A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 17-18

Summary

On Friday, Grant's students begin planning their Christmas program, which puts Grant in a more charitable mood. When Grant goes to visit Jefferson, Paul Bonin, the young deputy, suggests they call each other by name. During his visit, Grant tries to impress upon Jefferson that he has a responsibility toward his godmother. This time, he refuses to let Jefferson get away with his crude, uncivilized behavior. Instead of ignoring his insults, he lets him know that his behavior is unacceptable and challenges him to act like a man. Apparently shocked by Grant's behavior, Jefferson expresses his pain and frustration through tears and anger.

As Grant prepares to leave the courthouse, Paul tells him that Sheriff Guidry wants to see him. After ignoring Grant for several minutes while he continues his conversation with his colleagues, Sheriff Guidry tells Grant that Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Rev. Ambrose have been to visit his wife to ask if they could visit Jefferson in a more comfortable room. (Grant learns later that the sheriff's wife had set a precedent by inviting them to sit in her living room while her maid served them coffee.) Although initially angry because he thinks Grant has put them up to it, the sheriff eventually calms down and decides to let Jefferson choose whether he wants to meet his visitors in his cell or in the dayroom.

The sheriff keeps his promise, and the next time Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Rev. Ambrose visit Jefferson, they meet him in the dayroom. During his next visit, Grant also meets Jefferson in the dayroom. This time, Jefferson attempts to initiate a conversation concerning his impending execution, but Grant quickly changes the subject. But when Jefferson attempts to slip back into his subhuman attitude and behavior, Grant once again challenges him, and then tries to teach him a lesson about moral obligation. Afterward, Grant meets Vivian at the Rainbow Club and convinces her that "something is changing."

Analysis

Something is changing. These two chapters mark a decided change in the relationships among several characters. Note that all the changes begin with personal conversations between two individuals. Also note that although the changes ultimately take place among the men, it is the women (Edna Guidry, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Vivian) who provide much of the catalyst for change.

Chapter 17 consists of a series of conversations between Grant and Paul, Grant and Jefferson, and Grant and Sheriff Guidry, respectively. Note that all three conversations focus on Jefferson, and that each conversation not only triggers a change in the relationship between the two speakers, but it also marks a shift in the speaker's attitude toward Jefferson.

The first conversation (between Grant and Paul) marks a change in the relationship between the two men when Paul introduces himself and suggests he and Grant address each other by name. It also foreshadows a shift in the relationship between blacks and whites, manifested in the Civil Rights movement. The second conversation (between Grant and Jefferson) begins to break down the defensive wall that Jefferson has built around himself, thus leading him toward a growing awareness of himself as a human being worthy of dignity and respect. The third conversation (between Grant and Sheriff Guidry) marks a subtle change between Grant and Sheriff Guidry, and a significant change between Sheriff Guidry and Jefferson: For the first time, the sheriff ignores the advice of his colleagues when he decides to give Jefferson a choice about whether he will meet his visitors in his cell or in the dayroom. Grant is also undergoing profound changes: Despite his attempt to remain detached and uninvolved, he begins to have dreams in which he is the one about to be executed. (Through his subsequent conversation with Vivian, we learn that Grant's concern over Jefferson has also begun to affect his sex life.) Consequently, we realize that, subconsciously, Grant is beginning to identify with Jefferson and to recognize the racial and filial bonds that bind him to his "brother." In essence, as Grant begins to undergo a process of transformation, he begins to connect with Jefferson and to influence the transformation of others. Note, however, that when Jefferson responds to his invitation to "talk" and broaches the subject of his impending execution, Grant quickly changes the subject, indicating that he is not yet prepared to deal with the real issue.

In Chapter 18, Grant and Jefferson begin to communicate on a personal level. Note that Jefferson's physical movement from the dark of his cell to the daylight of the dayroom symbolizes his spiritual and intellectual movement towards enlightenment. Having gained the freedom to choose, he begins to see himself as a human being. And as Grant continues to challenge his protests that he is not human, Jefferson begins to acquire a sense of self-worth: He asserts himself by questioning Grant, challenging his philosophical platitude that "We're all going to die," expressing his pain, anger, and frustration. In effect, Jefferson begins to exercise control over his mind and thoughts. Even though he is shackled and can take only small steps, he is not only beginning to stand, but to walk and move towards awareness, self-knowledge, and spiritual freedom.

Glossary

plarines a mispronunciation of "pralines," a type of candy made of pecans, brown sugar, and maple syrup.

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