A Lesson Before Dying | Study Guide

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 19 | Summary

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Summary

Despite rain, there is a big turnout at the school Christmas program, which is dedicated to Jefferson. The set is makeshift and features the usual curtain of donated bedsheets. On the stage is the little pine tree, and wrapped underneath it is a single present the children chipped in to buy. Grant Wiggins lists the people in attendance, community members, with whose lives he is intimately familiar.

The program opens with a long prayer from Reverend Mose Ambrose. Grant knows he is being addressed when the reverend says an educated man is still "locked in a ... cell of ignorance if he did not know God in the pardon of his sins."

The children sing and Odessa Freeman performs a moving recitation of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Another student, Albert H. Martin, reads his essay "The Little Pine Tree." The essay describes the years of trees past, and presents the pine as "not a great tree ... but it was pine, and it was the most beautiful of all Christmas trees."

A reenactment of the night of Jesus's birth follows. The students' costumes are cobbled together and they speak the dialogue in the local vernacular. Reverend Ambrose closes the program with another prayer, where he repeats the same sentiment that "even with book learning, we were still fools if we did not have God in our hearts." Grant tells the children, eager for his opinion on the performance, that it was "fine, just fine." His student teacher Irene Cole correctly points out Grant doesn't seem happy.

Grant is unhappy because the repetitious nature of the Christmas program reminds him nothing is changing for his people. He recalls Vivian Baptiste's statement that things are changing, but he fails to see it and feels very alone.

Analysis

The Christmas performance is heartfelt and utterly homespun. The community have all contributed what they have, which is not much, and put together a dignified and moving event. The Christmas program is both an expression of and a symbol of the plantation community. It is a product of hard work and reflects the beauty that care and attention can draw forth from scarcity. The students are pleased with their performance and expect Grant to be pleased, but he is not.

Grant, too, sees the Christmas program as a symbol of the state of the community. But instead of seeing the program as evidence of the community's health and stability, he sees it as evidence his community is not progressing and never will. This disappointment makes Grant stand alone, the sole mourner at a night of celebration.

While Jefferson is not actually present at the event, the entire program is imbued with his presence. It is not explicitly said, but the present under the tree is for Jefferson. The conflation of Jefferson with Christ continues as the whole community comes together for a performance about the birth of Jesus as it is explicitly dedicated to Jefferson.

The performance is, of course, in the church, and Reverend Ambrose imbues it with the quality of a church service by opening and closing with prayers more resembling sermons in their length and specificity. Reverend Ambrose is speaking directly to Grant, calling him out on his lack of faith in the presence of the whole community, inside the church, at a religious event. The reverend's words further Gaines's theme that faith has the power to liberate one from shackles in a way education cannot. Grant lacks faith in God, as well as in his community, and his lack of faith in his community leads him to dismiss the little signs of change—like the pine tree with its singular present.

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