A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapter 29

Summary

In his diary, Jefferson records his thoughts and feelings as he awaits his impending execution.

Analysis

Throughout history, letters and diaries have been important media for recording social and political history. Written primarily to record a writer's personal feelings, activities, reflections, and observations, these documents generally demonstrate a candid honesty and openness not found in writings created for publication. Examples include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham" (written on scraps of paper provided to King by the jail's black trustees) and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Jefferson's diary is his legacy. Having no land, property, children, or material wealth to leave behind, his diary is the single testament to his life. By recording his thoughts and feelings as he awaits execution, Jefferson, in effect, writes himself into history. His diary is a primary source historical document that provides a personal account of his life as a young black man growing up on a Southern plantation and now as an inmate on Louisiana's death row. Since it records his story in his own voice, Jefferson's diary can be likened to the early slave narratives, stories written by former enslaved Africans who recounted their harrowing experiences. Examples of slave narratives include Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Despite his grim circumstances, Jefferson focuses the majority of his entries on positive events: the routine visits from Miss Emma, Tante Lou, Rev. Ambrose, and Grant, and the surprise visits from Grant's students and the people from the quarter. Since he has so little time left, we can gauge the significance of the events he records by the length of his entries. Consequently, we can surmise that some of his most significant events center on his visits with the children and the "old folks." We can also surmise that he treasures his childhood memories and the little gifts he receives from others that make him feel loved, especially Vivian's kiss and Bok's marble. Although Jefferson is aware of Sheriff Guidry's sinister motive for giving him "the little pearl handled knife," he doesn't dwell on this incident. Instead, he details his final visit with his godmother and his "last supper," which, as he requested, is not junk food (a gallon of vanilla ice cream) but soul food (a special home-cooked meal prepared by his nannan). Note that for dessert, he has a little ice cream and a moon pie (a chocolate-covered chocolate cookie "sandwich" with a marshmallow cream filling). Since these are foods he loved as a child, we realize that, although he has matured mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, he still retains a part of his childhood. We can also surmise that despite his harrowing experience, he has retained some part of his childlike love and trust. In effect, Jefferson has achieved a more balanced outlook on life that encompasses both his childhood dreams and the reality of his adult life.

In his diary, Jefferson expresses intimate feelings he has not been able previously to articulate, such as his love for his nannan, his affection for Grant, and his fear of dying. Alone with his private thoughts, he is able, for the first time, to acknowledge his part in the tragic events surrounding Alcee Gropé's murder and to accept responsibility for his actions, admitting that he had a choice that fateful night. He realizes that he was not only guilty of being "in the wrong place at the wrong time," as his defense attorney points out in Chapter 1, but he was also guilty of relinquishing his right to choose or, alternatively, of making the wrong choice. Consequently, he realizes that there was a point in time when, had he made a different choice, his life might have taken a different turn. Once he is able to accept this fact, he is able to release his hatred toward his captors and to accept his fate with grace and dignity.

In reading Jefferson's diary, we find him to be a sensitive, intelligent, introspective man (not unlike Mr. Farrell Jarreau) whose potential for a full and meaningful life has been stunted by poverty and racism. We see him not only as an uneducated, incarcerated black male, but as someone's son and someone's friend. We see him not only as yet another statistic of crime and violence, but as a hard-working, fun-loving young man who enjoys simple pleasures such as listening to music and reveling in the beauty of nature, someone who loves children and enjoys eating his nannan's home cooking.

We also realize the impact of Grant's thoughtful but seemingly simple gift: By giving Jefferson a pencil and a note pad, he has also given him the gift of language and self-expression, which we have seen as an important theme in this book. Jefferson has an opportunity to leave behind him a lesson and a legacy for future generations, becoming a part of history in the lives of ordinary people. Through his diary, which documents his life as a vital and contributing member of his community, Jefferson has become an everyday hero whose story deserves to be told and who has assumed the personal responsibility for telling his story in his own words. Jefferson has not achieved the status and renown of a Joe Louis or a Jackie Robinson, but by reaching out and reconnecting with his community, he has learned to stand and to reclaim his manhood despite a dehumanizing environment bent on destroying his very soul. As a result, Jefferson's life stands as a testament to the ongoing struggle for love, acceptance, and survival in an often lonely and hostile world.

Glossary

bloodweed another name for the blood lily (native to Africa), a deep red plant of the amaryllis family.

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