A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapter 31

Summary

To show their respect for Jefferson, the people of the quarter have agreed to refrain from working on the day of his execution. While Grant waits for word from the courthouse, he has his students get down on their knees and pray silently. Finally, Paul arrives to tell Grant that the execution is over, that Jefferson faced his death with courage and dignity, and that his last words were, "Tell Nannan I walked." He gives Jefferson's diary to Grant and offers him his friendship. Grant accepts the diary, returns to his classroom to share the news with his students, and cries openly over his friend's death.

Analysis

As Grant awaits the news of Jefferson's execution, he thinks about his own days as a student in the little country church where he is now the teacher. He remembers playing ragball with his friends and notes that most of them have moved away and many died at an early age. He also thinks about Jefferson, silently asks his forgiveness for not encouraging his faith, and chastises himself for not having the courage to witness the execution. Suddenly, his thoughts are interrupted by an unusual sight: A yellow butterfly alights briefly on a hill of bull grass, then flies off toward the quarter. As he watches the butterfly, he realizes that the execution is finally over. Consequently, when Paul arrives to deliver the news of Jefferson's death, he accepts it calmly. He also accepts Jefferson's diary and Paul's offer of friendship.

This chapter contains four highly symbolic scenes that provide a poignant commentary on the events surrounding Jefferson's execution. The first scene involves the image of the church sinking into the ground, despite repeated efforts to rebuild its foundation.

Note that this image is juxtaposed against the tragic image of wasted young lives and of Henri Pichot's house, "sitting on its foundation high above the ground."In effect, the church is literally losing ground because it lacks a firm foundation of faith. It has lost the ability to save the children of the community. Conversely, the Pichot mansion, built on a solid foundation of Southern culture and tradition, is able to withstand the elements.

The second scene involves the yellow butterfly. Grant realizes that this is no ordinary butterfly, since it does not seek the fragrance of the flowers in Pichot's yard. Instead, it alights briefly on a hill of bull grass and then flies off toward the quarter. This scene assumes profound significance when we recall that the color yellow often symbolizes enlightenment, and note, too, the repetition of the concept of "light" to describe the butterfly's movements. Jefferson's transformation from a hog to a man to a spiritual essence is complete.

The third scene focuses on Grant's conversation with Paul as a witness to the execution. Paul's frequently reciting of "I'm a witness" and his telling Grant about Jefferson's last minutes parallel the Apostle Paul's witness to the Christian message: "Tell them he was the bravest man in that room today. I'm a witness, Grant Wiggins. Tell them so." Grant suggests that Paul come back one day and tell them himself, which Paul accepts as "an honor." Thus we see the impact of this event in black history on the white community, and Grant and Paul, black and white, collaborate in spreading this human story.

The fourth scene focuses on Grant's subsequent return to his classroom, where he faces his students and starts to cry openly, making no effort to hide his tears. Note that, at this point, he has relinquished his Westcott ruler, indicating that, through his relationship with Jefferson, he, too, has been transformed from a bitter, cynical man to a caring, compassionate teacher.

Jefferson's last words — "Tell Nannan I walked" — are a tribute to his godmother and a testament to the profound impact Grant has had on his life: Grant has not only enabled Jefferson to stand, but to walk. Grant's impact on Jefferson is reflected in Jefferson's impact on the community, which has transformed the tragedy of his death into a celebration of life.

Glossary

a patch of white lilies White lilies, also known as Easter lilies, are generally associated with the resurrection of Christ.

I am a slave. Grant realizes that he is still mentally enslaved. Even though he is physically free, he has not acted responsibly. When he is finally able to cry, we realize that he has gained his freedom through Jefferson's death (Jefferson's death is Grant's redemption and deliverance). We also realize that he has learned the lesson Rev. Ambrose has been trying to teach him: A man can stand and kneel at the same time.

The driver drove slowly to keep down the dust. Here, dust symbolizes death.

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