A Lesson Before Dying

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A Lesson Before Dying Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Friday of the week that Grant visits Miss Emma’s house, he goes to see Jefferson at the jailhouse. Before Friday, however, he becomes much less angry than he was on Monday. This happens because it’s the Christmas season, and because Grant can never stay angry for very long.
Grant’s claim that he can’t stay angry for long may well be true, but the result is that he’s constantly irritated, instead. Instead of getting angry and then recovering, he maintains a perpetual state of slight irritation, reacting to little things like Lou’s behavior, driving, schoolwork, etc.
Themes
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On Friday, Grant goes through the usual search process before he enters Jefferson’s cell. As Paul walks him past the prisoners, Grant asks him how Jefferson is doing; Paul replies that he’s doing all right, eating some of the food his family sends him. He introduces himself to Grant as Paul Bonin; Grant introduces himself as Grant Wiggins, and they shake hands. Paul tells Grant that he isn’t planning on becoming too close to Jefferson, since Jefferson will be executed soon. Grant asks what Jefferson does every day. Paul replies that he eats hot meals, a sandwich, and lots of beans. Jefferson is given a shower every week, and a haircut. He never talks to the other prisoners.
Paul again shows signs of interest in Jefferson. Indeed, he goes beyond the other white people in the novel, such as Edna, and shows genuine respect for Jefferson. Yet even Paul is keeping his distance form Jefferson, refusing to be a close friend to him. This shows that, while Paul may be a good man and a kind guard, he’s also a realist: he values his own happiness, and thus doesn’t become attached to people who are going to die, anyway.
Themes
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Paul leaves Grant with Jefferson. Grant offers Jefferson food, but Jefferson says he isn’t hungry; Grant leaves the food for the other inmates. He tells Jefferson that he’s upset Emma terribly, and Jefferson responds that everyone cries sooner or later. Grant says that Jefferson needs to be a better human being before he’s executed, showing love and respect for the people who have sacrificed for him. Jefferson replies that Grant is only talking this way because he has a long time left to live—if Grant were on death row, he wouldn’t be saying these things.
Jefferson outlines the basic moral problem of the man who is about to die, a moral problem that’s as old as Western philosophy: why should we behave virtuously, except for our own self interest? The Christian answer to this question would be: because God wants us to be good, and we owe it to God to honor his wishes. Because Grant dislikes organized religion, he has a difficult time answering Jefferson’s questions.
Themes
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Grant and Jefferson continue to talk. Jefferson threatens to scream and insult Vivian if Grant stays in his cell. But Grant sees that Jefferson won’t scream—he wants Grant there for his company, even if he’s angry with Grant. Nevertheless, Jefferson makes crude insults about Vivian, and for a split second Grant wants to hit him. Instead, he tells Jefferson that Vivian cares about him deeply. Jefferson replies that manners and food are for the living. He kicks all the food off his bed and turns away from Grant. Grant spends the last fifteen minutes of his visit picking up all the food Jefferson has kicked on the floor.
Even when Jefferson insults Vivian, Grant recognizes that he’s made some progress with Jefferson: Jefferson wants Grant there to listen to him when he speaks. Even so, Jefferson has a long way to go before he becomes a man: he’s still behaving like a hog, rejecting the food (and therefore bonds to society) Emma makes him, and ignoring Grant even when Grant picks the food up off the ground.
Themes
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Paul leads Grant out of the jail cell. In the front office, Grant notices the sheriff and the chief deputy talking to the fat man, Frank, who Grant saw at Pichot’s house. Guidry asks Grant if he’s made any progress, and Grant responds that he doesn’t know. Guidry asks Grant if he’s “planning anything,” and Grant answers that he isn’t. Guidry reveals that Miss Emma, Reverend Ambrose, and Tante Lou went to Edna Guidry and asked for her help in convincing Guidry to put some chairs in Jefferson’s cell so that everyone could sit down at the same time. Later on, Grant finds out what Guidry was talking about: Emma, Reverend Ambrose, and Tante Lou asked Edna for her help in this matter, and Edna said that she would do what she could. Edna tactlessly added that she would be happy when “this whole thing” was over, causing Emma to break down in tears.
In a short section of the text, Grant gets a flavor of the different reactions white people have to Jefferson’s death. There are people like Sheriff Guidry and Henri Pichot, who view Jefferson as an irritation, or an “aggravation,” to be kept calm and then executed. Then there are people like Edna, who are sympathetic to Jefferson, but nonetheless don’t respect him much as a human being—hence Edna’s use of the phrase, “This whole thing,” which isn’t much gentler than referring to Jefferson as a “hog.” Finally, there are people like Paul, who seem to show genuine respect for Jefferson.
Themes
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Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
Back in the jailhouse, Guidry finishes telling Grant about his wife’s request for chairs. He asks Frank and the deputy, named Clark, if they think Jefferson deserves chairs in his cell. They agree that Jefferson should be punished for his crimes, but conclude that he can use the dayroom if he’s shackled. Guidry sends Grant out of the jail, telling him that he doubts Grant will do a thing for Jefferson. Grant privately agrees.
Even here, Grant is unconvinced that he can do anything for Grant. In part, this is because he’s just had a particularly difficult meeting with Jefferson. More generally, though, Grant is living in a state of constant cynicism himself. He doesn’t have a good answer to Jefferson’s question: he doesn’t know why people should behave morally given the unfairness of their society.
Themes
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