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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 29 | Summary



This chapter consists of Jefferson's diary, which he addresses to "Mr. Wiggins" and ends "sincerely jefferson." Having never written anything before, Jefferson is at first unsure how to approach the diary, but he soon begins to pour out his thoughts. He recalls the people he worked with on the plantation, who questioned the existence of a God who, despite their attempts to serve him, seemed to "love nobody but wite folks."

He recounts a recurrent dream where he is walking toward a door, but always wakes before reaching it. He wonders if the door is "wher they gon put that cher or if it spose to mean def or the grave or heven."

Jefferson wants to tell Grant Wiggins he likes him, but he's never said this to anyone, nor heard it from another. He meditates on the meaning of love: is love the "care" he showed for his nannan by doing chores for her, or is it merely work?

He describes how Henri Pichot and "mr mogan" came to his cell. Pichot gave him a knife under the pretense it would allow him to sharpen his pencil, but Jefferson picked up on the fact he and "mr mogan" were betting on how Jefferson would behave during his final days. Jefferson writes he sees what motivates people, even when they try to hide it: "I know yall ever las one of yall."

He was moved to tears by a visit from the school children and Bok's gift of a marble, Bok's most prized possession, because nobody had "never done nothin lik that for me befor." When Miss Emma visited, he expressed his love for the first time and told her he's strong. He apologizes to Grant for insulting Vivian Baptiste and for crying when Grant told him he wouldn't be at the execution. Jefferson writes of Grant, "nobody aint never been that good to me an make me think im somebody." He describes his last supper as "the bes meal I kno my nannan ever cook," and "jus a little ice crme in a cup."

On Jefferson's final night, the sheriff asks what Jefferson is writing. Jefferson gives a vague response, and the sheriff instructs him to write about how well he has treated him and says Jefferson can keep the light on all night to write. He is nervous and unsure if heaven is real, but vows to "stay strong." He writes, "When I was a litle boy I was a waterboy an rode the cart but now I got to be a man an set in a cher." His final observation, the morning of the execution, is of day "breakin ... the bird in the tre soun like a blu bird ... sky blu blu." He writes, "tell them im strong tell them im a man."


This chapter is the only part of the novel presenting the perspective of another character not filtered through Grant Wiggins's narration. Thus far, even events Grant isn't present for—such as Jefferson's trial—have been described by him rather than through the words of another character who actually experiences those events. It is a sign of his respect for Jefferson that the narrator allows Jefferson an entire chapter to speak for himself.

The reader can trust Jefferson's words are unfiltered, because his idiosyncratic spelling is preserved. In the classroom Grant would hit a student with his ruler for writing like Jefferson, taking it as a sign the student is willfully failing to receive the education he is trying to provide. Jefferson writes the way he speaks, in a vernacular distinctly black as well as lyrical, clear, and profound. Jefferson's diary is proof that using the conventions of written English is not a mark of intelligence or a sign a person's learning and level of understanding are increasing.

A recurrent theme in Jefferson's diary is his gratitude for the care his community demonstrates. This sense of being part of a community is something Jefferson never had before. In fact, his life has been astonishingly devoid of human affection—even his nannan never hugged him before. Jefferson credits the embrace of the community with revolutionizing his self-image. At the time of his final journal entry, his faith in the promises of Christianity remains unresolved. Like Grant, he questions a God who seems to protect whites while inflicting suffering on blacks. It is community, not faith in God, which allows him to approach the chair as a man. Community fills Jefferson like spiritual food, and at his last supper, he is happy with a small amount of ice cream rather than the gallon he previously dreamed of.

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