A Lesson Before Dying


Ernest Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

An unnamed narrator describes the proceedings of a trial. The narrator was not present for the trial, because he knew in advance exactly what the verdict would be. The narrator’s aunt and the accused’s godmother were present for the trial; they provided the narrator with many of the details that appear in the chapter. The godmother of the accused, like the narrator, doesn’t pay attention to the details of the trial, because she already knows what the outcome will be. She does, however, hear one word: “hog.”
The novel begins on a note of hopelessness: everyone who attends the trial knows what’s going to happen to the accused, and the narrator knows without going. Gaines establishes a pattern, according to which the narrator of his novel describes events that he doesn’t personally witness. This will become important later on, as the scope of the novel gets larger and larger. It’s also important to note that before we learn the name of the accused, we hear the word “hog.” The dehumanizing effects of language will be a recurring theme in this book.
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The accused is a young man who was walking to a bar when two other men, Brother and Bear, drove up to him in the road and offered him a ride into town. In the car, he says, Brother and Bear ask the accused if he has any money; the accused replies that he has no money at all. Brother and Bear talk about buying a drink on credit from an old storekeeper named Alcee Gropé. When the three of them arrive at Gropé’s store, Brother and Bear ask Gropé for drinks; Gropé refuses to serve them, because they’re already drunk and don’t have enough money. Bear and Brother argue with Gropé. Suddenly, Bear draws his revolver and “started shooting.” There is more gunfire (the accused does not say from whom, exactly), and when the gunfire is over, only the accused is left standing.
Even in his own version of events, the accused is weak and passive. He only goes to the store because his two companions want to go there. In the process of describing the crime, the accused paints a glum picture of life in the South for African American people at the time—men are driven into poverty and take refuge in alcohol, turning to crime when they don’t have enough money to pay.
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The accused wants to leave the store, he testifies, but he is paralyzed with fear. He realizes that old Gropé is still alive, and frantically tells him that he must tell the police that he (the accused) was not involved in the shooting. Even as the accused explains this to Gropé, he dies. The accused doesn’t know how to use a telephone, and he is still very afraid. To calm himself, he takes a bottle of whiskey and drinks half of it. He notices the store’s cash register, which is full of money. Although he knows stealing is wrong, he needs the money, so he stuffs it in his jacket and is about to walk out of the store with the whiskey in his hand when two white men walk in and see him.
More pathetic details of the accused’s story emerge: he can’t use a telephone, he resorts to alcohol under stress, and steals the money because, it is implied, he is so poor he can’t imagine not stealing it. This story is supposed to save the accused’s life, but it also suggests that his life is pathetic and barely worthy of consideration. It is this suggestion against which the accused will fight for the remainder of the book.
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The prosecutor’s story of the crime is different. He says that the accused—whose name is Jefferson—went to the store with Brother and Bear with the intention of robbing and killing Gropé. After surviving the shootout, Jefferson stole money and celebrated his theft by drinking whiskey.
The prosecution’s version of the accused’s behavior sounds like a combination of the racist stereotypes of Black people that white people circulated at the time of the story. Thus, in the prosecutor’s story the accused is not only a thief and a murderer; he also gloats over his victims’ bodies.
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The defense attorney argues that Jefferson was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn’t involved with Brother and Bear, and this explains why Gropé didn’t shoot him. In his summary to the jury, the defense attorney argues that to kill Jefferson would be like killing a boy or a fool, not a man. The attorney urges the jury to look closely at Jefferson: he has a flat skull that suggests that he has no intelligence at all, and if the jurors were to ask him even the most basic questions about poetry, the calendar, or civics, he wouldn’t know what to say. The attorney urges the jury to think of Jefferson’s godmother—killing him would be depriving her of her reason for living. In conclusion, the attorney says that killing Jefferson would be as immoral as killing a hog.
Although he’s arguing for the accused’s life, the defense attorney’s argument is astonishingly patronizing, condescending, and dehumanizing. In a way, the defense attorney is a parody of the figure of the “good white man” as he appears in other novels about Black characters. In books like To Kill A Mockingbird, white lawyers heroically defend Black men from the death penalty, but in the process, Gaines implies, they belittle their clients and train them to be victims. It’s important that we hear Jefferson’s name for the first time in the defense attorney’s argument: Jefferson’s bases his identity on the attorney’s belittling speech, and thus thinks of himself as an animal.
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Related Quotes
The jury—comprised of twelve white men—quickly reaches the verdict that Jefferson is guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. The day is Friday. On Monday, at ten o’clock, the narrator’s aunt sits in the courthouse with Miss Emma, Jefferson’s “nannan,” and Reverend Moses Ambrose, the pastor of their church. The judge, who is red-faced and white-haired, asks Jefferson if he has anything to say before he’s sentenced. Jefferson only looks at the floor and shakes his head. The judge sentences Jefferson to death by electrocution, at a date to be set by the court.
The narrator, still unnamed, notes that the entire jury is white. This further calls into question the validity of their decision: we get the sense that they assumed that Jefferson was guilty until proven innocent, exactly the opposite of the usual presumption in American courts. Gaines also offers an allusion to the Bible: like Jesus Christ, Jefferson is “killed” on a Friday. Gaines will allude to the Bible in numerous other ways throughout his book.
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