A Lesson Before Dying By Ernest J. Gaines Summary and Analysis Chapters 9-12

Summary

In Chapter 9, the focus shifts from the plantation school to the county jail as Grant and Miss Emma, for the first time, are able to talk to the captive Jefferson. In Chapter 10, we find Grant and Miss Emma going through the by-now familiar ritual at the courthouse: The deputy searches Miss Emma's basket of food and examines the contents of Grant's pockets, then leads them past the other inmates to Jefferson's cell. As before, Jefferson is sullen and unresponsive, and Miss Emma leaves in tears, asking the deputy to distribute the leftover food among the other inmates.

The next time Grant stops by to pick up Miss Emma, she insists that she is too sick to travel. Ignoring his protests, Tante Lou and Miss Emma persuade Grant to visit Jefferson alone; they then send him on his way with a bag that — in Grant's opinion — contains enough food to feed everyone at the jail.

When Grant arrives for his first solo visit with Jefferson (Chapter 11), Sheriff Guidry is there to meet him instead of the chief deputy. After Grant's brief conversation with the sheriff, Paul, the young deputy, escorts him to Jefferson's cell. As Grant urges Jefferson to eat some of Miss Emma's food, Jefferson initially ignores him. Then, as Grant watches in amazement, Jefferson gets down on his hands and knees, puts his head inside the bag of food, and proceeds to show him how a hog eats. Not wanting the sheriff to know that his visit has been unsuccessful, Grant decides to stay until the end of his allotted hour, half-heartedly attempting to engage Jefferson in conversation. Upon leaving, he tells Jefferson that he will tell Miss Emma how much he (Jefferson) enjoyed her food. As Paul escorts Grant back to the office, they talk briefly about Jefferson.

Reluctant to tell Miss Emma about his visit, Grant stops by the Rainbow Club on his way home (Chapter 12). At the club, he finds Joe Claiborne and two old men discussing their current hero, Jackie Robinson. As he listens to their conversation and watches the old men dramatize Jackie's stealing bases and sliding into home plate, Grant recalls a time when their hero was Joe Louis. He also thinks about "the little Irishman" who introduced him to James Joyce's short story "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." After leaving the club, Grant stops by Vivian's school to tell her about his visit with Jefferson.

Analysis

These four chapters focus on Grant's first four visits with Jefferson at the county jail. In Chapters 9 and 10, Grant and Miss Emma make three trips to Bayonne to visit Jefferson. Chapters 11 and 12 focus on the events surrounding Grant's first solo visit with Jefferson.

One of the overriding images in Chapter 9 is the courthouse. Traditionally a symbol of justice and democracy, here it is a bastion of institutional racism. As indicated by the statue of the Confederate soldier and the Confederate flag in front of the courthouse, the justice dispensed here does not apply to black Americans. With its separate but unequal facilities, the courthouse symbolizes the racist white power structure of the Jim Crow South.

The scene between the white chief deputy and the young black prisoner illustrates the contempt of Southern racist whites toward Southern blacks. This attitude is further exemplified by Miss Emma's initial encounter with the chief deputy. Note that Paul saves Miss Emma from further embarrassment and humiliation when she misinterprets the deputy's curt, one-word response — "Quiet" — as an order instead of as a description of Jefferson's behavior. By doing so, he steps outside his official role as a white authority figure and demonstrates his compassion.

As Grant and Miss Emma are led toward Jefferson's cell, they pass by the cells of other young black inmates, who ask them for cigarettes and money. (Note that the youthfulness of the inmates, most of whom are between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, seems especially troublesome to Miss Emma, who refers to them as "children.") Instead of hurrying past the cells and ignoring the inmates, Grant gives them the coins he has, and Miss Emma stops to talk to them and offers them food. When Grant and Miss Emma finally see Jefferson, he is sullen and unresponsive, ignoring Miss Emma's desperate attempts to engage him in conversation. Frustrated by Jefferson's behavior, Miss Emma is oblivious to the unspoken communication that transpires between Grant and Jefferson. As Grant and Miss Emma leave the courthouse, another silent communication occurs between Grant and Paul, who signals Grant to comfort Miss Emma.

The emphasis on the legal ritual at the courthouse suggests that this ritual is just as significant as the rituals at the plantation school described in Chapters 7 and 8. Note that while both Grant and Miss Emma quickly adjust to the routine, it disrupts their normal, everyday rituals. Thus, we see how Jefferson's imprisonment begins to impact the entire black community.

Food as a source of physical and spiritual nourishment is also a key motif reinforced here. We can surmise that Miss Emma has decided that since she can't save the "children," at least she can feed them. Food also represents independence, generosity, and love — food is Miss Emma's gift to Jefferson, an expression of her own identity and something for which she does not depend on the sufferance of the white community. Jefferson's rejection of her food is a rejection of her person that hurts her deeply.

In Chapter 11, when Jefferson demonstrates how a hog eats, Grant is horrified at Jefferson's behavior; he realizes how deeply the inhumane treatment that Jefferson has received has affected his psyche. As mentioned in the Introduction to the Novel section of this Note, Jefferson's redemption and transformation are intertwined with Grant's retaining and reasserting his manhood. Consequently, when Grant witnesses Jefferson's humiliation, he realizes that his own manhood is threatened by this humiliation of his race. As critic Charles E. Wilson, Jr., points out in his essay "Black Manhood in Ernest J. Gaines' Lesson Before Dying," Grant knows that "if Jefferson, a fellow black male, behaves this way, then his own manhood is tenuous." Wilson goes on to point out that "Gaines seems to toy with this notion of tenuity when he has Jefferson mispronounce 'humans' and spells it as 'youmans.'" If one rewrites "youmans" as "you mans" or "you men," then he discerns the irony inherent in Jefferson's bestowing a full sense of black manhood upon Grant (despite Grant's self-imposed detachment from the black community), especially when Grant has just spoken to his aunt about his feelings of humiliation and emotional castration.

Jefferson's behavior in this section is noteworthy for more than its symbolism and irony. It also alludes to the actual behavior of enslaved blacks in response to their inhumane treatment. In Frederick Douglass' autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he describes the following scene: "Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons." Note that Grant is so upset by Jefferson's behavior, he can't bring himself to face Miss Emma (who, we can assume, is anxiously awaiting his return). Instead, he retreats to the solace of the Rainbow Club.

The three old men at the Rainbow Club who are discussing their hero, Jackie Robinson, illustrate the tendency of poor, oppressed people to idolize heroes whose larger-than-life image is often created and nurtured by their own thwarted hopes and dreams. These heroes are often sports figures and entertainers whose unique talents have enabled them to achieve fame and financial success despite the racial and economic barriers that deny oppressed blacks the opportunity to achieve success in more conventional arenas. Grant realizes that, by celebrating the accomplishments of their sports heroes and claiming them as representative members of the black community, the old men are celebrating and claiming their own sense of manhood and imagining the heights to which they, too, might aspire, since their heroes have demonstrated that, despite seemingly impossible odds, success is possible.

This section also explores some key issues concerning teachers and teaching. As Grant watches the old men, he recalls his days as a university student, when a lecture by a speaker whom he refers to as "the little Irishman" piqued his interest in James Joyce's short story "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." He recalls the speaker's enthusiasm about the story, his insistence that it explores universal themes, and his repetition of the name "Parnell." He recalls how his literature teacher, Mr. Anderson, helped him obtain a copy of an anthology that included the story. He also recalls that, after reading and rereading the story, he could not find in it the universality that the Irishman talked about. Years later, he realizes that the story (about a group of old Irishmen who meet to discuss politics and praise their dead hero, Parnell) is universal because it parallels the experiences of countless old men he sees who meet in bars and barbershops, on street corners, and in the quarter to talk about their heroes. As his mind drifts back to Jefferson and his impending execution, Grant recalls reading about the execution of a boy in Florida who pleaded for Joe Louis to save him as he was being dragged to the electric chair. Although seemingly unrelated, we can surmise that this story underscores a key point about hero worship: It may feed the men's fantasies and allow them to live vicariously through their heroes, but it cannot protect them from life's grim realities.

Grant's visit to Vivian's school illustrates the powerful impact teachers can have on their students. While Grant's most vivid memories about his own school days revolve around the cynical Matthew Antoine (Chapter 8), his memories of "the little Irishman" and his literature teacher, Mr. Anderson, indicate that these men also had an impact on him, which he is only now beginning to acknowledge. The visit also contrasts Vivian's teaching style — marked by nurturing and high expectations — to Grant's disciplinarian approach, symbolized by his ever-present Westcott ruler. (Note that Vivian's definition of a simple sentence is quite different from Grant's definition in Chapter 5.) The fact that Vivian teaches French suggests not only that she values knowledge and culture, but that she envisions her students as having a future that transcends the limits of their impoverished physical environment.

Glossary

It don't matter. Jefferson's words echo those of Matthew Antoine in Chapter 8.

Clabber thickly curdled sour milk.

Jackie Robinson (1919-72) United States Major League Baseball player. In 1947, Robinson became the first African American to play in the major leagues when he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was also the first black to win the Most Valuable Player award, the first to play in a major league World Series, and the first to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For many blacks, Jackie Robinson symbolized a triumph in the fight for racial integration.

Joe Louis (1914-81) United States professional boxer. Nicknamed "The Brown Bomber," Joe Louis, world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937-49, still holds the record for the longest reign as heavyweight champion: 11 years, 8 months, and 7 days.

Schmeling Max Schmeling, German boxer who defeated Joe Louis in 1936. In 1938, Louis regained his heavyweight title, defeating Schmeling in the first round of their fight.

Yeats, O'Casey, Joyce William Butler Yeats, Sean O'Casey, and James Joyce, Irish playwrights and poets.

Parnell Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91), Irish nationalist leader.

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