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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 9 | Summary



Grant Wiggins drives Miss Emma to Bayonne to visit Jefferson in jail. The courthouse resembles a European castle, and a Confederate soldier statue and flag stand outside. The facilities for blacks are segregated and inferior. Inside, they meet two deputies. Grant notes the younger deputy, Paul, seems like a decent person. Paul Bonin searches them and leads them to the black cellblock. The prisoners ask Emma and Grant for "cigarettes or money," and Emma promises them any leftovers from the food she's brought for Jefferson.

Jefferson is silent and doesn't respond to Miss Emma's gentle questions. The cell is dirty and sparse. The single window looks out onto a sycamore tree, but does not permit a view of anything man-made. Emma tries to get Jefferson to eat, but he says, "It don't matter." He interrupts her to ask, "When they go'n do it? Tomorrow?" Emma is confused, but Grant knows what Jefferson means; mockingly, Jefferson asks Grant if he's "the one ... Go'n jeck that switch." He says no more, and Emma asks Paul to give the leftovers "to the rest of them children." When Jefferson won't tell her goodbye, she cries out for Jesus, and Grant puts his arm around her.


Although Jefferson's situation has already become a prominent element of Grant Wiggins's life, the two do not meet until now. They are meeting in a building that is literally and symbolically an embodiment of white power and black subjugation. The castle-like appearance and Confederate decorations, as well as the grossly inferior facilities for blacks, signify that the institutions housed within the building are dedicated to the same norms and values that drove the horrors of European colonial imperialism and African slavery.

Miss Emma wants the visit to show her Jefferson is okay, but he clearly is not. She is preoccupied with his well-being, but he is preoccupied with the execution he knows is coming at some future unknown date. By asking if Grant is the executioner and if the execution is to take place the following day, he powerfully communicates the despair he feels at not knowing the circumstances of his fate, which are entirely in the hands of white men who hate him. His questions are not sincere, but infused with verbal irony. He is using a style of communication that appears repeatedly throughout the text. This type of speech reveals complex webs of thoughts and feelings by the very act of concealing them within terse utterances whose literal meaning does not necessarily overlap with what is communicated by them. Tante Lou and Miss Emma also use this encoded mode of verbal communication.

In fact almost none of the significant communication happens with words used in a straightforward way. Most of the communication is nonverbal. Body language and other subtle cues allow Grant to make an immediate judgment that the deputy, Paul, is "decent." Whereas men like the sheriff express racist values constantly with their body language, Paul silently exudes respect and empathy for Grant and Emma even as he searches them for contraband. Paul is a white man working for a fundamentally racist institution, but he doesn't hold the values his line of work and his white skin would imply.

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