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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 23 | Summary



The following week, Miss Emma, Tante Lou and Reverend Mose Ambrose visit Jefferson. They are forced to meet in the cell, because Jefferson is not allowed to bring the radio to the dayroom and so refuses to go there. He has listened to it nonstop, but when Miss Emma turns the radio off so they can talk, Jefferson turns to the wall. When the guests leave, Jefferson switches it back on.

Sheriff Guidry tells Miss Emma he'll take the radio away if it causes problems. Emma says it isn't and the sheriff reminds her earlier she did consider visiting in the cell to be a problem. The sheriff tells him they've got to work together "with that teacher." He asks, "What about [Jefferson's] soul?" and Reverend Ambrose does not answer.

The same afternoon Tante Lou and Reverend Ambrose communicate their anger about the radio to Grant Wiggins. Jefferson is focused on the radio, "that sin box," when he should be focusing on God. When Grant says he doesn't care what Reverend Ambrose thinks about the radio, Lou starts up angrily, as if to slap Grant.

Grant points out Jefferson needs the radio, as "something of his own before he dies," and it has allowed Grant "to reach him for the first time." Lou says the radio is "[t]urning him 'gainst God," and Grant replies the radio "is there to help him not think about death." If they take the radio away, he threatens, he will cease visiting—because it is the only thing reminding Jefferson he is a person. "Take that radio away, and let's see what you can do for the soul of a hog." Emma says Jefferson needs Grant, not just Reverend Ambrose.

On Wednesday Grant brings Jefferson nuts gathered by the schoolchildren. Jefferson agrees to meet Emma in the dayroom, and to let Reverend Ambrose talk to him.

Grant expresses a desire to be Jefferson's friend. "I want you to say anything that comes to your mind," he says. Jefferson is willing, and Grant decides to bring him a notebook, so he can write down his thoughts when he is alone. Jefferson accepts the offer distractedly. As Grant goes to leave, he sees "there was no hate in his face—but Lord, there was pain." Stutteringly, Jefferson asks Grant to thank the children for the nuts. Grant experiences intense joy: "I felt like someone who had just found religion."


With a month until the execution, the general concern is for the state of Jefferson's soul. Reverend Mose Ambrose blames the radio for Jefferson's disinterest in his message of salvation, despite the fact that Jefferson is already not a believer who expressed hostility to the reverend before he had the radio. Sheriff Guidry uses the radio as a way to berate Miss Emma, implying her request to meet in the dayroom was a mere frivolity. Moments later he expresses concern for Jefferson's soul. Reverend Ambrose's response—silence—communicates nonverbally that a man such as Sheriff Guidry should not pretend at such concerns, which are obviously insincere.

The radio both exacerbates and symbolizes the existing tension between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, as well as between Grant and his aunt. Grant disagrees so vehemently with the pastor's conviction that the radio is a source of sin, and a barrier to what would otherwise be an easy conversion, Lou nearly slaps him. His words show he does not respect Reverend Ambrose as the community's moral and spiritual authority. Grant feels Reverend Ambrose's attitude is wrongheaded and even dangerous. To remove the radio would crush Jefferson's spirit, not make him open to receiving spiritual teachings.

When Jefferson expresses gratitude for the nuts the schoolchildren gathered, Grant experiences a positive emotion for the first time in the novel. The joy he feels is such a contrast from his usual emotional landscape he characterizes it as "religious." Jefferson previously insisted manners are for the living and for humans, and for him to ask Grant to thank the children shows he considers himself to be a living human being. The gift itself is the work of the community, and it communicates to Jefferson he is a valued part of their community.

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