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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 16 | Summary



The next day at school Grant Wiggins and his students plan their Christmas program. He wants them to find a pine tree, not a pasture oak like the previous year. Muddy and bare, it was washed and decorated by the students and "turned out to be a beautiful Christmas tree." He tells his students to remember a certain person at Christmas: "I'm sure I don't have to remind you who I'm thinking about."

Miss Emma, Reverend Mose Ambrose, and Tante Lou have just returned from visiting Jefferson. As soon as he walks in, Miss Emma charges Grant with lying about his visit the other day. He defends his lie, but she is shaken and unconvinced, saying, "I had to hit him today."

Grant recounts the story, which he overheard Lou telling later. Jefferson was silent, with "blank" eyes. When Reverend Ambrose told him, "Put all your faith in Him, and He'll bring you through," Jefferson's hatred was clear on his face. His voice sounded unreal as he asked Emma if she brought "corn for a hog," saying, "That's all I'm is ... I didn't ask to be born." When he wouldn't stop the hog talk, Emma slapped him and began to cry.

Now, as Grant watches, Emma cries out, "What I done my Master to deserve this?" Lou and Reverend Ambrose comfort her, saying the merciful Lord is merely testing her. Miss Emma says to Grant, "Go back ... 'cause somebody go'n do something for me 'fore I die." Standing to leave, he expresses resentment for how Jefferson tries to make him feel guilty. Not only is he not responsible for Jefferson's situation, he says, "I do everything I know how to do to keep people like him from going there." Lou says firmly he will not run away. Grant feels the urge to touch his aunt's face with gentleness, which might work better than "anger and screaming." Realizing her mind is made up he leaves the room.


The Christmas season has symbolic importance for the plantation community and for Jefferson. A particularly potent symbol is the class Christmas tree. Grant Wiggins feels for the students to find a proper pine tree would be a sign of progress, of education. While he admits their scraggly pasture oak was beautiful by the time they got through with it, Grant is not interested in seeing his people make the most of what they have. He wants them to do better, which to him means attaining the standards white culture has set.

Grant's message to the students to remember one person during Christmas has symbolic overtones. Usually, people are reminded to think of Christ instead of getting caught up in the trappings of the holiday. But Grant is referring to Jefferson, and the fact he doesn't state his name underscores the importance with which he regards Jefferson and his situation. Christ and Jefferson are further conflated, both being sacrificial victims whose lives are given to pardon the entire community.

While the date of his execution hasn't yet been announced, Jefferson repeatedly insists he will be killed at Christmas. This is not paranoia and ignorance, but an elegant and barbed metaphor: Jefferson, the hog, will be the Christmas dinner the whites will feast upon. The implications of this metaphor are so painful to Emma she hits Jefferson. Aware of the literal and symbolic status of food and eating as Emma's most potent expression of love, he twists the symbol of food so it points back to the dehumanization and exploitation he and the entire black community endure at the hands of whites. He casts Christmas as a celebration of white power, not the birthday of the savior, and his contempt for the suggestion of salvation is communicated by the way he looks at Reverend Ambrose. He rejects more than food and religion, however; he rejects all of life when he says, "I didn't ask to be born."

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