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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 12 | Summary



Grant Wiggins goes to the Rainbow Club to think of a lie to tell Miss Emma about the visit he just had with Jefferson in the jail cell. Some men at the bar are "emphatically, with great pride" discussing the black baseball star, Jackie Robinson. Grant recalls black boxer Joe Louis's celebrated defeat of a German fighter when he was a teenager. He remembers, "for days after that fight, for weeks, we held our heads higher than any people on earth had ever done for any reason."

In college Grant attended a lecture by a "little Irishman" who spoke of "Parnell," a name he claimed made "some Irishmen ... weep this day." With the help of a white professor, Grant finally obtained a copy of a James Joyce story the Irishman claimed was "universal," "regardless of race ... [and] class." His own professor remarked Grant should keep in mind some white people are "pretty decent." Grant initially failed to find universality in Joyce's story of Irishmen talking politics, but as he began to listen to his own people speaking of their great, dead heroes, he "heard it everywhere."

Grant's dreams have been haunted ever since he read news of an electrocution in Florida. As he was tortured being dragged and then strapped into the chair, the young black boy called out for Joe Louis's help. Grant wonders if Jefferson "would call on Jackie Robinson as the other one had called on Joe Louis."

He goes to Vivian Baptiste's school and begs her to spend the night with him, away from town. She objects; the night-long absence would give "him an excuse to take my babies." He describes Jefferson's performance and tells her he wants to run away. Vivian replies, "You know you can't ... You love them more than you hate this place." She reminds him he went to be with his parents in California, but returned. "This is all we have," she says, and he replies, "I want more."


Grant doesn't question the morality of lying to Miss Emma. His only trouble is figuring out what the lie should be. Gaines's characters repeatedly lie, perform, or pretend, but he does not present these acts as immoral. Rather, they are techniques for protecting others from pain, for communicating what is too difficult to say straight, or for creating a pretense of a situation which compels others to take right action—as when Emma pretends to have a cold to justify Grant's visiting Jefferson alone.

Instead of crafting a lie, Grant reflects upon heroism, one of Gaines's primary themes. Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis were black athletes who broke the "color barrier" in their respective sports. Grant's reflections show he understands how heroes strengthen the black community and promote a sense of self-worth. A hero is a single individual whose actions assume symbolic proportions by their positive effects on an entire group of people. Grant does not yet consider heroism to be exactly what Emma and Lou are asking of him, but his remark to Jefferson in the previous chapter that his visits keep the white man from winning hint at a growing awareness of the situation's significance.

Nonetheless, Grant would rather run away than do the messy, difficult work it takes to be a hero. For Grant, Vivian symbolizes perfection, and his escape fantasies revolve around going with her to an imaginary, unnamed place, perfect because of what it is not: the plantation. Luckily, Vivian is committed to her responsibilities to others, and her steadfastness, reminiscent of Tante Lou's, grounds Grant and reorients him to his own duties. Unlike Tante Lou, who gives terse commands, Vivian reasons with Grant, reminding him the thing keeping him from fleeing is internal rather than external, and staying is love, not cowardice.

Grant's nightmares allude to the historical case of black Louisiana teenager Willie Francis, convicted without evidence for a white man's murder. Francis survived the chair once and was executed a year later. The Francis case weighed heavily in Gaines's mind as he conceptualized A Lesson Before Dying. Like the author, Grant sees parallels between Jefferson and this other teenager. His cry for his hero during his excruciating suffering raises questions about Jefferson. Does he have a hero? If not, might he be in desperate need of one?

Charles Parnell (1846–1891) was an Irish politician who led the movement for Ireland's freedom from its colonizer, England. Parnell tried but could not effect change legislatively. He was imprisoned for inciting boycotts and finally undone by allegations of adultery. Ireland did not gain independence until 1948. This reference underscores the commonalities between African Americans and subjugated, colonized people around the world. It also underscores the idea that not all white people have given themselves to the service of white racist power structures. The deputy Paul is one such person in Grant's own life. The case of Ireland is a reminder that white-skinned people may themselves be oppressed.

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