A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying Chapter 20 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is late February, and Grant is busy grading student papers when Farrell Jarreau rushes into his classroom to tell him that the judge has set a date for Jefferson’s execution. Farrell doesn’t know the exact date himself, but he’s come to ask Grant, along with Reverend Ambrose, to come to Pichot’s house so that they can tell Miss Emma the date.
When he hears that Jefferson’s execution has a date, Grant is reminded of all the injustices associated with the execution: not only the fact that Jefferson is sentenced to death, but also (less significantly), the fact that Farrell isn’t entrusted with the date of the sentence himself.
Themes
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
While the end of the school day is still an hour away, Grant leaves school to go to Pichot’s house, telling Irene to take care of the children without explaining why he has to go. He arrives at Pichot’s house, where Inez offers him a cup of coffee, which he declines. Reverend Ambrose is already waiting in the hall; he asks Grant how his aunt is, but isn’t sure what else to say to Grant. Grant hears Sheriff Guidry arrive fifteen minutes later, and shortly thereafter Inez calls the three of them into “the front”—this is the first time Grant has ever been in any part of Pichot’s house other than the kitchen.
In a sense, the fact that Grant gets to go to the front of the house could be seen as a triumph: he’s moving up in the world, no longer staying in the kitchen. But this victory rings hollow: the front is no better a place for Grant than the kitchen, and he’s treated with the same disrespect that he’s encountered form Pichot for most of his life. The implication is that Grant is wrong to be concerned with the superficial aspects of humiliation: how Grant views himself, Gaines implies, is more important than which door he walks through.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
In the front room of Pichot’s house, Pichot and Sheriff Guidry stand by the fireplace. Pichot looks worried, Grant thinks, but he invites Grant and the Reverend to sit down. The sheriff tells both of them that the execution has been scheduled for the second Friday after Easter. Guidry says that he has told Jefferson this news, but he’s concerned that Jefferson will become agitated in the future. He also mentions that his wife says that Emma might need a doctor; he’ll provide one if she so needs. Grant asks why the second Friday after Easter was chosen, and the sheriff responds that the execution had to happen before or after Easter; Lent was not a possibility. Afterwards, Grant notes, he learned from Paul that the governor originally wanted the execution to occur before Ash Wednesday, but there was another execution at this time; the governor was afraid that the Catholic population of the state wouldn’t appreciate so many executions so close to the holy day.
Again, Guidry is more concerned that Jefferson will become agitated than anything else. This is darkly funny: he seems utterly unconcerned that Jefferson is going to die, but he’s afraid of “agitation,” because it could make Guidry look bad. It’s outrageous that the date of the sentence has been moved because of such trivial reasons as the date of another execution. As trivial as the date change may be, though, it suggests that the governor—a white man, no doubt—is a little afraid of the large population of Catholics in the state. Like Guidry, he fears “agitation.”
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Sheriff Guidry uses Pichot’s telephone to call a doctor in the event that Emma needs one, but first he determines from Pichot that the drive through the quarter will be safe and clean. As he talks on the phone, Grant thinks of the injustice of twelve white people saying a black man must die, and later another white man choosing the date of death. Grant overhears Guidry telling the doctor that the drive is “passable,” and that the doctor won’t ruin his shoes on the way. Guidry also asks about Lucy, the doctor’s wife; he then casually hangs up the phone and announces that he has to leave.
Guidry’s use of the telephone is a grotesque reminder that Jefferson didn’t know how to use the phone—if he had, it might have saved his life. Grant’s recognition of the injustice at work here—white men killing a black man—is overshadowed by our recognition of Guidry’s casual attitude on the phone. When Emma and Lou are despairing over Jefferson’s execution, the doctor is worried about getting mud on his shoes.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
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Ambrose and Grant leave Pichot’s house, escorted out by a tearful Inez. Ambrose says that they must show courage for the sake of Miss Emma, but Grant insists that he can’t go to tell Emma that Jefferson is going to die on April 8. Ambrose points out that Grant would have the courage to do so if he had faith in God. Grant refuses to drive back to Miss Emma’s house with Ambrose; instead, he walks by himself through the road and down to the river (presumably the Mississippi River). He spends many hours by the river, staring at the mud and water. Eventually, when he’s sure that the doctor and the Reverend have visited Miss Emma, he walks back to his school, where he gets the papers Irene has left for them, and roughly stuffs them in his bag.
Ambrose’s argument with Grant establishes a conflict between their two points of view: secular education versus Christian faith and Bible study. It’s interesting that Ambrose doesn’t try to prove that Grant is right or wrong to stay away from church: his point is more pragmatic, that belief in God gives people, Ambrose included, great strength. Grant’s rough treatment of the papers Irene leaves for him suggests that he’s finding it increasingly hard to focus on school: this is a marked change from his attitude in the first chapter, when he was overly concerned about grading papers.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon