A Lesson Before Dying


Ernest Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Grant walks into the jailhouse, where Sheriff Guidry sits behind a desk. When Guidry sees Grant, he calls Paul, and Paul goes through the usual process of searching Grant. As this goes on, Guidry asks Grant if he thinks he can teach Jefferson anything; Grant replies that he’s unsure. Guidry warns Grant once again that he’ll shut down the sessions at any sign of aggravation.
Guidry’s appearance at the beginning of this chapter is a light reminder of the stakes of Grant’s visits: he has to keep Jefferson calm to avoid causing any “aggravation,” but at the same time, he has to inspire Jefferson to be a man and, by extension, to resist the casual racist beliefs that Guidry and other white people hold about Jefferson and all Black people.
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Paul walks Grant to Jefferson’s jail cell; along the walk, Grant gives out small change to the prisoners, as usual. Paul leaves Grant alone with Jefferson, and Jefferson asks Grant if he brought him any corn, since corn is the food that hogs eat. Grant insists that Jefferson isn’t a hog, and asks him how long it’s been since he ate. Jefferson says he can’t remember, but Grant senses that Jefferson is manipulating him. Grant has some of the friend chicken Emma made, and Jefferson eats the biscuits, candy, and cakes without using his hands—he calls himself an old hog being fattened up for slaughter.
Here, talking to Grant alone, Jefferson reveals the depths of his self-loathing. Jefferson thinks of himself as a hog, showing that the defense attorney has done more damage than good while defending him in court. Jefferson has internalized the white’s sense of his own worthlessness, and so sees himself as worthless.
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Grant says he’s going to return to Emma and tell her that Jefferson liked the pralines she made him; he will not, however, tell her that Jefferson behaved like a hog. He asks Jefferson if he’s trying to hurt him and tells him that if he doesn’t talk to him, then white men, especially Sheriff Guidry, will win. Jefferson doesn’t reply, but looks defiant. For the remainder of Grant’s visit, he and Jefferson sit in the cell in silence, and Grant stares at the half-eaten food.
Grant reveals that he’s willing to lie for the sake of other people—this will become important when he talks to Reverend Ambrose later in the book. For now, Grant outlines the basic stakes of his lessons with Jefferson: if Jefferson behaves like an animal or a coward, Guidry will win. Even here, though, Grant is more interested in upholding his own dignity than passing dignity to Jefferson—in other words, Grant wants Jefferson to act like a man because Grant wants to wipe the smirk off of Guidry’s face.
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After an hour elapses, Paul lets Grant out of the cell. Grant asks Jefferson if there’s anything he should tell Emma, but Jefferson doesn’t answer. Paul asks how the visit went, and Grant replies that Jefferson was happy to get some home cooking. “Can’t blame him for that,” Paul replies.
Paul’s brief remark shows that he at least has a sense of humor, and recognizes that the cooking in the prison isn’t any good. It may seem like a minor point—and it is—but it also suggests that Paul can identify with the Black prisoners and see things that aren’t fair in society.
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