A Lesson Before Dying


Ernest Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying: Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

Grant’s next two visits to Jefferson’s cell with Emma establish a routine: Grant drives Emma to the jail; the guards search the two of them; they give change to the other inmates; Emma delivers her basket; Jefferson says almost nothing; Emma weeps; Grant and Emma leave together, instructing the guards to leave the extra food for the other prisoners.
Gaines portrays here another endless cycle, where no progress is ever made, but where the people continue doing the same things nonetheless. In this way, he parallels Grant’s visits to Jefferson with Grant’s school teaching.
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On the day of Grant’s fourth visit, he leaves Irene in charge of the students, and drives to Emma’s house as usual. When Emma doesn’t come out, Grant sees Tante Lou emerge from the house. Lou tells Grant that Emma is unable to go, though she doesn’t specify why, and tells Grant that he’s going alone to talk to Jefferson. Lou brings Grant into the house to pick up the things he’s to bring to Jefferson: fried chicken, and warm clothing. Grant senses that Emma isn’t as ill as Lou implies: he saw her earlier in the morning in her yard, and he can smell the cooking she must have done that morning.
Clearly, Emma is pretending to be sicker than she really is so that Grant will go to Jefferson by himself. It’s not exactly clear why she’s doing this: it’s not clear, for instance, why she thinks Grant will have any more luck on his own than with Emma and Lou. Perhaps Emma wants Grant to go alone because she recognizes that he has the potential to inspire her grandson and recognizes the way that her own presence causes Jefferson to shut down.
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Grant sees Emma sitting in a rocking chair; she gives a theatrical cough, to convince Grant, he thinks, that she is very ill. Emma repeats what she’s already said many times: Grant doesn’t have to go if he doesn’t want to. Grant tries to convince Lou to come with him to the jail, but she insists that he go alone. Angry, Grant picks up the bag of food Emma has prepared; it contains enough food to feed the entire jail. He tells Lou that he’s gone through great humiliation to teach Jefferson: waiting for Pichot to finish his dinner, being searched every time he enters the jail. He tells Lou that Antoine predicted he’d stay in his hometown and be broken down into “the nigger I was born to be.” He condemns Lou for aiding in his being broken down. Emma begins to cry, but Lou responds that while she’s sorry for Grant’s humiliation, there is no one else she can turn to in order to help Jefferson.
At the end of this chapter, Gaines essentially summarizes Grant’s situation so far. He’s an educated schoolteacher who’s being made to do things he doesn’t want to do—talk to Jefferson—that have questionable results. Grant has humiliated himself in front of Pichot and Guidry for Jefferson’s sake, so it’s not unreasonable of him to wonder what the point of his behavior will be in the end. Nevertheless, Tante Lou insists that Grant continue doing what he’s been doing. It’s not clear what she thinks Grant can accomplish, but clearly she values Jefferson’s dignity higher than she values Grant’s humiliations.
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