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Free Study Guide: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines - Free BookNotes

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A LESSON BEFORE DYING: FREE BOOK SUMMARY / ONLINE NOTES

CONFLICT

The major conflict involves fatalism vs. individualism. The debate over Jefferson involves whether people can change their own nature and by doing so effect their own environment.

Protagonist

The individualist faction, which included Vivian, Tante Lou, Reverend Ambrose, believed that man is capable of determining his own destiny, that people can be lifted out of ignorance and poverty through religion and education. They encouraged Grant that, although his efforts appeared to be futile, he is having a powerful influence on Jefferson.

Antagonist

The fatalist faction, which included Sheriff Guidry, Henri Pichot, and Mathew Antoine, believed that race determines your fate. They attempt to convince Grant that no matter what he did for Jefferson or for his schoolchildren, he could not divert them from their inevitable futures.

Outcome


By the time Jefferson’s execution date arrives, he understands his own importance as a symbol of pride and dignity for the entire black community. When he displays incredible bravery while walking to the electric chair, he is no longer the ‘hog’ described by the defense attorney at his trial. Individualism has triumphed over fatalism.


SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

On a day when Jefferson was supposed to go hunting, he ended up at the liquor store with his friends Brother and Bear. The trip suddenly turns into a robbery, and while Jefferson watches in horror, Brother, Bear, and Mr. Grope the storeowner, die in a shootout. Not knowing how to use the telephone, Jefferson unwisely grabs the money and gets caught leaving the store. At his trial, the defense attorney argues that Jefferson is innocent because a black man is no more capable of planning out this crime than a hog. A jury of twelve white men convicts Jefferson and he is sentenced to die by electrocution.

A few days later Grant returns home to find his Aunt and Miss Emma waiting for him. Stung by the attorney’s comparison of Jefferson and a hog, Miss Emma asks Grant to visit Jefferson in prison and teach him to be a man. Grant goes with Miss Emma and Aunt Tante Lou to Henri Pichot’s house to request that he talk to his brother-in-law Sheriff Guidry about allowing Grant to visit Jefferson in Miss Emma’s place. Afterwards, Grant goes to the Rainbow Room and talks with Vivian, his girlfriend. He hates the town, hates his teaching job and wants to run away from all his problems and take Vivian with him. But Vivian is convinced that helping Jefferson is something Grant needs to do.

Grant goes back to Pichot’s house to talk with the Sheriff, who keeps him waiting for two hours before coming into the kitchen to talk with him. He questions Grant in a condescending manner, but agrees to allow him to visit Jefferson on the condition that it doesn’t agitate him. Back at school Grant wonders how many of his pupils will end up like Jefferson. He goes with Miss Emma the first time that she visits Jefferson in jail. He refuses to even speak to them or eat any of the food and Miss Emma leaves in tears. The next few visits were the same, until finally Miss Emma can take no more and asks Grant to go by himself. Grant is furious and almost refuses to go, but his aunt reminds him that there is no one else capable of handling the task. On his next visit he has a hard time communicating with Jefferson, who acts like a hog, even getting down on all fours and making pig sounds. Afterwards, Grant again goes to the Rainbow Room to meet Vivian, who reminds him that he stays here because he loves his family and friends more than he hates the racial injustice.

That Sunday Grant reports on his visit to Jefferson and tells small lies so as not to hurt Miss Emma. She announces that Reverend Ambrose and Tante Lou are going with her to visit Jefferson and take him a Bible. Vivian makes a surprise visit and gets a short but friendly introduction to Aunt Tante Lou who doesn’t approve of their relationship. The next day Grant is summoned to Miss Emma’s after work, where he learns that the latest visit to the jail was a disaster. He tries to tell them that he’s not making a difference to Jefferson, but his aunt instructs him to keep going back. It is on his next visit that he provokes a reaction - Jefferson insults Grant and knocks all the food on to the floor. On his way back down the Sheriff informs him Miss Emma wants to meet in the dayroom next time. Grant visits Jefferson again and talks about the upcoming school Christmas program, Jesus, and the meaning of obligations.

The school had their Christmas program in December with the same program, the same mistakes, the same guests, and the same refreshments as every past year since Grant had been teaching. He wondered if anything was changing, or would ever change. In February, Grant sat in Henri Pichot’s living room as the Sheriff informed him that Jefferson’s execution date had been set. When Grant visited Miss Emma’s that night she pleaded with Grant to cooperate with Reverend Ambrose on Jefferson’s behalf. Grant buys a radio for Jefferson, who enjoys it so much he avoids going down to the dayroom to see Miss Emma when she visits. She blames Grant, who then must persuade Jefferson to do something for his Godmother. He gives Jefferson a notebook and explains how Jefferson can accomplish something truly great for the people of the quarter if he can face his execution with dignity.

After this success, Grant ends up in a bar fight in the Rainbow Room with two mulattoes who were loudly disparaging Jefferson. Vivian had to carry him out of the bar, and then explained how disappointed she was in him. The next day Reverend Ambrose lectures Grant on how self-obsessed he is, and how his education is worthless because he doesn’t understand himself or his people. When Grant next visits the jail he encourages Jefferson to pray, and Jefferson expressed a desire to emulate Jesus’ silent suffering. In his diary, Jefferson reveals surprise that so many people are interested in him now that he is on death row when no one cared for him during his life. Ultimately, Grant refuses to attend the execution. Paul the deputy informs him that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room. Grant returns to the school and faces the students with tears in his eyes.


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