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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 24 | Summary



Miss Emma wants Grant Wiggins to visit Jefferson with her, Tante Lou, and Reverend Mose Ambrose, and Grant reluctantly complies, stopping to buy a notebook first. They are escorted to the cellblock by the other deputy, who keeps them waiting along the way. Emma sets the table in the dayroom and Jefferson enters in shackles. The deputy reprimands Grant for not saying "Mr. Paul" when he asks about Paul's whereabouts.

Grant begins to eat, but Reverend Ambrose stops him by beginning a long prayer. During the prayer, Grant worries the food is getting cold. Jefferson says he isn't hungry. He and Grant get up and walk around the room while Lou, Emma, and Reverend Ambrose eat.

Grant says he wants Jefferson to be friends with Emma, and since a "friend would do anything to please a friend," it's important he eat her food. He speaks of heroism, saying a "hero is someone who does something for other people ... that other men don't and can't do." He tells Jefferson he doesn't like teaching and "could never be a hero" because he wants to flee and "live for [him]self and for [his] woman and for nobody else." However, Grant says, he wants Jefferson to be a hero. He says the white people are wrong about Jefferson, whom they think of as "nothing but another nigger—no dignity, no heart, no love for your people."

Grant says white people believe in the myth "that they're better than anyone else on earth." He explains if "a black man stand'[s], and think[s], and show[s] that common humanity that is in us all," the myth which justifies black oppression would be destroyed. Jefferson can "chip away at that myth by standing" in a way neither Grant nor Reverend Ambrose can. Grant needs Jefferson to show him "what to do." If he decides to, Jefferson can be "be bigger than anyone" he has ever met. Grant uses the metaphor of a slingshot being whittled out of a piece of rough wood. He tells Jefferson "all of us" are just "a piece of drifting wood, until we—each one of us, individually—decide to become something else." Jefferson is moved to tears.


In this chapter the tension remains unalleviated between Grant Wiggins and Reverend Mose Ambrose. Inadvertently, Grant displays his disrespect for faith and tradition when he begins to eat before the blessing. Reverend Ambrose demonstrates some passive aggression by not merely blessing the food, but delivering a longwinded sermon-like prayer. Reverend Ambrose seems unaware of the ineffectual nature of his tactics: Grant is thinking about the food, not his words.

Despite the literal and symbolic weight of the white man's chains, despite the difficulty of dragging around a metal burden meant to hobble a man physically and psychically, Jefferson is standing and walking and listening deeply to Grant's message about heroism. The radio has made Jefferson receptive, while the minister's preaching and Emma's food do not. Grant builds on this new trust by offering his own vulnerability, explaining he is weak and lost. Grant's words reveal a shift: he sees Jefferson as the man to teach him, not the other way around. They reveal the faith he has in Jefferson's power, and frame his incarceration and execution as opportunities to be a hero to his people by creating real change. That Jefferson cries shows he takes Grant's words to heart. He does not express doubt he can do as Grant says, but is deeply moved by the value and esteem Grant—an educated and free man—places on Jefferson, someone who has been told and shown he is worthless since he was a child.

This chapter is a turning point in the novel, in terms of both character development and plot development: for the first time Grant believes that he can help Jefferson "stand," and, also for the first time, possibly in his life, Jefferson believes that he is a man, that he has strength to stand on his own. After this moment of breakthrough between Grant and Jefferson, the plot focuses less on the conflicts between the two (and between each of them and the supporting characters), and more on the nature of each character's internal growth.

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