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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES - A Lesson Before Dying
The day before Jefferson’s execution, a large truck rolled into Bayonne carrying the electric chair. Everyone came out of their shops and business to watch the men unload it. That night Tante Lou stayed at Miss Emma’s house along with Reverend Ambrose. Vivian and Grant sat in a quiet Rainbow Room for a while, not saying much. Then Grant bought a bottle of liquor to help him sleep and went home.
Ambrose woke up early the next morning because he had to be at the jail early
so he could be one of the witnesses. Afterwards he was responsible for meeting
with the mortician. Across town, Sheriff Guidry was eating his breakfast with
a heavy heart. He told his wife that he wished this day hadn’t come, but now that
it was here he had to do his job. In front of Edwin’s department store, Melvina’s
heart raced as she watched men unload the electric chair. Fee Jenkins was cleaning
out the Sheriff’s office when he heard people talk about Gruesome Gertie. A man
said once you sit down in her lap, you don’t get up again. People all around town
complained about how the chair’s generator makes such a loud, awful sound.
Inside the jail, the Sheriff sent another prisoner to Jefferson’s cell to shave his head along with his wrists and ankles. Jefferson was calm when they entered. He even asked one of the guard’s how his wife and children were doing. They cut Jefferson’s pant legs and shirtsleeves, and all the while Jefferson obeyed as if he were in a trance. As they were finishing up, he asked Paul to give the notebook to Grant and the pearl-handled knife back to Henri Pichot. Finally, he asked if Paul would be there, and Paul nodded that he would.
After Jefferson’s diary, Gaines turns his focus away from Jefferson to show us how his death affects the people around him. Their reactions reveal a great deal about their character. Most people care nothing for Jefferson but they’re upset that the generator makes so much noise. Reverend Ambrose stays true to form and spends most of the night ministering to Miss Emma. Grant, however, seeks to drown out his misery with a form of escapism - alcohol.
That morning Jefferson was scheduled to die at noon. Grant instructed his students to get down on their knees starting at noon, and to stay there until he heard from the courthouse. Outside the church it was quiet. Out of respect for Jefferson, all blacks had decided to stay home from the fields today. At eleven o’clock, Grant saw the Minister’s car go by with Harry Williams sitting in the passenger seat. He didn’t want to think about Jefferson. He just wanted to get in his car and drive away from all of this. He realized that Reverend Ambrose is a stronger, braver man then he. Grant had the option to attend as a witness, but felt he couldn’t do it. When it was close to twelve, he told the children to get down on their knees while he walked around the school. He wondered how Jefferson was doing, wondered why he wasn’t there with Jefferson to comfort him. In his mind, the injustice of Jefferson’s execution was proof that God did not exist. He would not believe.
As Grant looked down the road he could see a car driving towards him. It was Paul coming to deliver Jefferson’s diary. He reported that the execution went as well as could be expected, and that Jefferson was the strongest man in the room. He walked to the chair just as they had hoped. Paul complimented Grant on being a great teacher, but Grant replied that you have to believe to be a great teacher, and he did not. As they parted, Paul shook Grant’s hand and asked if they could be friends. He told Grant to go back into the school and tell the children what a brave man Jefferson was. Grant’s eyes were full of tears as he re-entered the school.
Despite all the progress he has made with Jefferson, Grant seems to have reverted back to the cynical, bitter, self-absorbed person he was at the beginning of the novel. He does not attend the execution even though Sheriff Guidry asked him to be a witness. Jefferson was his only religion. Now that Jefferson is dead any belief in something greater than himself also dies. He relies on his cynical view of Christianity as a crutch for the weak of mind.
Paul bringing the diary to Jefferson is an act symbolic of a future cooperation that could exist between the races. As Paul tries to befriend him, however, Grant appears very cold and distant. But he is clearly touched by the events that have transpired, as evidenced by his tearful return to the class.