A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapter 16

Summary

On Monday, as Grant is about to leave school for the day, one of his students informs him that Miss Emma wants him to stop by on his way home. When he arrives at Miss Emma's, he finds that Tante Lou and Rev. Ambrose are with her. After offering him some coffee, Miss Emma asks him why he lied to her concerning his last visit with Jefferson. Instead of admitting that he lied to protect her feelings, Grant insists that he told the truth, even after Miss Emma tells him that she had to hit Jefferson.

Several days later, Grant overhears Tante Lou and Miss Eloise discussing Miss Emma's last visit with Jefferson and learns that Miss Emma slapped Jefferson for repeating his degrading act of imitating a hog. The scene then shifts back to Miss Emma's kitchen, where Rev. Ambrose and Tante Lou are doing their best to comfort Miss Emma, who insists that Grant go back to visit Jefferson.

Analysis

Much of this chapter focuses on the conversation between Grant and Miss Emma concerning Jefferson's behavior. Here again, Gaines reveals some important aspects of Grant's character through dialogue. Note, for example, that when Miss Emma tells him that she had to hit Jefferson, Grant doesn't ask why. Instead, he remains silent, hoping to avoid further confrontation. Also note that Grant's comment concerning Jefferson — "I do everything I know how to do to keep people like him from going there [to prison]" — speaks volumes. But does he? If anything, Grant's use of corporal punishment and ridicule in the classroom in order to control his students helps perpetuate the system of institutional racism because he does nothing to try to motivate his students or help them transcend the brutal reality of their limited environment.

By referring to Jefferson as "people like him," Grant implies that Jefferson is "less than" or "different from" other people. He is, in effect, denying any connection between himself and Jefferson, thereby attempting to absolve himself of any responsibility in the matter. In short, he seems totally oblivious to the fact that Jefferson is not only one of his former students and a friend of the family, but he is also a fellow black man and a member of the black community — a person who has experienced the same kind of racism and bigotry that Grant himself has experienced. He feels no racial or communal kinship toward Jefferson. In essence, he sees himself as being in a totally different class.

Grant's abdication of his responsibility toward Jefferson, a fellow human being, is reminiscent of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. After Cain killed his brother Abel, God asked Cain where Abel was. Cain replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The expression has come to be used in any situation in which a person abdicates responsibility for another individual.

The chapter also makes an important statement about the nature of truth and lies: Omitting or withholding information is equivalent to telling lies, and that kind of "truth is not accuracy."

Glossary

Mardi Gras an annual festival renowned for its lavish costumes and decadent party atmosphere, held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras (French for "fat Tuesday") is also called Shrove Tuesday. Traditionally a celebration of feasting before the beginning of Lent, it has now become secularized.

Roast Nyers Roasting Ears (Of Corn).

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