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PLOT SUMMARY AND NOTES - A Lesson Before Dying
When Grant arrived at the courthouse Sheriff Guidry was in his office for the first time since he had started visiting. The Sheriff pretended not to know who he was, so Grant explained he was there to see Jefferson. Sheriff Guidry reminded Grant that he would stop the visits if Jefferson became agitated. Paul the Deputy led Grant up the stairs and down the corridor to Jefferson’s cell. Jefferson sat on his bunk with his head lowered. When Grant presented him with the food, he asked for corn because that’s what hogs eat. Jefferson said he was just an old hog in his stall getting fat for the slaughter. To make his point, he got down on all fours and buried his face in the bag to eat, even making sounds like a hog.
informed Jefferson he was going back home to tell Miss Emma that they had talked
and ate together, since the truth might kill her. He asked Jefferson if he wanted
the white man to win - the white man who thought Grant was wasting his time by
trying to make Jefferson understand. But Jefferson remained defiant. It had only
been a half hour, and Grant wanted to leave. But he knew if he didn’t stay the
whole hour the Sheriff would know they weren’t getting along and might use that
excuse for stopping the visits. So, he waited in the cell as the minutes dragged
on until the deputy came back to get him.
There is a wide gulf separating Jefferson and Grant. As an educated black man, Grant is a little contemptuous of Jefferson’s ignorance and servility. Grant sees the execution as an opportunity for defiance, to show these white men that blacks are capable of acting with dignity and self-respect, even in such a dark hour. Jefferson does not share this vision. In fact, judging by his animal-like behavior during Grant’s visit, he seems to share the white man’s opinion of himself. Self-pity is the first obstacle that Grant must overcome to help Jefferson act like a man.
Although he was supposed to go straight home and report the details of his visit with Jefferson, Grant went to the Rainbow Club instead. He felt the truth would be too hard on Miss Emma, so he tried thinking of some little lies that might make her feel better. As he sat there drinking his beer, he watched two old black men talk about Jackie Robinson. The men were not interested in baseball, or the Dodgers, only Jackie Robinson. The scene reminded Grant of the way people used to talk about the boxer Joe Louis. When Joe Louis had lost to the German fighter Schmelling the black community had gone into mourning; but when he had later beaten Schmelling in a re-match they had celebrated like it was the fourth of July. It all reminded Grant of Joyce’s short story, “Ivy Day in the Committee room”.
In order to purge his minds of depressing thoughts about Jefferson, Grant tried thinking spending the weekend with Vivian. But his mind wandered back to an article he’d read about a black man executed in Florida. He had dreamed of a black man being strapped into the chair and pleading “Help me, Joe Louis, please help me.” He wondered if Jefferson would call on Jackie Robinson when his day came. He left the bar and walked over to the school where Vivian had finished teaching for the day. Grant cleaned the blackboards and tried to convince Vivian to go away with him for the weekend. She declined, saying she couldn’t take the risk that her husband would take the kids while she was gone. He told her what had happened during his visit with Jefferson, saying he just wished he could run away from the whole thing. Vivian reminds him that he loves his friends and family more than he hates the injustice.
Grant’s memories of Joe Louis, and the men’s conversation about Jackie Robinson, conjure up an image of black athletes as Saint-like figures in the black community. Despite Robinson’s success as a ballplayer, he couldn’t even eat in the same restaurant with his teammates in some cities. Neither did his fame translate into greater civil rights for the average black man in the South. The condemned black man in Grant’s dreams cries to Joe Louis in the same way a Catholic in dire straits might call out to St. Joseph or St. Michael. These famous figures provide some measure of emotional or spiritual comfort, but they had no power to enact social change or bring about justice.
Grant again expresses his desire to run away from his problems, but Vivian gives us another possible reason for his failure to leave. He loves the people in the black community more than he hates the humiliation of being black in the South.