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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 20 | Summary



In late February Farrell Jarreau summons Grant Wiggins from the classroom to Henri Pichot's house, saying "That boy ... they done set the date." Grant goes to the kitchen and finds Reverend Mose Ambrose there. Grant is annoyed at being kept waiting after being summoned, as usual.

Grant and Reverend Ambrose are called up front to speak with Sheriff Guidry. It is "the first time [he] had been in any part of Pichot's house other than the kitchen." Pichot looks worried. Grant notes "all the furniture in the room was old."

Sheriff Guidry announces the governor has decided the execution will be the "second Friday after Easter," April 8, a month from then. He warns Grant and Reverend Ambrose to keep Jefferson calm. Arrangements are made to send a doctor to Emma, who is unwell.

Grant asks Sheriff Guidry why that date was chosen, noting "he did not like me; I was one of the smart ones." The sheriff explains, "It had to be before or after Easter. It couldn't happen during Lent." Grant wonders, "Who made them God?" He reflects on the gross parody of justice at work, and notes bitterly, "even the sensitive few will have forgotten about their Savior's death" as soon as the holiday is over.

Grant refuses to help break the news to Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose replies "You'd have the strength if you had God." Grant goes for a long walk, wishing he could erase the plantation and see only miles of water, with an island where he could live alone with Vivian Baptiste.


Summoned to the house, Grant Wiggins is initially annoyed at the same old disrespectful treatment of being made to wait on a white man. But something is different. For the first time in his life, he sees the front of the house and realizes it is shabby. The shabbiness of the Pichot home symbolizes the white attitudes that maintain the racist social order: they are old, ugly, worn-out things in need of replacement.

The two white men are clearly uncomfortable with the association the execution date creates between Jefferson and Christ, whom they themselves worship. Their discomfort is acknowledged by their inviting the black men into the front of the house, as if this small gesture of respect could mitigate the embarrassing hypocrisy of the situation. Nonetheless, Grant begins to reflect on this association between Jefferson and Christ, and even alludes to it with his request for an explanation about the date. Religious concerns become a means of revealing white hypocrisy and spiritual decay.

When Grant refuses to give the news to Miss Emma, he is neglecting his duty. Selfishly, he doesn't want to bear witness to her pain. Reverend Ambrose believes he has the solution: faith in God. Instead, Grant removes himself from the community, walking into the wildness by the river, and occupies himself with the usual escape fantasies. The uneducated pastor, not educated Grant, is the man who has the fortitude to be present with reality.

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