A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 20-21

Summary

It is late February, and Grant is at school grading papers during recess when Mr. Farrell Jarreau comes to tell him that the date has been set for Jefferson's execution and that Grant and Rev. Ambrose have been summoned to Henri Pichot's mansion. Leaving Irene in charge, Grant heads for Pichot's house, where he meets Rev. Ambrose. After offering them coffee, Inez tells the two men that the sheriff is due to arrive shortly. Several minutes later, she returns to inform them that the sheriff has arrived and that he and Pichot want to meet with them in the front parlor. As soon as Grant and Rev. Ambrose are seated, Sheriff Guidry informs them that Jefferson's execution has been set for "Friday, April eighth, between noon and three." He then asks if Miss Emma will need a doctor and offers to send Dr. Sid Gilroy to look after her when he gets back to town. As the sheriff prepares to leave, Rev. Ambrose reminds him of this offer, and the sheriff calls Dr. Gilroy to arrange for a visit with Miss Emma.

As the men leave Pichot's mansion, Rev. Ambrose stops to comfort Inez and then offers Grant a ride to Miss Emma's, but Grant declines and starts walking in the opposite direction. That evening, after stopping by the school to pick up his papers, Grant pays a brief visit to Miss Emma, then heads home to eat the food Tante Lou has prepared for him. After dinner, Vivian comes by. After a brief interval, the two head back to Miss Emma's, where even more people have gathered to demonstrate their support for Jefferson's godmother, who has taken to her sick bed. After serving them coffee, Inez tells Grant that Miss Emma wants to speak to him. Miss Emma tells Grant that she doesn't know when she'll be able to visit Jefferson again and that she hopes Grant and Rev. Ambrose will work together. After their visit, Grant and Vivian go to the Rainbow Club, where Grant reveals his pain, anger, and frustration to Vivian and tells her that it is up to Jefferson to break the vicious cycle of hopelessness and despair plaguing the black community.

Analysis

In these two chapters, Gaines continues to focus on the power and cohesiveness of the black community as he demonstrates the tremendous impact that Jefferson's impending execution has on the people in the quarter. When Mr. Farrell Jarreau arrives to tell Grant that he is wanted up front, Grant senses that someone is present, but he first finishes grading a paper, thinking that one of his students has come in from recess. (Note that the phrase "going to the front" can also allude to war.) When Grant realizes that his visitor is Mr. Farrell, he notes that his visitor looks "very small and very sad." As Mr. Farrell leaves, Grant notices his "stoop-shoul-dered" walk. He also notices that, instead of going back to work, Mr. Farrell is headed home.

Here again, Gaines' use of dialogue and detail speaks volumes. In describing the scene between Grant and Mr. Farrell, we realize that Mr. Farrell has been personally affected by Jefferson's impending death. Consequently, we begin to realize a profound truth: One man's fate can and does affect others. Even though Jefferson seems convinced that his life is worthless, his life does have meaning and value.

The two chapters also continue to develop the theme of change and transformation. Note that this time, Rev. Ambrose and Grant meet with Sheriff Guidry and Henri Pichot in the front parlor rather than in the kitchen. We can presume, therefore, that Pichot (who is obviously aware of Edna Guidry's precedent-setting meeting with Rev. Ambrose, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou) feels obligated to follow her example, although he does not go so far as to extend the traditional Southern hospitality to the two men by offering them coffee. After Grant recovers from his surprise at being invited into Pichot's front parlor, he seems disappointed that Pichot's furniture is old and faded, indicating that his image concerning the grandeur of the Pichot mansion does not live up to the reality. Note also that, once again, a woman has been instrumental in initiating change. We gather that Sheriff Guidry's question concerning Miss Emma's need for a doctor is not prompted by genuine concern for Miss Emma (whom he refers to simply as "the old woman"); he poses the question only because his wife has pointed out that Miss Emma "might need a doctor." After offering to send Dr. Gilroy to check on her, he calls Dr. Gilroy only after Rev. Ambrose reminds him of his offer. The doctor's main concern is not the state of Miss Emma's health, but the road conditions in the quarter.

Grant is enraged about the cold and calculated manner in which Jefferson's death has been decided by these white men. Jefferson has not been sentenced by a jury of his peers but by a group of racist whites who have a total disregard for black life. Although Grant seethes with rage at the injustice of Jefferson's situation, he is afraid to express his feelings openly. He is afraid to face Miss Emma, and so he leaves it up to Rev. Ambrose to tell her the news. He envisions "miles of clear blue water" compared to the reality of the muddy river.

During Grant and Vivian's conversation at the Rainbow Club, Grant explains to Vivian the tragedy of black men in America and the need for black pride and dignity, and he admits that Jefferson must be the one to break the vicious cycle of hopelessness and despair. In effect, Grant admits that, despite his education, he is helpless to bring about the required changes. It is Jefferson who represents hope for Miss Emma and the black community. Jefferson alone has the power to demonstrate the dignity, strength, and humanity of the black community and thus expose the myth of white supremacy as the oppressive lie that it is.

Glossary

ragball a game in which a ball of rags takes the place of a real ball. Reference to the game underscores the crushing poverty of the black community.

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