Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES - A Lesson Before Dying
Everyone in town knew
what the trial verdict would be. Tante Lou and Miss Emma attended every day. They
listened as the prosecutor explained Jefferson’s part in this terrible crime,
even as Jefferson protested he had played no part. He had simply accompanied Brother
and Bear to old man Grope’s store for a bottle of wine. None of them had any money,
but Brother and Bear explained that they could buy on credit, since grinding season
would soon start and they could easily pay Grope back then. When Grope refused
to give them the wine, however, Brother and Bear went behind the counter to take
it. Grope got out his gun, and when the shooting was over everyone was dead except
Jefferson. He had no idea what to do. He could telephone for help because he’d
never used one before. He opened a bottle and took a drink to clear his mind.
Then he saw the open cash register, and decided to take the money inside. With
the money in his jacket and a bottle of whiskey in his hand he walked out of the
store as two white men entered. That was his story.
The prosecution portrayed Jefferson as the mastermind who used Brother and Bear to rob the store. He drank he whiskey in celebration of its success. To counter this theory, the defense attorney explained that Jefferson had a limited level of intelligence. He was a fool, no more. Jefferson was capable of chopping wood, hauling water, or digging ditches, but not planning out a crime like this. He asked the jury what justice would there be in taking the life of this man - who was not even a man, really. He was a child. The defense concluded by saying he would “just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” (Page 8) After lunch on Friday, the jury of twelve white men returned with its verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree. On Monday, the judge sentenced Jefferson to death by electrocution. The governor would set the date.
From the trial’s beginning there was no doubt to the outcome. We are led to believe that Jefferson is innocent of murder, although guilty of robbery. But In 1940’s Louisiana, there is little chance of a black man charged with killing a white storeowner being acquitted by a white jury. Jefferson will die, and nothing can stop that now.
Jefferson seems to be a good person, but extremely slow-witted. In his futile attempt to gain an acquittal, the defense attorney has furthered humiliated Jefferson and his family by comparing his client to a hog. These comments reveal the prevalent Southern stereotype that black men were somehow more than animals, but less than men. Notice Grant does not attend the trial.
When Grant returned home from school later that day he saw his Aunt Tante Lou and Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, at the kitchen table. Miss Emma was the last person he wanted to see, since he and everyone else in the quarter knew what the verdict would be. He tried to avoid them by going quickly to his room and sitting down quietly to grade papers. Moments later his Aunt entered and asked him to come talk with Miss Emma. When he sits down, Miss Emma is starting out the window mumbling about how they called Jefferson a hog. She knows that Jefferson will die, but she wants him to die like a man instead of animal. Since Grant is a university graduate, and the town’s black teacher, she wants him to take her place and visit Jefferson in the prison. Miss Emma would like Grant to help prepare Jefferson for the electric chair, so that he can die with dignity.
Grants protest, saying there’s nothing he can do for Jefferson. The best he can hope to accomplish is to keep other black children from ending up in prison. But his Aunt insists he will do it, or find another place to live. Granted wanted to scream. He hated this small town. He hated teaching, and felt like he was going nowhere. He needed to go to Bayonne tonight, where he could breathe. But Miss Emma and his Aunt are determine to go visit Henri Pichot, whose brother-in-law is the sheriff, and Grant goes with them.
The exchange between Grant and the two women forms the beginning of the plot in this novel. Miss Emma has raised Jefferson since he was a baby, and as she says, she didn’t raise him to act like a hog. She is in her last years, and watching Jefferson go to the chair with his head held high is all the satisfaction she can hope for after years of parenting. Somehow Grant must instill a sense of hope in both Jefferson and Miss Emma as both inch closer towards the grave.
This is our first real look at Grant, the narrator and protagonist in the story. Like the other black characters in the novel, he’s unhappy with his life, but for a different reason. He has a university degree and teaches the black school in town. But He hates this town, he hates teaching, and he feels like he’s running in place. He tells his Aunt he plans on going “to Bayonne where I can breathe...I can’t breathe here.” (Page 14). He feels trapped, both by the racism that exists in his community and by the expectations of his aunt.