A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapter 30

Summary

The portable electric chair ("Gruesome Gerty") is brought to town and townspeople react to its presence. Final preparations are made for Jefferson's execution.

Analysis

This chapter echoes the opening paradox of being there and not being there. Anticipation of Jefferson's imminent execution is palpable, but Jefferson is not a major part of this chapter; Gruesome Gerty, however, is a major character as it winds its way through town in a journey reminiscent of the Way of the Cross. The execution will occur between noon and 3 P.M. on Friday, the same time-frame as that of Jesus's crucifixion, another parallel to the Christian drama of human salvation. We can almost see the faith of Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Rev. Ambrose being played out at Jefferson's end as he experiences death and rebirth at the same time.

Note that, in portraying Gruesome Gerty as one of the key players in the unfolding drama of Jefferson's life, the author uses personification — a linguistic device that attributes human characteristics to inanimate objects. In effect, Gerty is depicted as the personification of evil. As she is paraded down the streets of Bayonne, she strikes fear into the hearts of its citizens. We can surmise that part of the fear is due to their guilt, as Gerty forces them to admit that, by not taking a stand against a racist system that perpetuates crime and violence, they are all responsible for Jefferson's death. Gerty's ominous presence and the awful noise from her generator also force the reader to focus on the reality of capital punishment and to consider the mentality of the people involved in planning and carrying out the execution.

Here again, fact blends with fiction: In a 1994 interview, Gaines noted that Louisiana really did have a portable electric chair that was transported throughout the state and used for executions, much as he describes it here. The executioner's insistence that the proper procedures be followed to prepare for the execution is also significant. In the same 1994 interview, Gaines recalls a particularly gruesome case in 1947 in which a young man was sentenced to the electric chair twice because "the chair had failed to work properly the first time." As Gaines' research indicates, capital punishment by electrocution was widely practiced in the South during the 1940s, a fact that has been extensively documented.

Chapter 30 provides a sharp contrast to Chapter 19, in which the black community gathers at the plantation church/school to demonstrate their support for Jefferson. We realize that, whereas the black community mourns Jefferson's impending execution as a tragedy, the white community generally views it as a distasteful but routine matter that must be taken care of to guarantee their safety. And while the black community views the execution as yet another instance of a defenseless black man dying at the hands of his white oppressors, the white community views Jefferson's execution as a necessary evil. As the store clerk explains to her son, the sheriff "just had to put an old bad nigger away."

But regardless of their differing perspectives, we realize that both blacks and whites are affected by the impending execution, which is on everyone's mind. As they perform their morning rituals, both Sheriff Guidry and Rev. Ambrose are consumed with thoughts of Jefferson, while the executioner, Paul, and the other prisoners are also forced to play their parts.

Like Chapter 20, in which Mr. Farrell Jarreau seems to physically shrink after hearing that the date for Jefferson's execution has been set, this chapter reaffirms the theme of the interconnectedness of human beings.

In another foreshadowing of the Civil Rights movement, on this day of execution, it is the white deputy Paul who connects with Jefferson in his last hours, who strives to make his time easier, and who accepts the items that Jefferson is leaving for Grant and Mr. Pichot. Paul represents the impact that Jefferson's transformation is having on the white community. Although Paul turns down Jefferson's gift of the radio, he makes it instead a gift to Jefferson's fellow inmates, acknowledging his shared humanity with the prison inmates. Paul does accept the gift of a marble, affirming his friendship and respect for Jefferson and revealing Jefferson's friendship and respect for Paul. Jefferson appreciates the fact that Paul will "be there" for him as he's executed, uniting black and white in this tragedy.

Glossary

a bowl of cush-cush a type of cereal; often spelled couscous, a kind of semolina.

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