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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 31 | Summary



The day of the execution, Grant Wiggins tells his students they will kneel beginning at noon and remain kneeling until he hears word the execution is over. Unable to concentrate, he walks outside. It is a picture-perfect spring day. The quarter is deserted except for a single worker in the fields. Grant knows this person must be "a white sharecropper," as the black community has agreed to not work.

Noting the church has been slowly sinking into the ground ever since he was a child, Grant wonders about his disappeared peers, who have fled to cities or are already dead. He asks himself, "What happens after today? Nothing will ever be the same after today." Grant wishes he could "go somewhere and lose all memory of where [he] had come from." He wonders if God is present with Jefferson and hopes he has not prevented Jefferson from believing, since "at this moment, what else is there?" Grant realizes Reverend Ambrose is stronger than he is, and that Reverend Ambrose uses "their God to give him strength."

As Grant walks, he wonders if Jefferson is "on his knees, begging" or "standing." He asks himself why he isn't with Jefferson or kneeling with his students. Stopping to wait in front of Henri Pichot's house, which sits "on its foundation high above the ground," Grant mentally justifies his own lack of faith: "[Jefferson's] peers did not judge him—and I will not believe." Nonetheless, he is aware this disbelief enslaves him, because faith "free[s] the mind, if not the body."

When a butterfly alights near Grant and then flies away, Grant feels sure the execution is over. Paul Bonin arrives and gives Grant the notebook. He says Jefferson "was the strongest man in that crowded room." Jefferson's last words were, "Tell Nannan I walked," and Paul confirms them: "Straight he walked." He commends Grant on being a great teacher and credits him with Jefferson's transformation. Grant denies this: "You have to believe to be a teacher." He says Jefferson's transformation was either Jefferson's own work or God's. Paul says he wants to be Grant's friend, and Grant suggests Paul return to the plantation to recount Jefferson's final moments to the community. When he returns to his classroom and faces his students, he is crying.


As Grant Wiggins walks through the plantation alone, his desire to escape reaches a new level of disillusionment: not only does he want to leave, he wants to remember nothing of his life. Grant is really wishing for self-erasure, not a change of location.

He spends the morning in a sort of spiritual crisis, realizing his education and his pride have weakened him, and faith is what creates freedom, not complacency. He now sees faith is the necessary first step in the liberation of the black community from its oppression. He used to think education was the way out, but his education functions as shackles, enslaving him.

The butterfly Grant takes as a sign of the execution's completion is a common Christian symbol for the liberation of the spirit through rebirth in Christ. Grant does not consider the Christian overtones of the butterfly, but nonetheless takes its presence as an intentional communication from a mysterious and intelligent force. Grant accepts the idea such a force, which might easily be called God, is contained in natural phenomena. The God he so forcefully rejects is "their God," the one worshipped by the white people who murder black people for their skin color without a second thought. The butterfly's appearance also suggests Grant might be on the verge of a spiritual transformation of his own. As he acknowledges, "nothing will ever be the same" after this day, although he cannot imagine what the future will look like.

Paul Bonin's entrance into the quarter and his request for Grant's friendship signal healing in the relationship between the black and white communities. After all, as Gaines has shown throughout the novel, change happens gradually. Over time, small shifts pile up, until a critical mass is reached and the change becomes obvious and profound. Jefferson's transformation has paved the way for this significant friendship between a black teacher and a white jailer. Like believers united in Christ, Paul and Grant are united in their shared experience with Jefferson.

Grant's crying in front of his students suggests he is in the process of letting go of his resentment and bitterness, and vulnerability and honesty are filling their place. He does not offer the reader insight into the emotions and thoughts underlying his tears, and as a result of this ambiguity, this final moment of nonverbal communication is the novel's most powerful moment. All the reader can be sure of is Grant, who previously refused to cry, is changing.

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