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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 17 | Summary



When Grant Wiggins goes to the courthouse on Friday, he decides to get a better sense of the deputy Paul Bonin by asking him about Jefferson and the other prisoners. Paul says he's never seen an execution, but Grant says he has nightmares of them: "I've seen myself walking to that chair, more than once." Paul introduces himself formally, saying "we might as well call each other by our names," and they shake hands. He's been warned not to get close to men on death row, but says he will do his duty to "[b]e decent, treat him right." Grant says he will do the same.

Inmate Henry Martin addresses Grant as "Mr. Rockefeller," who "always leave you chicken and biscuits ... [b]ut no bread for the cigarettes." Jefferson is looking out the window. He has been crying. Grant notices black birds perched outside the window on a limb of the sycamore tree.

Grant repeats Miss Emma's wish that someone would "do something for her before she dies." Jefferson calls Grant "Mr. Teacher" and says he is the one who has to die. Grant responds anyone could die at any time, so he tries "to live as well as [he] can ... and not hurt people ... who love me ... who have sacrificed for me." Jefferson scoffs: Grant wouldn't have that attitude if he were awaiting execution. When Grant says he also didn't ask to be born but is "trying to make the best of it," Jefferson threatens to scream. Grant knows Jefferson is angry, but "no fool": "He needed me, and he wanted me here, if only to insult me."

Jefferson insults Vivian Baptiste, and Grant wants to hit him but realizes that Jefferson's grin expresses "the most heartrending pain I had ever seen on anyone's face." Instead, Grant says he knows he's "not doing any good, for you or for any of the others." Jefferson begins to cry. He says manners and food are "for the living." With a swipe of his arm, he sends Miss Emma's food flying everywhere. The visit ends in silence, as Grant cleans the mess.

The sheriff summons Grant, whom he calls "Professor." He is upset: "Women ... Always coming up with something new." Grant doesn't yet know it, but Emma went to the sheriff's home and asked his wife to convince her husband to let her visit Jefferson in a "comfortable room" where they could all sit down. She found the request shocking ("Couldn't they take turns" sitting?), but Emma reminded her of her service to the family through the years. "Now they want all y'all to meet in the bull pen—picniclike," the sheriff complains. He thinks it's Grant's idea.

The older deputy, Clark, voices opposition: "He ain't here for no picnic," he says. The sheriff says he'll let Jefferson choose: he can go to the dayroom shackled, or stay in the cell without chains. He reiterates his certainty that Grant's efforts are futile, and Grant silently agrees. The sheriff states he wants Jefferson to not forget for a moment he's in jail: "This ain't no school, and it ain't no picnic ground."


In this chapter the relationship between Paul Bonin and Grant Wiggins develops. Paul's invitation to Grant to use his first name, without "mister," and their handshake have symbolic importance, signifying an alliance between a white man and a black man who regard each other as equals. Paul speaks of his commitment to his duty, and Grant, who has long fought against accepting his duties, says he will do the same as Paul, who intends to not get close to Jefferson but to treat him with decency.

Jefferson plays at the aggravation Sheriff Guidry is speaking of. He threatens to scream, but only smiles. Grant knows the threats, the insult, and the smile are all meant to conceal and simultaneously reveal Jefferson's pain. Jefferson doesn't trust "Mr. Teacher," and takes amusement in provoking him—just like the sheriff, who mocks Grant similarly by calling him "Professor." But when Grant's only response is to say he has no hope for Jefferson and only visits because Vivian Baptiste makes him, Jefferson's vulnerability breaks through, and he speaks his pain straightforwardly. He feels he is already dead, and therefore things essential to other people—food and manners—only cause him pain by reminding him of his impending death and his alienation from everyone who is not on death row.

While Jefferson has shifted away from the hog metaphor, his expressions of despair continue to revolve around the symbolic value of food. Instead of expressing his dehumanization by eating the food like an animal, he expresses his sense of being already dead by spilling the food everywhere. As the dead do not need to eat, it makes no difference to Jefferson if Miss Emma's cooking ends up splattered around the cell instead of in his body. Grant fails to connect with him by reasoning, because his logic is faulty: there is a large difference between knowing you will die someday and knowing you will be executed by the state within a matter of months or weeks, and Jefferson is right in his implication that Grant cannot empathize with this aspect of his situation.

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