A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 24-26

Summary

After stopping by the drugstore to pick up the notebook and pencil that he promised Jefferson, Grant meets Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Rev. Ambrose in front of the courthouse. In Paul's absence, they are searched and escorted to the dayroom by the chief deputy. As soon as Jefferson is brought in, Miss Emma sets the table and dishes up her special gumbo, but Jefferson refuses to eat. Sensing Miss Emma's disappointment, Grant asks Jefferson to walk with him. As they walk around the room, he tells Jefferson that he wants to be his friend, explaining that a friend is someone who will do anything to please a friend. He then asks Jefferson to be a friend to his nannan by eating some of her gumbo. Jefferson responds with a slight nod.

Grant goes on to tell Jefferson that he wants him to be a hero, explaining that a hero is someone who does little things for others. Determined to convince Jefferson that he is a human being worthy of dignity and respect, Grant explains that the myth of white supremacy has been created by whites to subjugate blacks and urges him to look beyond the myth in order to realize and reclaim his self-worth. When Jefferson starts to cry, Grant realizes that he has finally gotten through to him. To illustrate his point, he cites the example of Mr. Farrell making a slingshot handle out of bits of scrap wood, explaining that people are like pieces of driftwood until they decide to become something better. As Jefferson continues to cry, Grant leads him back to the table to eat some of his nan-nan's gumbo.

Following their visit with Jefferson, Rev. Ambrose, Tante Lou, and Miss Emma return to the quarter. Grant heads for the Rainbow Club, anxious to meet Vivian and tell her about his breakthrough with Jefferson. While waiting for Vivian, he hears two mulatto bricklayers talking loudly. When he realizes that they are talking about Jefferson, he resolves to ignore their crass comments, finish his drink, and walk out. Instead, he allows himself to get caught up in their trap and ends up in a barroom brawl, which stops abruptly when Claiborne knocks him out cold after Grant ignores his repeated pleas to stop fighting. When he comes to, Vivian is standing over him and convinces him to go home with her.

When Vivian chastises him for his behavior, Grant insists that he "just couldn't help it," but Vivian points out that he had a choice: He could simply have walked out. After surveying his bruises, Vivian insists that Grant spend the night, but he objects, pointing out that his presence could cause her trouble with her job and with her estranged husband. Pointing out that she's already in trouble, Vivian calmly continues preparing their dinner. As she works, she tells Grant about her recent communication with her husband, and Grant tells her about his visit with Jefferson. Realizing that she is still angry with him, he tries to sweet-talk her. When this tactic fails, he announces that he is leaving. This time Vivian doesn't try to stop him; instead, she explodes, arguing that if he loved her, he would be considerate of her feelings and not endanger his life with reckless behavior. Grant heads for the door, but as he looks out into the darkness, he realizes that running away is not the answer and returns to beg Vivian's forgiveness.

Analysis

These three chapters establish the basis for the evolving friendship between Grant and Jefferson. By agreeing to a joint visit with Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Rev. Ambrose, Grant indicates his willingness to comply with Miss Emma's wishes and to do what is best for Jefferson. By stopping by the drugstore to get the notebook and pencil he has promised Jefferson, even if it makes him late for his meeting with the others, he indicates his desire to build trust between himself and Jefferson. And by addressing Jefferson as "partner" and asking him to be his friend, he indicates his willingness to talk to him man to man, thus demonstrating by his behavior that Jefferson is worthy of respect.

During this visit, Grant also demonstrates two characteristics we have not seen him exercise before: patience and compassion. Instead of lecturing Jefferson about his behavior, he takes time to explain to him how his behavior is affecting Miss Emma and what he can do to ease her pain. In effect, he teaches Jefferson three important lessons on friendship, heroism, and the devastating power of racial myths. But instead of merely defining these concepts in abstract terms, he defines them through example and analogy. To reinforce his lessons, he relates them to Jefferson's life experience, thereby demonstrating how these seemingly abstract concepts apply to him personally. For example, to illustrate the concept of friendship, he points out what Jefferson can do to be a friend to his nannan; to illustrate the concept of heroism, Grant points out that a hero is not an extraordinary person, but an ordinary person who does things for others, such as taking a stand against injustice; and to point out that human beings have the power, potential, and responsibility to create their own lives, Grant reminds Jefferson of the slingshot handle that Mr. Farrell made for him out of scraps of driftwood. Consequently, as we listen to Grant, we realize that he is finally becoming a teacher in the true sense of the term — that is, he is beginning to awaken and nurture in others the desire to learn, rather than being someone who attempts to force others to learn through fear and ridicule. In effect, Grant teaches the same lesson on moral obligation and personal responsibility that he attempted to teach earlier (see Chapter 18). But this time, because Grant takes time to develop a personal relationship built on trust and respect, to establish solid connections between his lesson and Jefferson's life experience, to use simple everyday language, and to present Jefferson with a frame of reference that makes the lesson relevant and applicable to him personally, Jefferson understands and responds. In short, by getting through to Jefferson, Grant has also "gotten through" to his own innate ability to teach through example and practical application.

Unfortunately, Grant still has a few hard lessons of his own to learn, as we discover in his encounter with the two mulatto bricklayers at the Rainbow Club. Having just explained to Jefferson the merits of personal choice and responsibility, he allows his anger toward the two bricklayers to overrule his better judgment. To make matters worse, instead of admitting his mistake, he attempts to rationalize his behavior to Vivian and becomes angry when she points out that, by endangering his life through his reckless behavior, he was not being considerate of her feelings. Despite her explanation, he fails to see the connection between his behavior and Jefferson's, and to realize that, had Claiborne and Vivian not been there to defuse the situation and intercede on his behalf, he, too, might have ended up in jail for murder.

Glossary

gumbo a thick, hearty stew made with a variety of ingredients, such as meat, vegetables, and fish.

Their forefathers said that we're only three-fifths human. Grant's comment refers to the "three-fifths compromise" in the United States Constitution. According to this compromise, designed to placate both the North and the South, it was agreed to determine representatives and direct taxes "by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." Although the Constitution does not mention the word "slavery," by this provision three slaves were counted for every five non-slaves (whites) in apportioning representation.

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