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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 28 | Summary



Grant Wiggins visits Jefferson the day before Good Friday. He reads in Jefferson's journal a description of his dream: "They was taking me somewhere. I wasn't crying. I wasn't begging. I was just going." Jefferson also wrote how a hog wouldn't be electrocuted like a man would, and "man walk on two foots; hogs on four hoofs."

Grant tells Jefferson to listen to Reverend Mose Ambrose and pray for Miss Emma's sake. When Jefferson asks him about heaven, Grant admits he is unsure about heaven's existence and explains he doesn't pray because he doesn't believe in anything. He wants Jefferson "to believe so that one day maybe" Grant will also believe.

Jefferson questions Reverend Ambrose's insistence he must renounce "what's down here," pointing out he's never had anything to give up. Grant explains this means he must practice love with Emma, who has cared for him and who now asks "for only one thing in this world. Walk like a man. Meet her up there." Grant explains he believes God animates nature and underlies human caring. Jefferson remarks he wants to be like Jesus, who "never said a mumbling word."

Looking out the window, Jefferson says he must do everything on his own: "Me, Mr. Wiggins ... Me to take the cross. Your cross, nannan's cross, my own cross," and refers to himself as "this old stumbling nigger." Jefferson questions how he, as a person abandoned by his own parents and made to believe he was worth no more than his toil in the fields, is supposed to "be better than ever'body else." Grant drops his eyes when Jefferson remarks he's being asked to "give up this old earth," right before being buried back in it. Jefferson tells Grant to look at him, and standing tall, he promises to do his best. Grant says this moment has opened his eyes, and reassures Jefferson he has read the experience of electrocution is mercifully quick. Jefferson picks up the bag of sweet potatoes Grant has brought and offers him one.


On the day before Good Friday—the day before Jesus was crucified—the conversation Reverend Mose Ambrose predicted in the previous chapter comes to pass. Grant stays true to his intention not to lie to Jefferson, as the pastor wanted him to. Instead, Grant honestly communicates the complexity of the situation to Jefferson, who understands it and accepts its implications.

Jefferson is being asked to renounce his lifelong self-image of worthlessness and rise above it, an action he now understands has the power to alleviate the suffering of others. Instead of speaking of the burden Matthew Antoine referred to, he uses the Christian language of the cross. He remarks on the situational irony, that an "old stumbling nigger" like himself would find himself in this position. But what Jefferson finds most remarkable about Jesus is not religion's claim that his death saved the world, but that he fully accepted his death by approaching it without "a mumbling word." It is this single-minded resolve Jefferson seeks to emulate. He makes Grant no promises except to '"do his best."

This promise, combined with the fact that Jefferson stands fully upright by the window, hits Grant with the force of an awakening. Jefferson is willing to do his best, even though he is about to die. If Jefferson can do this, the subtext suggests, why can't Grant? Grant, although he is not incarcerated, is as unable to run away from his own life, as Jefferson is unable to escape his. However, Jefferson is at peace with the idea of doing his best, while Grant's cynicism and despair keep him from doing his best, both in the classroom and in his relationships.

Jefferson's treatment of the food brought to him in the jail has always been a potent symbol of his inner state. When Jefferson changes the subject from death to food by offering Grant a sweet potato, it is the first time he has used food to convey community and caring rather than despair and self-hatred.

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