A Lesson Before Dying | Study Guide

Ernest J. Gaines

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Course Hero. "A Lesson Before Dying Study Guide." Course Hero. 2 Oct. 2017. Web. 19 Dec. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Lesson-Before-Dying/>.

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Course Hero. "A Lesson Before Dying Study Guide." October 2, 2017. Accessed December 19, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Lesson-Before-Dying/.

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

At the courthouse, Sheriff Guidry asks Grant Wiggins dubiously, "Still think you can get something into that head of his?" Grant expresses ambivalence, and the sheriff reminds him he'll stop the visits if Jefferson shows "[a]ny sign of aggravation." Paul Bonin escorts Grant to the cell, and Grant "walk[s] beside the deputy instead of behind him."

Grant finds Jefferson disheveled and unclean, gazing out the window. He explains Miss Emma is not there due to a "bad cold." Jefferson asks if Grant has brought corn, since "that's what hogs eat." Grant feels Jefferson is "playing with" him, insisting he is a hog: Jefferson "grunt[s] deep in his throat and grin[s]." When Grant begins to eat Emma's food, Jefferson says cooking is for "youmans," who "don't stay in no stall like this." He declares he is "a old hog they fattening up to kill for Christmas."

Grant tells Jefferson he is a man, not a hog, and Jefferson says he is "go'n show you how a old hog eat." He drops to the floor, puts his head in the bag of food, and eats without using his hands, making hog noises. Grant watches calmly, and tells Jefferson he will lie to Miss Emma about his behavior, since Emma "is already sick, and [the truth] would kill her." Jefferson gives a "painful, cynical grin" while Grant asks if Jefferson wants him "to stay away and let ... [t]he white man win." Jefferson turns to the wall, and in the silent minutes that follow, Grant wonders what he's thinking.

Analysis

Sheriff Guidry's remarks function as repeated reminders of how the sense of doubt and futility Grant has is also shared by white authority. In the subtext, Sheriff Guidry's allusions to Jefferson becoming "aggravated" contribute to the novel's exploration of racism. The sheriff sees Jefferson as an irrational animal whose negative emotions could make him violent. It is as if Jefferson is a caged animal and the sheriff the zookeeper. When speaking with Jefferson, the sheriff uses nonverbal communication—a smirking tone, for example—to convey the idea that black lives and struggles are a source of amusement to him. As sheriff, Guidry is at the top of a hierarchy of white power, and his reactions and statements symbolize the attitudes and assumptions of that power. However, his subordinate deputy Paul Bonin is an ally to Grant and Jefferson. This alliance and respect is evident when Grant and Paul walk beside each other, as equals.

While Grant mocked Miss Emma's cough as a performance of illness, he now uses the pretext of her sickness to justify his decision to lie to her about Jefferson's behavior, as well as to communicate to Jefferson that his behavior causes Emma suffering. The "bad cold" Grant initially told Jefferson about becomes a metaphor for the common spiritual sickness of the black community inflicted upon it by white power. Grant says Emma is "already sick" and Jefferson's hog performance "would kill her." The black community is already struggling, and such grotesque displays of internalized racism only worsen the struggle. Grant frames the situation in terms of a war when he asks if Jefferson is going to let the "white man win." Jefferson cannot keep using the white man's weapons against Grant, his comrade-in-arms, without forcing Grant to retreat.

Nonetheless, close attention reveals some positive shifts during the visit. Although the hog performance is extremely hurtful and humiliating, Jefferson is displaying something like a sense of humor—a coping mechanism, even when the butt of the joke is his and his community's suffering. His grin is highly communicative of his vulnerability, pain and rage, and communication, however much it may be veiled in verbal irony, an improvement over Jefferson's previous apathetic aloofness. Finally, Jefferson spends time looking out the window, rather than only at the wall or ceiling of his cell. His gazing at the view of a tree and sky indicates a certain level of health, signifying an attempt to connect with nature, a force more powerful than the white power incarcerating and condemning him.

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