A Lesson Before Dying

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A Lesson Before Dying Chapter 31 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is the morning of execution, and Grant is teaching his students as usual. He tells them that they’ll be dismissed early to go home to eat; then, they must return to school and get down on their knees while he goes to the courthouse. The children must remain on their knees, Grant insists, until he returns. When Louis Washington, Jr. asks to be excused from the time spent on his knees, Grant says that he’ll have to make up that time later on. He assigns Irene Cole to run his class, and leaves the classroom. It is a beautiful day, and Grant notes that no blacks are working in the fields—every one of them has taken the day off to go to the courthouse.
Grant’s instructions to his classroom show that he’s come to recognize the importance of Jefferson’s execution to the entire community, not just Miss Emma. Jefferson’s bravery is meant to inspire the children; conversely, the children are supposed to feel some small part of Jefferson’s pain by getting down on their hands and knees. It’s strange, though, that Grant doesn’t kneel himself. His moral development is still incomplete, even if he’s succeeded in helping Jefferson become a moral man.
Themes
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Grant walks around to the back of the church and thinks about the time he spent there as a child playing handball. He wonders if Jefferson ever hit a homerun in handball; to hit one, strength isn’t enough—you need speed and luck, too. He thinks about the other children he played with; since then, some have been killed. At 10:55, he sees Ambrose driving to the courthouse with Henry Williams. He goes into the church and dismisses the children. Alone in the classroom, he thinks that he wants to telephone Vivian, but knows that there is no telephone nearby for him to use. Nevertheless, he will see Vivian that night—he needs her, because he loves her.
Grant’s thoughts parallel his thoughts on the same subject in an earlier chapter. Before, Grant focused on his classmates who left Louisiana and died, or stayed behind and forgot their schooling. Now, Grant acknowledges that these people have had hard lives, but he also thinks of everything he has to be grateful for, especially Vivian. Grant is no more ignorant than he was before; he’s just become less of a cynic, recognizing that pain and tragedy aren’t the whole story.
Themes
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Grant wonders if God is with Jefferson. God is with Ambrose, he is certain, because Ambrose believes in God. Grant thinks that Ambrose is much stronger than he is—he could never summon the courage to see Jefferson executed that afternoon. Grant thinks that his faith is with Jefferson.
Grant shows signs that he’s gravitating towards God and the church. He’s gained respect for Ambrose, in marked contrast to his dismissive attitude toward Ambrose and his church in earlier chapters. By showing respect for Ambrose, Grant shows that he’s come to understand what Ambrose does for his community, and that he’s come to value hope and optimism, the two feelings that Ambrose passes on to his congregation.
Themes
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
Shortly before noon, the children return from their homes, and Grant instructs them to get down on their hands and knees and silently pray until Grant tells them they may stop. Louis Washington, Jr. asks Grant if he plans to pray, too—Grant only says that he’ll be outside. He goes outside, walking away from the church and wondering why he isn’t inside praying with his children.
Even if Grant’s moral development isn’t complete, he shows signs that he knows it’s incomplete, hence his frustration with himself for not praying with the children.
Themes
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
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As Grant walks farther from the church, he looks at Henri Pichot’s enormous house. Grant thinks that it would be absurd if he believed in the same God as the men who sentenced Jefferson to death, or if he believed that God blesses America, or if he believed that men are judged by a jury of their peers—Jefferson wasn’t judged by any of his peers. Nevertheless, Grant concludes, it’s necessary for people to believe in something in order to attain freedom.
Here, Grant spells out his position on God. He doesn’t necessarily follow any organized religion, but he’s an immensely spiritual person, especially compared with himself at the beginning of the book. Where before Grant looked at Louisiana cynically, he now sees that belief—irrational, optimistic belief—is important because it helps people be strong and overcome their struggles.
Themes
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Grant looks at Henri Pichot’s house and wonders why Pichot hasn’t come outside. He notices a butterfly landing on a sprig of bull grass. Grant wonders why the butterfly has landed there—the bull grass is useless to it, and there are far more attractive flowers and plants for it to explore. As he thinks this, the butterfly flies away until Grant can’t see it anymore. Without understanding exactly why, Grant feels that “it is over.” He looks to Pichot’s house, but still no one has come outside.
Grant feels an almost mystical connection to Jefferson, sensing immediately when Jefferson has died. Even more important here is the butterfly Grant sees—while its symbolism is never spelled out, the butterfly is connected in Grant’s mind to Jefferson (note that butterflies, too, undergo a transformation in their lives).. Like Jefferson in prison, or in racist Bayonne, the butterfly comes to a place of that provides it with no value; but the butterfly provides beauty and meaning within that context, just as Jefferson does. The emptiness of Pichot’s house, in contrast, marks the emptiness and cowardice of Pichot and his society’s racist beliefs.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
Grant walks back to the church. When he is almost back, a car drives by. The driver is Paul. Paul emerges from the car and asks to speak to Grant. Grant quickly goes into the church and tells the students to stand up; then he runs back outside to speak to Paul. Paul tells him that Jefferson’s execution went as well as it could have gone. According to Paul—and, Paul insists, everyone else in the room—Jefferson was the strongest man in the room when he was killed. Jefferson asked Paul to tell Emma that he was “walking” to his grave.
Jefferson’s bravery proves that Grant has succeeded as a teacher, but more important Jefferson has heroically proved himself a man and so doing stood up to the racists and inspired his community. Paul, a white man, is now spreading the word of Jefferson’s dignified bravery—just as St. Paul, was converted to spread the word of Jesus.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
Paul tells Grant that Grant is an excellent teacher, but Grant denies this—one must believe to be a teacher. Paul insists that Jefferson changed enormously because of Grant, but Grant suggests that it was God, or Jefferson himself, who did the work. Grant tells Paul that he’s unsure what he’ll do from now on—it depends on Vivian—and Paul tells Grant that he’s a lucky man. He gives Grant Jefferson’s notebook, which he says he hasn’t read.
Grant remains humble about his abilities, and rightfully so: it’s not that Grant taught Jefferson anything new. Instead, Grant helped Jefferson access his own abilities to be a good man. Again, this process resembles Grant’s own description in Chapter 24 of education as mirroring the process of carving wood to find the beauty it already held. It’s also relevant that Grant is willing to credit God with some of his success—perhaps Grant is toward the end of his crisis of faith. He’s found an interpretation of God that satisfies him.
Themes
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Paul offers Grant his friendship. He shakes hands with Grant and tells him to tell his students that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room where he died. Grant suggests that Paul tell them himself one day, and Paul says he would be honored. Grant walks into the classroom to talk to his students. As he prepares to talk to his students, he is crying.
Gaines’s novel closes with the image of two unlike people—-a black man and a white man—becoming friends. Grant is no longer a lonely cynic—he’s learned to feel connected to others, even people who are altogether unlike him. Gaines reminds us of how far Grant has come with the final lines of the book. While Grant remained stoic and unfeeling when Jefferson was sentenced to death, he cries when he hears about Jefferson’s death. Like Jefferson himself who was moved to tears as he recognized his connection to the community and therefore his responsibility to it, Grant finally sympathizes with other people, and feels like he’s “part of a whole.”
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon