A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 5-6

Summary

On Tuesday, the day after Jefferson's trial, Grant is back at work at the plantation school. Irritated by his students' lack of discipline and motivation and his own inability to control his class, Grant dispenses his own brand of discipline. He rules with his Westcott ruler and reduces his students to tears with his physical discipline and his humiliating remarks. As a final ploy, he tells them — in graphic detail — about Jefferson's impending execution. At 2 P.M., Mr. Farrell Jarreau, Henri Pichot's yardman, stops by to tell Grant that Pichot will meet with him at five o'clock.

That evening, Grant arrives at Pichot's mansion at ten minutes to five. He is kept waiting in the kitchen for two and a half hours and learns, through Inez, that Louis Rougon is betting that Grant can't persuade Jefferson to "die like a man." After enjoying a leisurely dinner, Sheriff Guidry, Henri Pichot, Louis Rougon, and a "fat man" (who remains nameless) meet with Grant to discuss Jefferson's situation. During their talk, the white men do their best to humiliate Grant, and Sheriff Guidry tries to trick him into taking sides in an alleged disagreement between him and his wife about the value of Grant's visiting Jefferson, but Grant deftly avoids this rhetorical trap. Finally, the sheriff tells him that he can start visiting Jefferson "in a couple of weeks."

Analysis

Chapter 5, which takes place at Grant's school and illustrates the interaction between Grant and his students, is a mirror image of Chapter 6, which takes place at Pichot's mansion and illustrates the interaction between Grant and the white men. In effect, we see Grant treating his students the same way that he is treated by the white men. In both cases, the interactions are marked by a blatant lack of respect and by a desire on the part of the so-called superior individual(s) to humiliate their so-called inferiors.

Chapter 5 opens with Grant and his students in the churchyard, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a ritual that is fraught with irony, given that there is no "liberty and justice" for blacks in the South. Adding to the irony is the white picket fence surrounding the church, which suggests that the church is the students' "home." Note the sensual language in the opening paragraph which enables us to see the smoke, hear the tractors, and feel the cold air.

We then follow the students inside and listen to them recite their Bible verses, a ritual that has also become meaningless to Grant (and his students). By quoting several of the verses, Gaines expresses his respect for these short, concise statements — for example, "Jesus wept" — which convey the power he aims for in his own spare writing style.

Chapter 5 also introduces us to the plantation school and to the role of the black teacher. We learn that the school year consists of only five and a half months, since the children are needed to work in the fields, and that Grant has taught at the school for six years. We learn that the school is an integral part of the community, and that Grant knows the families of all his students. We also learn that he is frustrated with his life and with his role as a teacher, and that he feels he has little or no impact on his students' lives.

As we watch Grant interact with his students, we begin to question his effectiveness as a teacher and his ability to turn Jefferson into "a man." We see that, instead of inspiring his students and instilling them with a hunger for knowledge and a respect for education, he ignites fear and hate and gives his students little hope for a better future. Although Grant is aware of the problems that the students must deal with at home, he has no empathy for them and no sympathy for their individual hardships. And although he is aware of the violent world many of them will enter after leaving his school, he beats his students, thus teaching violence by example. Instead of seeking to motivate, he seeks to control. He is cruel, impatient, and vindictive, taking out his personal frustrations on his students. In short, he perceives his students as being as insignificant as a "little red bug" and demonstrates none of the admirable qualities that Miss Emma attributes to him. Instead of seeking to change an intolerable system that kills his students' spirits, he perpetuates the system by his apathy and his perverse role modeling.

Farrell Jarreau's visit highlights the irony of Grant's situation. Although illiterate and uneducated (like Jefferson), Jarreau is a survivor who epitomizes quiet dignity. He respects Grant as a teacher and, like Miss Emma, sees him as a leader of his community by virtue of his profession. Jarreau's pride in Grant as someone who has achieved a major goal is evident, and the brief conversation between Grant and Jarreau illustrates the polite, dignified behavior that one would expect to see among "civilized" men.

Note that Farrell Jarreau always addresses Grant as "professor," just as Grant always addresses the handyman as "Mr. Farrell." Historians note that "professor" was used as a term of respect by Southern blacks for any male teacher. Sometimes, it was also used to refer to other talented or educated individuals, such as pianists or preachers. Here again, the context of language is key. Note, for example, that when Henri Pichot refers to Grant as "professor," the term is meant to mock and ridicule.

Chapter 6, set in Henri Pichot's mansion, illustrates the uncivilized behavior of the white men toward Grant. Like Farrell Jarreau, Grant is forced to obtain his information "through an innate sense of things around him." Marked by a thin veneer of civility, the men do their best to humiliate Grant and "keep him in his place." Seeing him in this situation, as he struggles not to appear "too smart," we begin to understand his frustrations with his students and his cynical view of life.

The men obviously take pleasure in having Grant under their control. Hoping that he will give up and go home, they force him to wait two and a half hours. When they finally meet with him, they have already made their decision. To amuse his friends, Sheriff Guidry tries to trick Grant into taking sides in an alleged disagreement between him and his wife. Like Inez, Grant is rendered invisible. As he leaves Pichot's mansion, Grant realizes that helping Jefferson regain his manhood may mean compromising his own dignity.

Glossary

sharecroppers people who worked land for a share of the crops, especially tenant farmers. In the South, black sharecroppers generally lived in extreme poverty and were treated as little more than slaves by white landowners.

I tried to decide just how I should respond to them. Whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be. As revealed in a subsequent chapter, Grant's bitter remark echoes one of the "lessons" he learned from his teacher while he was a student at the plantation school.

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