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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES - A Lesson Before Dying
Against his will, Grant drives both his Aunt and Miss Emma up to the house of Henri Pichot, the brother in law of the sheriff and a former employer of both women. Because blacks can only use the servant’s entrance to the house, Grant pulls up to the side gate but stops short of going in himself. He reminds his Aunt that she didn’t want him to ever go through that back door again, but she reminds him of the extenuating circumstances. As they wait for Mr. Pichot in the kitchen, Grant sees many things that he remembers from his childhood, when he would come to visit his Aunt working in the Pichot kitchen.
When Mr. Pichot appears, Miss Emma explains that
he would like “the teacher” (Grant) to visit Jefferson in her place, so he can
change Jefferson from a hog into a man before he execution. Mr. Pichot suspects
that Grant has put her up to this, and initially he refuses. He tells Miss Emma
that the boy is guilty and she should just let the law have him. Miss Emma replies
that she’s not asking for Jefferson to be freed, only that Grant be allowed to
visit him before he dies. She reminds Mr. Pichot of all the service she has provided
for his family over the decades, and promises she will keep asking until he agrees
to talk with the sheriff. Finally, he relents.
From the conversation with Mr. Pichot, we start to see that Grant’s involvement with Jefferson will dredge up a past that Grant hoped he had moved beyond when he left for university. When his Aunt asks him to come into Mr. Pichot’s house, he replies “It was you who said you didn’t want me to go through that back door ever again.” (Page 17) Aunt Tante Lou had sent Grant to university in the hopes that he could pull himself out of the humiliation of being black in the South. Ironically, she is the one pulling him back in by asking him to help Jefferson.
Since Grant has been to university and become a teacher, he is not often subjected to the conversation protocol of speaking with whites. When Jefferson first addresses Mr. Pichot, he realizes he’s forgotten to add “sir” at the end of the sentence. When Pichot is done speaking to him, Grant remembers he is supposed to look down at the ground. He clearly resents having being submitted to this debasement in order to help Jefferson.
Grant drops off Miss Emma and Aunt Tante Lou at this house. When she asks when he’ll be home for dinner he tells her he’ll eat in town, which hurts her feelings. He drives the fifteen miles to Bayonne and stops in at the Rainbow Club in the black section of town. After ordering his meal he telephones Vivian and asks her to come and meet him for dinner. When she arrives and sits down he proposes that they pack up everything, including her kids, and leave town. She refuses, saying that they are both teachers and have commitments to their schools.
Grant explains that he needs to go somewhere where he’s feels like he’s living, he doesn’t feel alive here. He says the only reason he hasn’t left is because of Vivian. Her divorce isn’t final yet, and so she can’t leave Bayonne. But Vivian reminds him that he did leave once to visit his parents in California, but he came back. When she asks him why he came back he has no response. She tells Grant that she’ll move wherever he wants to go after her divorce is final.
After they dance, Grant relates the story about Jefferson and how his Aunt wants him to help Jefferson become a man before they execute him. Grant tells her he doesn’t want to do it and has no idea what to say to him. Vivian convinces him that he needs to do this - “for us”. After discussing this they decide to go to Baton Rouge together for the weekend.
In this chapter we get a greater sense of what is tying Grant down to the small southern community he hates. It is more than just Vivian. When he tells Grant she’ll move anywhere with him after the divorce, as long as he’s responsible, he says “if I fail, I have to blame myself for the rest of my life for trying, is that it?” (Page 30) we start to think that perhaps it is Grant’s own personal sense of inadequacy that keeps him where he is. He may hate his town, but as long as he stays there he can blame its institutionalized racism for his station in life. If he leaves, however, he risks failure or success solely on the strength of his own merits.
This is also one reason why he’s so aggravated about helping Jefferson - he doesn’t believe himself capable of making a difference in what’s left of Jefferson’s life. When he talks with Vivian about Jefferson, he admits, “I’m still trying to figure out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?” (Page 31) Grant recognizes that Jefferson has never lived with much dignity, how can he die that way? If Grant is expected to help Jefferson find meaning in life, he’s going to have to find some meaning in his own life first.