A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 1-4

Summary

The novel opens with a courtroom scene, as the narrator — later identified as Grant Wiggins, a black teacher at the local plantation school — recounts the trial of Jefferson, a twenty-one-year-old uneducated black man accused of robbery and murder. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Jefferson is innocent, despite the circumstantial evidence that places him at the scene of the crime. Among those in attendance are Miss Emma, Jefferson's godmother, and Tante Lou, Grant's aunt.

During the course of the trial, held on a Friday morning, we hear three different versions of what happened the night that storekeeper Alcee Gropé was killed. First, we hear Jefferson's story, as presented by (1) the narrator of the novel. Then, we hear the story from the perspectives of (2) the prosecuting attorney and that of (3) Jefferson's court-appointed defense attorney. As part of his so-called defense strategy, Jefferson's attorney refers to his client as "it" and contends that this "thing" is incapable of knowing right from wrong and lacks the intelligence to have planned the robbery. In short, he attempts to convince the jury that Jefferson is simply an animal that acted on impulse, and that executing him would be like putting "a hog in the electric chair." Despite this very demeaning "defense," the all-white jury finds Jefferson guilty of robbery and first-degree murder, and the judge sets Jefferson's sentencing for the following Monday.

On Monday morning, Miss Emma and Tante Lou are back in court, along with Rev. Mose Ambrose, the local pastor. When Jefferson is brought before the judge and asked if he has anything to say prior to his sentencing, he hangs his head and declines to speak. The judge sentences him to death by electrocution, with the date to be set by the governor.

Upon returning home from school Monday afternoon, Grant finds Miss Emma in the kitchen with Tante Lou. Hoping to avoid them, he hurries to his room and pretends to be engrossed in grading papers, but his aunt follows him and chides him for not speaking to her friend. When he goes to meet Miss Emma, Grant finds her gazing absently into space, still in apparent shock over Jefferson's trial and angry about the attorney's reference to her godson as a "hog."

Despite his protests, the two women persuade Grant to take them to see Henri Pichot, their former employer, hoping that Pichot will persuade his brother-in-law, the sheriff, to allow Grant to visit Jefferson. Grant tries to convince the women that their plan is futile, but they refuse to listen to his advice.

Upon arriving at Pichot's mansion, they proceed to the back door, where they are greeted by the maid, Inez Lane. While Inez is in the library with Pichot, Grant looks around the kitchen and recalls that, as a child, he used to help Miss Emma and Tante Lou as they worked in this kitchen for the elder Pichots. His reverie is interrupted when Pichot enters, followed by his friend, Louis Rougon. Miss Emma greets the men, then presents her case to Pichot, reminding him of her years of devoted service to his family. Astonished by her tenacity and persistence, Pichot reluctantly agrees to talk to his brother-in-law. Before leaving, Miss Emma assures him that she will be back the following day for his answer.

That evening, Grant heads for the Rainbow Club in the nearby town of Bayonne, where he is greeted by the club's proprietors, Joe and Thelma Claiborne. He orders a drink and dinner, then calls his girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste, and asks her to meet him at the club. When she arrives, they dance and discuss the day's events. Vivian agrees that he should visit Jefferson.

Analysis

The novel's opening line — "I was not there, yet I was there" — illustrates Gaines' deceptively simple writing style. Although this declarative statement uttered by the nameless narrator seems to express a simple fact, it speaks volumes. The phrase introduces the ironies and contradictions that pervade the novel, in which things are not always what they seem, and "truth" is a highly subjective concept. It also gives us a glimpse into the narrator's psyche.

Without knowing anything about him, we sense that he is cynical, indifferent, and detached, and that the story he is about to tell is so familiar to him, he knows the ending by heart. What's more, we sense that the narrator's background and experience have led him to view life as a series of routine, predictable events over which he has little or no control.

Chapter 1 also introduces the reader to another aspect of Gaines' compact writing style: his use of metaphor and allusion. For example, the narrator depicts Jefferson's godmother as "a great stone" and a tree stump, suggesting that Miss Emma embodies the innate strength and endurance necessary to survive in a hostile environment. While the "great stone" symbolizes power and stability, the stump suggests tenacity and perseverance (someone who clings to life despite having been "cut down" and denied the opportunity to flourish and grow).

But Gaines goes even further. While Miss Emma's "immobility" implies that her movements have been severely restricted, it also alludes to the old Negro spiritual "I Shall Not Be Moved" and to the biblical image of Jesus as the "rock" of salvation. (We later discover that both Miss Emma and Tante Lou are devoutly religious.)

Neither the stone nor the stump, however, possesses the power of language, a concept that is central to the novel as Grant and Jefferson struggle to find a way to connect and communicate with each other. Note, for example, that in Chapter 1 we hear three different versions of what happened on the night of Alcee Gropé's murder: the narrator's, the prosecuting attorney's, and the defense attorney's. We do not hear the story from Jefferson, who is, in effect, denied the right to speak. Like most blacks of that time, he is not given a voice in his own fate and must learn to find the words to express his humanity. (Gaines has said that he uses a narrator who reports events as others reveal them as one device to get inside his characters' heads without his resorting to omniscient, third-person narration.) Note also that while the climax of the courtroom scene appears to be the jury's verdict, for Miss Emma, the defining moment is the defense attorney's reference to Jefferson as a "hog." Who speaks, who is spoken to, and who listens to what is being said are critical aspects in learning the various lessons imparted throughout the novel. Readers should also note the use of regional dialect, blues language, and black vernacular, as well as the forms of address used to identify characters ("boy," "sir," "Mr." "nannan," and "professor"), which often reveal the characters' perceived position in the social hierarchy, identify their race or ethnicity, or provide other clues as to their status in the community.

Also significant is the defense attorney's closing argument in which he refers to Jefferson as "a boy," "a fool," "a cornered animal," and "a thing to hold the handle of a plow" and urges the jury to note "the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand, . . . those eyes [without] a modicum of intelligence." Jefferson not only accepts this degrading image of himself, but he internalizes it. In short, the attorney's reference to Jefferson as a "hog" is much more than a cruel insult; it is a classic example of dehumanizing language that symbolizes the attitude of racist whites toward blacks.

In his controversial book Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington recounts a conversation with an elderly black man that illustrates the devastating psychological damage this type of language had on many enslaved blacks: "He said he had been born in Virginia and sold into Alabama in 1845. I asked him how many were sold at the same time. He said, 'There were five of us: myself and brother and three mules.'"

To justify the "peculiar institution" of slavery, racist whites often pointed to the biblical story of Ham, Noah's youngest son. According to this story, Noah cursed Ham and his descendants to be "servant[s] of servants" because Ham saw his father naked. The Bible also lists "the swine" (pigs and hogs) among the animals designated as "unclean."

To further rationalize the enslavement of black Africans, racist whites created the myth of white supremacy, which depicts blacks as subhuman creatures without souls. Bred to be beasts of burden, blacks were noted for their brute strength and usually depicted as happy, childlike creatures of limited intelligence who needed firm discipline from whites. Perceived as devious, untrustworthy, and sexually promiscuous, they were portrayed as dirty, ugly creatures with an objectionable body odor.

Viewed in these contexts, we can begin to see why being referred to as a "hog" has such a devastating impact on Jefferson and Miss Emma. We can also begin to understand why Miss Emma's insistence that her godson be allowed to die like a man is such a powerful issue. Although she has lived under the white racist devaluation of black people, she does not accept it, relying on her faith in God and in human dignity.

Given this knowledge, we can readily see the blatant fallacies used in the defense attorney's attempt to demonstrate that Jefferson does not meet the criteria of manhood. We realize that the criteria that the defense attorney cites have no bearing on Jefferson's reality. As critic Charles E. Wilson, Jr., has pointed out, "Why would Jefferson know the size of his clothes when he cannot even try on clothes in a department store? Why would he know the months of the year, when his existence in rural Louisiana is dependent not on the calendar year, but on the generic planting season?" We realize that in a society that denies them basic human rights, both Grant and Jefferson must seek alternate ways to establish and express their manhood.

In this chapter we see another defining aspect of Gaines' writing style: his use of repetition, a defining characteristic of blues music. Note, for example, the repetition of words such as "standing," "solitary," "now," and "hog," all of which underscore key themes that resonate throughout the novel.

Gaines also explores the fine line between fantasy and reality. For example, the setting, characters, and circumstances associated with the night of the shooting — the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge (an allusion to Alice in Wonderland ) and the names "Brother" and "Bear" (allusions to the Br'er Rabbit folktales popular throughout the South during the early 1900s) — create a surreal atmosphere that infuses the entire incident with an eerie, dreamlike quality.

Chapter 2, which focuses on Miss Emma's determination that Jefferson will go to his death "on his own two feet," illustrates her stubborn pride and fierce love for her godson. (Considering that generally only members of the immediate family are permitted to visit prisoners, Miss Emma's insistence that Grant be allowed to visit Jefferson also reflects her courage and commitment to fight for her family.) Likewise, Grant's reluctance to get involved and his insistence that nothing can be done to help Jefferson illustrate Grant's apathy and alienation from his community. Meanwhile, the brief conversation between Grant and Miss Emma demonstrates the difference in their perspectives. Grant is willing to resign himself to the situation and accept the inevitable outcome, acknowledging what he sees as a death of black manhood — another theme in this book. "I can't raise the dead," he says, intimating that Jefferson has been dying over the last twenty-one years. There is also the suggestion of the death of Grant's faith in God and in himself. Miss Emma, however, embraces life and is determined to do what she can to effect a change. What's more, she is confident that Grant can make Jefferson a man because, as she points out matter-of-factly, "You the teacher." Here again, Gaines uses a simple, direct statement to express a complex concept. (As revealed in subsequent chapters, Miss Emma's remark lends itself to numerous interpretations.) Note that Miss Emma assumes that the role of teacher automatically confers a measure of status and respect upon an individual and charges that individual with certain responsibilities to the community; Grant, however, sees himself as totally ineffectual in a role that provides him with neither status nor respect.

In Chapter 3, Gaines uses various methods to illustrate that the past is alive in the present, and that the legacy of slavery still impacts black/white relationships. Grant is humiliated by having to enter Pichot's house through the back door and being forced to address Pichot as "sir." Inez has replaced Miss Emma and Tante Lou in Pichot's kitchen, much as the new appliances have replaced the old. But although slavery has been outlawed for more than eight decades, Henri Pichot and Louis Rougon still expect blacks to be servile and subservient. No one offers Miss Emma or Tante Lou a chair or a glass of water. Pichot clearly dominates the conversation, and both he and Rougon seem astonished when Miss Emma insists on an answer to her request after Pichot signals that the conversation is over. In short, the interchange prompted by the encounter between Pichot and Miss Emma represents the uneasy relationship that remains between the races. (Miss Emma's emphasis on all the work she has done for Pichot's family with little of her own to show for it symbolizes all that blacks have done to help build this country without fulfillment of the Constitutional pledge of equal rights and basic human dignity.)

Chapter 3 also introduces two more of the key themes that resonate throughout the novel: the language of silence and the concept of food as a source of physical and spiritual nourishment (food equals love). Much of the communication between Miss Emma and Henri Pichot, and between Grant and Tante Lou, takes place through gestures, body language, and meaningful looks. (Note the frequent references to a character's eyes; eyes are often described as "the windows of the soul.") And when Grant tells his aunt that he'll "eat in town," he acknowledges that "nothing could have hurt her more when I said I was not going to eat her food." In subsequent chapters, Jefferson's reaction to Miss Emma's food provides a barometer of Jefferson's progress toward accepting his full humanity. The chapter also demonstrates Gaines' use of humor, as he intersperses humorous incidents (such as the description of the two women taking up the entire back seat of Grant's car) against the tragic circumstances surrounding Jefferson's trial.

One of the highlights of Chapter 4 is the description of Bayonne, with its segregated churches, schools, and movie theaters. Note that the railroad tracks form the major boundary between Bayonne's black and white communities; consequently, blacks literally live "across the tracks" from whites, what whites would probably call "the wrong side of the tracks." (In African-American literature, however, trains often allude to the metaphorical underground railroad that carried runaway slaves to freedom in the North. They also suggest the great migration of rural Southern blacks seeking a better life in the urban North. Thus, railroads are a symbol of hope, representing opportunity and choice.) Also note that one of Bayonne's major economic industries is a slaughterhouse, "mostly for hogs," and that the primary landmark for the black community (from Grant's perspective) is the Rainbow Club, with its "green, yellow, and red arched neon lights" (the colors of the African Liberation Flag).

Chapter 4 introduces more themes and symbols and clarifies concepts introduced in previous chapters. For example, Grant's search for a telephone emphasizes the themes of alienation and lack of communication between the black and white communities — and within the black community itself. Note that there is no telephone in the quarter. Therefore, even if Jefferson had been able to place a call from Alcee Gropé's store, whom could he have called? Would he have been able to reach anyone? The chapter also emphasizes the difference between Grant's and Vivian's value systems: while Vivian focuses on commitment, Grant focuses on choice.

Glossary

Keats, Byron, Scott John Keats, George Gordon Byron, and Sir Walter Scott are nineteenth-century Romantic poets. The attorney implies that since Jefferson lacks a formal Eurocentric education, he is not a "civilized" human being. This blatantly racist argument fails to note that blacks had been legally denied the right to learn to read and write, often upon threat of death or disfigurement, and that even now they were denied the textbooks and other resources that could enable them to study Western classics. Later in the book, we see the school superintendent suggest that students earn money to buy toothbrushes — not books.

We must live with our own conscience. The remark illustrates the irony of the situation: Southern whites often had no conscience concerning the fate of blacks, as illustrated by the defense attorney's argument.

the quarter rows of cabins associated with designated plantations, isolated from the larger world. The quarter served as a home for slaves in the nineteenth century and the homes of sharecroppers in the twentieth century. The cabins had no electricity or running water until after World War II.

I need you speak for me. Miss Emma's remark reflects the unwritten "code of silence" during the pre-Civil Rights South, when blacks were routinely denied the right to articulate their thoughts and feelings. This statement further reflects on the power of language as a recurring theme. Note the irony here, as Miss Emma seems to have no problem speaking for herself.

parish the largest local administrative district in Louisiana. A parish is the equivalent of a county in other states.

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