A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 22-23

Summary

On Friday, Grant visits Jefferson for the first time since the date for his execution had been set. Although Paul offers to stay nearby, warning him that things might be different now, Grant assures him that he will be fine. Upon meeting with Jefferson, he finds him to be more calm and subdued. He also finds that, for the first time, Jefferson is willing to talk to him. Grant proceeds to tell him the news from the quarter. When he mentions that Gable's wife, Stella, had her baby, Jefferson recalls that he had planned to go hunting with his friend Gable on the fateful night he ended up at Alcee Gropé's liquor store with Brother and Bear. Hoping to divert Jefferson's attention from his painful memories, Grant tells him that Inez is still giving her fairs (house parties), although she doesn't allow any music. The mention of music leads to a discussion of "Randy's Record Shop," a radio program Grant and Jefferson used to listen to as boys. When Jefferson shows some interest in the conversation and asks if "Randy's Record Shop" is still on the air, Grant offers to bring him a radio the following day so he can have music over the weekend. True to his word, Grant heads for the Rainbow Club, where he plans to wait for Vivian and borrow some money from her to buy the radio. But after he shares his plan with Claiborne and Thelma, he ends up borrowing the money from them and their customers. Grant then heads for Edwin's Department Store to buy the radio and then returns to the courthouse to deliver the radio to Paul, who assures him that he will give it to Jefferson. Satisfied with his accomplishment, Grant returns to the Rainbow Club, hoping to meet Vivian.

On his next visit (Monday), Paul tells Grant that the last time Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Rev. Ambrose visited Jefferson, he refused to meet them in the dayroom because he was not allowed to bring his radio. When they agree to meet him in his cell, Jefferson ignores them and continues to listen to his radio until Miss Emma turns it off. As they prepare to leave, Sheriff Guidry calls them into his office, warns them that he doesn't want any trouble, and threatens to stop the visits or take away the radio if it's causing any problems. Miss Emma assures him that the radio is not a problem, and Sheriff Guidry tells them to work together with Grant.

Later, back at school, Grant receives a message that Tante Lou wants to see him at Miss Emma's. When he arrives, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and the reverend accuse him of endangering Jefferson's soul by bringing him the radio, which the reverend refers to as a "sin box." Grant tells them that Jefferson needs the radio to help him keep his mind off his impending death, and the two men argue about the merits of saving Jefferson's dignity versus saving his soul.

The following Wednesday, Grant visits Jefferson and brings him apples, candy, and comic books, as well as peanuts and pecans from his students. He convinces Jefferson to meet his visitors in the dayroom next time and offers to bring him a notebook and pencil so that he can write down his thoughts and make notes about anything he wants to discuss during their visits. When Jefferson thanks him and shakes his hand, Grant is overjoyed.

Analysis

Now that the date for Jefferson's execution has been set, Grant's attitude toward Jefferson changes dramatically. We can surmise that he suddenly realizes that Jefferson's death is imminent and resolves to do all he can to make his last days as pleasant as possible. We can also surmise that he is suddenly struck by the horror and tragedy of Jefferson's situation and recognizes the brevity and fragility of life, as well as the futility and insignificance of his own life. Consequently, he develops a sense of urgency concerning his mission to help Jefferson die like a man. He accepts responsibility and recognizes the impact he can have on Jefferson's life. In essence, Grant realizes that his visits with Jefferson are not an obligation, but a privilege: He has been given an opportunity to make a profound difference in the life of a fellow human being. He recognizes the kinship between himself and Jefferson and that, despite his own education, he could well be the one behind bars.

The focus of these two chapters is Jefferson's radio, which provides the catalyst for change in numerous characters. The radio provides a wake-up call for Jefferson that reconnects him with the community by reawakening in him his love of music and reinforcing the theme (Chapter 13) of music's role in providing spiritual sustenance and exorcising suffering. The fact that the music is not spiritual here represents the perceived dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual, or faith and reason. The radio creates conflict between Grant and Rev. Ambrose, which eventually forces the two men to communicate and share their feelings concerning Jefferson's needs. It also highlights the changes taking place in Grant, whose determination to get the radio for Jefferson enables him to put his pride aside, as illustrated by his interaction with the white sales clerk at Edwin's Department Store; his willingness to accept Claiborne and Thelma's contribution with humble gratitude; and his decision to resist the urge to correct the sheriff's mispronunciation of "batteries."

The idea of the radio originates from the conversation between Grant and Jefferson concerning "Randy's Record Shop," a program that they both listened to as young boys growing up in the quarter. Thus, the radio not only provides a sense of kinship and connectedness between the two men; it also provides a link to their past, in which both enjoyed the same simple pleasures of youth. By reconnecting with that past, we can surmise that Grant realizes that the only thing that kept him from ending up like Jefferson was the role that fate and circumstance played in his life, enabling him to escape the narrow confines of his limited environment and exercise a freedom of choice that was not available to Jefferson. By realizing this, he is able, for the first time, to reach out to Jefferson as a friend, instead of regarding him as one of "those people" who got what they deserve.

Here again, Gaines fuses fiction with reality. He has said in an interview that "Randy's Record Shop" was a program that he himself used to listen to as a boy, growing up in the quarter. Renowned author and literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., recalls in his autobiography Colored People: "If prime time [television] consisted of images of middle-class white people who looked nothing at all like us, late night was about the radio, listening to 'Randy's Record Shop' from Gallatin, Tennessee. . . . In 1956, black music hadn't yet broken down into its many subgenres, except for large divisions such as jazz, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues."

In Chapter 23, note that Jefferson prefers mental freedom (the radio) to physical freedom (the dayroom). Also, the references to the Bible ("Let there be light") reflect Jefferson's enlightenment.

We see a change in Sheriff Guidry's attitude toward Grant, as he accepts Grant's leadership role in Jefferson's care and directs Miss Emma and Rev. Ambrose to work with Grant in assuring that the radio does not become a source of disruption.

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