A Lesson Before Dying | Study Guide

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

After school Grant Wiggins goes to Henri Pichot's house. Inez lets him into the kitchen, crying. Sheriff Guidry will be there at five, and Louis Rougon is trying to make a bet with Pichot, over a case of whiskey, that Grant "can't get [Jefferson] ready to die." Grant hears the sheriff and his wife Edna arrive. Edna comes into the kitchen, half-drunk, and tells Grant to tell Miss Emma how sorry she is about Jefferson. Edna would tell Emma herself, but is "just too broken up over this matter."

Inez serves dinner to Pichot and his white guests, but Grant refuses food, feeling humiliated by being kept waiting in the kitchen. After Grant has been waiting two and a half hours, Pichot, Guidry, Rougon, and another man enter the kitchen. Grant wonders whether he "should act like the teacher that [he is], or like the nigger that [he is] supposed to be."

The sheriff interrogates Grant about visiting Jefferson, although Grant knows the sheriff has already made up his mind. The sheriff says the preacher should visit Jefferson, and asks Grant, "I hear ... you want to make him a man. A man for what, at this time?" Grant says the plan is Miss Emma's, and "if it was left up to me, I wouldn't have anything to do with it at all." The sheriff agrees but says his wife "thinks different" and asks Grant who he thinks is correct. Grant declines to respond, and the sheriff pronounces Grant "just a little too smart for [his] own good." The sheriff says he'd "rather see a contented hog go to that chair than an aggravated hog ... There ain't a thing [Grant] can put in that skull that ain't there already." He gives Grant permission to visit, as long as Jefferson doesn't become aggravated.

Analysis

In the eyes of Henri Pichot and his cohorts, Grant Wiggins's education is not a reason to treat him with respect, but a cause for suspicion. Grant knows that by displaying his education—by speaking correctly, for example—he is contradicting their ideas about what black people are and can and should be. Their attitudes toward blacks are evident in the way they dehumanize Jefferson, calling him a thing and a hog and betting on the situation's outcome as if it were a matter of sport rather than human dignity.

Grant is angry because the situation with Jefferson is already humbling him. For the second time in two days Grant enters Pichot's house through the back, and is made to wait for hours while the white people have a leisurely dinner in the front part of the house. Although he is hungry, Grant's refusal of food is a matter of pride: he will not consent to the inferiority represented in eating at Pichot's kitchen table. Here, food is presented as a symbol of being accepted into a community. Grant is not invited to eat with Pichot and his other guests because they regard him as an inferior. But he will not eat at the kitchen table, which would signify his acceptance of this subordinate status.

Women's power to influence men is demonstrated again when the sheriff's wife, Edna, convinces him to let Grant visit Jefferson. Similarly, Grant is careful to let the sheriff know the plan is all Miss Emma's, not his. This is important, because Emma is, to them, a simple and foolish woman. On the other hand, Grant is dangerous because of his education; the sheriff fears—if the plan were Grant's—Grant might have intentions of telling Jefferson things that would "aggravate" him. If Grant is merely an unwilling pawn for Emma's plan, which the sheriff calls "a waste of time," the danger of Jefferson—and the other inmates—becoming discontent with their lot is lessened. The sheriff grants permission because he regards the whole thing as merely a harmless waste of time.

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