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Free Study Guide-A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines-Chapter Summary
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES - A Lesson Before Dying

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Summary

During that week something changed inside Grant so that he didn’t feel angry all the time. When he visited the jail on Friday he decided to ask Paul, the youngest of the deputies, about Jefferson’s daily routine. He found out that Jefferson ate some of the food Miss Emma brought him and gave the rest to the other prisoners. The prison fed him twice a day, and he didn’t talk to anyone else on the block.

When Grant sits down in the cell, Jefferson again refuses to eat the food he brought with him. Grant explained that Miss Emma had come back from the prison crying, but Jefferson showed no concern. He remarked that Grant would be acting the same way if her were on death row, but Grant responded that it doesn’t help anyone to break Miss Emma’s heart like that. Jefferson was getting irritated. He wanted to insult Grant. He threatened to scream for Guidry and finally resorted to slurring Vivian to see what kind of a response he could get. Grant would have hit any other man for saying that, but he recognized Jefferson’s expression of pain for what it was. He let Jefferson know that Vivian was the only reason he kept coming to visit the jail. Unable to provoke Grant, Jefferson turned around and knocked the bag off food off the bed, spilling it across the cell.


By the time Paul came back, Grant had picked up all the food, but he and Jefferson hadn’t exchanged another word. Paul told him that the Sheriff wanted to see him in his office. Apparently, Miss Emma and Tante Lou had visited the Sheriff’s wife. They asked her to talk to the Sheriff in the hopes that they could visit Jefferson in the dayroom so they could all sit down. Sheriff Guidry seemed convinced that Grant had masterminded the entire affair, but Grant assured them he knew nothing about it. Finally, Guidry agreed to allow Jefferson to go to the dayroom, but promised he would be shackled the entire time.

Notes

This chapter represents a breakthrough in two ways. First, Grant strikes up a conversation with Paul, a prison deputy and the only non-racist white person in the novel. Paul allows Grant to maintain a little dignity when visiting the prison, and also proves to be a useful source of information on Jefferson’s behavior between visits.

The confrontation between Grant and Jefferson is also a step forward, because it is Jefferson’s first real display of emotion since being convicted. For the first time he’s expressing the anger he feels at life for what has happened to him, and he makes Vivian the object of his anger. Jefferson somehow manages to control his temper, since he knows if there’s trouble the Sheriff will stop the visits. As Grant explains, Jefferson wouldn’t do anything to end the visits either. He needed Grant there, if only to insult him.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Summary

Jefferson was characteristically apathetic when the Sheriff approached him about visiting his family in the day room, but he agreed. The next day Miss Emma set a table to have lunch in the day room with Jefferson, but he refused to eat any of the food, even when Miss Emma tried to feed it to him. A couple of day later Grant visited him in the same day room, Jefferson came in wearing handcuffs and shackles. As Grant set out the food Jefferson asked what it was he wanted when he came to visit. Jefferson suggested they talk about the electric chair, but Grant started talking about the school Christmas program instead. They talked about how Jesus was born at Christmas time and died at Easter. Then Grant tried to explain the meaning of obligations, and how Jefferson had an obligation to show his Miss Emma some love when she came to visit him. Jefferson responded that he was only a hog, and hogs don’t have emotions. Grant realized he wasn’t reaching him, and waited quietly until it was time to go.

Grant stayed in Bayonne until it was time for Vivian to be out of school, then picked her up and went back to the Rainbow club. Grant was feeling quite depressed, so they decided to cancel their trip to Baton Rouge. Again, he offered to drop everything and leave if she would just give the word. Again, she refused. Grant complained that what he was doing wasn’t making any difference. Vivian disagreed.

Notes

Jefferson is preoccupied with the time of Jesus’ birth and death. Gaines portrays him as a Christ-like figure that will go like a lamb to the slaughter. Mathew Antoine assures Grant that nothing he does will change things, but Vivian is the opposite. She sees that Grant is changing, even if Jefferson is not.

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