needs to do to make her life worth living?

He is to ask to be with God when the time comes for him to die and to mean it with all his heart and soul so that he will go...

(The entire section is 746 words.)

Chapter 30


clippers: scissors, cutters

cush-cush: fried or boiled crumbled cornbread served as a cereal

generator: a machine by which mechanical energy is changed into electrical energy

mortician: an undertaker

tarpaulin: a covering; a tarp

Study Questions

1. The opening of this chapter echoes the beginning of the first chapter. How are the point of view and style similar?

As in the first chapter, this chapter tells the story primarily from Grant’s point of view, but other points of view are employed to establish events Grant does not witness. Stylistically similar to when the reader learns what occurred in Grope’s store during the...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

Chapter 31


abreast: up-to-date

brute: physical

cypresses: evergreen trees

sharecropper: a farmer who raises crops on someone else’s land and keeps part of the crop

Spanish moss: a plant with long gray strands of foliage that hang from the branches of trees

tranquil: at peace, calm

Study Questions

1. Grant goes outside at school and says, “Somewhere across the field I could hear the sound of a tractor. A white sharecropper must have been plowing the ground.” Why does Grant assume the sharecropper is white?

No black people were working that day out of respect for Jefferson, including those who worked for “Henri Pichot or...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. As Grant waits to hear about Jefferson’s execution, what appears as a sign that he can say goodbye?

A. telegram

B. butterfly

C. thundercloud

D. raccoon

E. wind

2. Which does Dr. Joseph Morgan do as part of his inspection of Grant’s students?

A. He inspects their feet.

B. He asks them to do math problems.

C. He inspects their teeth.

D. He looks inside their desks.

E. He gives them used textbooks from the white school.

3. Who says this after Jefferson’s execution: “I don’t ever want to...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. Describe the three strong female characters that play important roles in Grant’s life—Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Vivian—and explain how each contributes toward Grant’s transformation. Support your discussion with specific examples from the novel.

We first meet Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, in court; she is described as massive and “as immobile as a great stone or as one of our oak or cypress stumps.” During the trial she patiently endured and “never got up once to get water or go to the bathroom down in the basement.” All her attention was focused on Jefferson. Patience and endurance are her hallmarks, through which she eventually convinces Grant to do a series of tasks he desperately would like...

(The entire section is 3926 words.)