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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 30 | Summary



The night before the execution, instead of staying with Miss Emma like many members of the community, Grant Wiggins goes to the Rainbow Club and sees Vivian Baptiste, who says she will have her students kneel during the execution. The bar closes early, but Grant avoids Emma's house and continues drinking alone at home, fearful of falling asleep and having nightmares.

The morning of the execution, Reverend Mose Ambrose prays for God to be with him as he witnesses the event. At breakfast Sheriff Guidry cannot look his wife in the face. It is his first execution, and "he was praying that everything would go well."

The electric chair is transported through town on the bed of a truck. Many townspeople see it as they go about their business and are struck by its frightening presence. When the truck goes by Edwin's department store, one of the white clerks taunts her black coworker, who is deeply shaken by the sight. Inmate Fee Jinkins watches the chair being set up inside the courthouse's storage room. A white man jokes that if Fee doesn't "watch himself," he might have to sit in the chair, nicknamed "Gruesome Gerty." A remark is made that "the Lord died between twelve and three on a Friday," the same time and day Jefferson's execution is to be held. A woman replies, "yes, and so did two thieves." Several white people take offense that the noise of the generator, which powers the chair, can be heard throughout town.

Paul Bonin is instructed to supervise the shaving of Jefferson by another inmate, Murphy. Without a careful shave, the chair will torture Jefferson but not kill him. The executioner remarks he's "seen enough of that for a lifetime." Paul asks to be exempted from this duty, but is refused.

Jefferson looks tired, and the radio is off. During the shave, "a bird sang in the sycamore tree outside the window." The special deputy can't look Jefferson in the eye when he asks after the health of the deputy's family. As he is shaved and his clothing cut away, Jefferson "obeyed as if he were in a trance, as if he felt nothing." He asks Paul to give Grant the notebook and to return Pichot's pocketknife, and gives him Bok's marble. With his eyes, Jefferson asks if Paul will be at the execution, and Paul says he will.


While Chapter 29 is the only chapter not filtered through a narrator, Chapter 30 assumes a third-person omniscience that the rest of the book lacks: only the second and third paragraphs are written in Grant's voice. This strategy offers the reader the opportunity to see the events through multiple characters' points of view, broadening the novel's scope on the single event it has been building toward: the execution of Jefferson.

The townspeople of Bayonne witness the arrival and installation of the chair, but their reaction to it depends on their race. Black and white alike are disturbed by it, although for different reasons. The black people are shaken because the chair is an ultimate expression of white power, and one of their own is about to die in it. The subtext is their awareness that any one of them could easily be in Jefferson's position, moments away from death, because white people said they committed a crime. White people, on the other hand, are disturbed that they and their children are forced to witness the gruesome embodiment of their hatred of black people. For these people, their own discomfort creates the injustice in the situation. Even worse, some white people make cruel jokes about the chair to black people. These jokes are smug displays of white power, which finds black pain amusing.

Gaines names the chair "Gruesome Gerty," an allusion to the historical case of Willie Francis, a black Louisiana teenager convicted without evidence for murder. The instrument of Francis's execution was an electric chair by the same name. However, the first time Francis went to the chair, improper wiring caused him to be tortured instead of killed. The Francis case is also alluded to by the executioner, when he remarks care is needed to prevent the execution from becoming a torture session.

As he is being prepared for the chair, Jefferson fulfills his intention of submitting to his destiny without "a mumbling word." He doesn't beg or resist, nor does he speak of what he must be going through. Instead, he asks the special deputy who is there to oversee the execution how his family is doing. This mundane courtesy assumes symbolic and even spiritual weight given the context, and the deputy is shamed by Jefferson's dignity. He would prefer to think the body he is preparing to execute belongs to an unthinking, unfeeling, criminal or animal.

Since Grant Wiggins refuses to be there, Paul Bonin is the only person Jefferson trusts who will be present with him at his death. Paul is white, but he has been kind to Jefferson and his visitors throughout his incarceration. Jefferson's gift of Bok's marble is symbolic of his regard for Paul, as is the fact he trusts him to carry out his last wishes. Paul is extremely uncomfortable, but knows Jefferson needs him to be present, so he puts aside his own feelings for Jefferson's sake.

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