A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 18 | Summary



On Monday, Miss Emma, Reverend Mose Ambrose, and Tante Lou go to the prison and Emma sets the table in the dayroom. Jefferson stumbles in, shackled, and won't speak. He won't even open his mouth when Emma tries to spoon-feed him.

A few days later, Grant Wiggins visits. Jefferson is thinner; his bloodshot eyes are ones Grant has seen "many times in [his] sleep." Jefferson wants to talk about "[t]hat chair," but Grant changes the subject to the school Christmas program. Jefferson asks, "That's when He was born, or that's when He died?" Grant tells him Christmas is Christ's birth, and Jefferson replies, "Easter when they nailed Him to the cross. And He never said a mumbling word."

Grant tells Jefferson everyone, "no matter how bad off," has obligations to others, and Jefferson owes Emma love and understanding. Jefferson says those things are for "youmans," and since he isn't a human and nothing matters to him, Emma "ought to stay home." He begins to refer to himself in the third person, as a hog being fattened up for a Christmas kill. He asks if Grant knows the date of the execution, and Grant promises him he knows it won't be at Christmas.

Grant cancels a trip to Baton Rouge with Vivian; he has been experiencing sexual difficulties after seeing Jefferson. He tells her his students found a Christmas tree: "Before, it was ... anything ... they could find. But this year, a little pine tree; not very tall, but nice." He says he'd run away with her if she'd only agree, and she replies that running away would mean they would "hate each other for the rest of our lives." Grant says "nothing is changing," but Vivian disagrees: "Something is."


Jefferson's shackles have the emotional effect the sheriff intended them to have. In chains, he reverts back to feeling dehumanized and begins speaking of himself not only as a hog, but in the third person. His third-person language communicates that he feels alienated even from himself.

For someone who has lost his faith, Jefferson is quite concerned with Christ. He does not outright compare himself to Christ, but speaks of Christ's life and death as a way of understanding his own. He is particularly fascinated with how Christ approached his unjust death: without "a mumbling word." This suggests Jefferson may be considering Christ as a role model, if not a hero, for how he might approach his own end.

Grant Wiggins speaks frankly to Jefferson about moral obligation, one of Gaines's primary ideas in the community theme. Jefferson's insistence he isn't a human is a metaphor for his feeling he exists outside the web of community, and it suggests the idea people only become fully themselves when they are able to participate in community with others. With community comes obligations; since Jefferson is not a part of the community, he rejects the obligations Grant speaks of.

While Grant speaks convincingly to Jefferson of the need to fulfill obligations, the very same day he goes to Vivian Baptiste and pleads with her to say the word that will allow him to throw off his own. Grant experiences his own obligations as shackles. Like a man chained to a cell wall, he can run forever without getting anywhere. He treats Vivian as if she were the one with the key who could unlock him, leaving him free to escape the prison. Vivian rejects this implication. She repeatedly communicates that Grant is the one making his decisions, not her. For him to pretend otherwise, and to ask her permission to do something he knows is wrong would destroy the relationship as well as his own dignity.

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