A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 21 | Summary



After walking for hours, Grant Wiggins arrives at Miss Emma's and finds her sick in bed. She is being attended to by Reverend Mose Ambrose and Tante Lou, who receive Grant coldly. Having heard the news of the date being set, Vivian Baptiste comes over. She wants Grant's people to like her, and he tells her it doesn't matter.

They go to Miss Emma's together, and again are received curtly. Uncomfortable, Grant sits with Emma, who tells him she can't return to the jail. She wants Grant and Reverend Ambrose to work together. Grant says he will try. Emma responds positively when Vivian tells her she's "praying for both of them."

At the Rainbow Club, Vivian remarks that Irene Cole, Grant's young student teacher, is in love with him. Grant says all the women in his life love him "and don't want an outsider taking [him] away from them." They all want him to be someone they can be proud of—just as Emma "wants memories" of Jefferson "standing like a man" before she dies.

Vivian doesn't understand, so he explains that since slavery, black women have needed black men to protect them, but black men "stay here ... and are broken, or we run away." Women hope for the black man who "will be the one to change this vicious circle." But no man can do this: "it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind." Miss Emma wants him and Jefferson "to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years." Jefferson represents the only chance Miss Emma has to "see a black man stand for her." Because Grant's education makes him exceptional, they try to hold on to him, "[n]ot realizing that their holding on will break me too." Grant says, "It's up to Jefferson" whether the circle can "ever be broken."


Reverend Ambrose and Tante Lou are upset with Grant Wiggins because of his failure to face Miss Emma with the news of the execution's date, which they see as his ducking his responsibility. He has left others in the community to tend to Emma's pain and returned in the company of a woman whose lighter colored skin makes her an outsider. Vivian is highly sensitive to the fact that her mixed-race status excludes her. She wants to be a part of the community but doesn't want to be seen as interfering with something that's not hers, which is how Lou's cold treatment makes her feel. She is a bit jealous of Irene, who is a member of Grant's community rather than a mixed-race person of higher social caste, and someone his family would easily accept as his partner.

Grant points out whether or not Irene has a girlish crush, the root of the community's attachment to him is a desire for him to be their hero. This is a connection he makes soon after his visit to the Rainbow Club during which the men display their admiration for Jackie Robinson and Grant reflects on the power of athletes like Robinson and Joe Louis to lift up an entire people with their actions. The black community needs a savior, someone who can lead, inspire, and empower them to unite and throw off the subjugation that has defined their lives since their ancestors arrived on slave ships. As the only man with a college education, Grant is the plantation's leading candidate, but he does not believe he can fulfill this role. However, he has come to believe Jefferson can. A sense of possibility has replaced his sense of crushing futility, at least with regard to Jefferson.

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