A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On Monday, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Reverend Ambrose go to the jailhouse to visit Jefferson. At the jailhouse, Paul searches all three visitors and then lets them into the dayroom. When Paul goes to get Jefferson, Jefferson refuses to go to the dayroom without his radio. Grant later learns that Jefferson hasn’t turned off his radio since the Friday when Paul brought it to him.
At first, it seems as if Grant’s efforts to give Jefferson a radio haven’t made him any better of a man: he ignores his visitors and listens to the radio all day long.
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Paul informs Miss Emma that Jefferson refuses to go to the dayroom without his radio; Emma, Lou, and Ambrose decide that they will speak to Jefferson in his cell instead, even though Paul warns them that it will be very cramped. Paul takes the three of them to the cell, and when he returns, he sees that the radio is turned off and Jefferson is lying in bed, facing away from his visitors. As soon as Paul leads the visitors out of the cell, Jefferson turns the radio back on.
Clearly, Jefferson sees his radio is a substitute and a replacement for human contact. It’s still painful for him to speak to Emma, and so he turns to music, instead. Gaines creates suspense: it’s not clear to us whether Grant’s generosity to Jefferson has been in vain or not, a mistake or not.
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Sheriff Guidry, who is sitting in his office in the jail, asks Miss Emma if Jefferson is giving them any trouble now that he has a radio. Miss Emma insists that there’s no trouble at all, but Guidry points out that the visitors have returned to the cell when before they wanted to visit Jefferson in the dayroom. He stresses that he doesn’t want trouble with the prisoner before his execution, and says that Grant needs to be involved. He also threatens to take the radio if there are any more problems with the visits.
Ironically, Guidry has gone from mocking Grant for trying to talk to Jefferson to convincing Grant that he needs to continue teaching Jefferson. It’s not abundantly clear what makes Guidry change his mind, though it is obvious that Guidry doesn’t care about Jefferson become a “man.” Instead, what he wants to ensure is that everything runs smoothly toward Jefferson’s execution. Put another way: Guidry wants his own behind covered.
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After returning from the jailhouse, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Ambrose visit Grant and tell him that he’s caused a problem by bringing Jefferson a radio. They explain what happened on their visit that day, and Reverend Ambrose tells Grant that he’s brought sin to Jefferson at the time when Jefferson needs God more than ever. Tante Lou is furious with Grant, and looks like she wants to slap him. Grant admits that he knows nothing of God, but argues that he has only given Jefferson some much-needed company and prevented Jefferson from thinking about death all day long.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Grant argues that the radio is a good thing for Jefferson. His argument is very simple: people need human contact, and the radio provides some simulation of that contact for the long hours when Jefferson is alone in jail. The fact that Grant makes this argument shows that he cares about Jefferson’s happiness: in the beginning of the book, it would be hard to imagine him arguing for anything about Jefferson, let alone buying Jefferson the radio in the first place.
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Grant continues to argue with Ambrose, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou. He tells them that his previous visit to the jailhouse was the first time that Jefferson spoke to him without anger, and the first time that Jefferson didn’t consider himself a hog. Ambrose isn’t convinced by Grant’s explanations, and when Grant mentions that Jefferson also wants a gallon of ice cream, he asks Grant if he’s sure he reached Jefferson—a question that Grant can’t answer.
Ambrose’s question suggests that Jefferson’s desires at this point in his development aren’t fully human: they’re still base and animalistic—the gallon of ice cream is fit for a hog, not a person. Perhaps it’s fair to say that Jefferson’s desires for food and entertainment are necessary but insufficient: he has to progress to higher and more moral sentiments before he can die like a man.
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The Wednesday after his conversation with Ambrose Grant visits Jefferson again. The previous day, he enlisted his schoolchildren to pick pecans for Jefferson, which he brings along. He also buys comic books, apples, and candy.
Grant treats Jefferson like a child (the comic books are a dead giveaway). It’s as if Jefferson is growing from an “animal” to a child, with adulthood yet to come.
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In the jailhouse, Grant greets Jefferson and offers him the food and entertainment he’s brought. Jefferson remains silent, but Grant sees that he’s listening to his radio. They talk about music, and Grant is pleased to learn that Jefferson gets a good signal on his radio, and has been listening to the same station as Grant.
The fact that Grant and Jefferson listen to the same radio station establishes a symbolic connection between the two men. Like Grant, Jefferson is frustrated with his life and his community, and questions his obligations to other people.
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Grant asks Jefferson about Lou, Emma, and Ambrose’s last visit. He asks Jefferson to promise that when they next visit him, he’ll go to the dayroom—Jefferson agrees to do so. He asks Jefferson to write down his thoughts so that he can share them with Grant and Ambrose later on; Jefferson agree to do this as well, although he doesn’t shown any signs of enthusiasm. Grant tells Jefferson that he’s his friend; he asks Jefferson if he believes this, but Jefferson doesn’t answer. Just as Grant is leaving the cell, Jefferson stands up with a look of pain on his face, as if he’s struggling to find the words to say something. He tells Grant to thank the children for their pecans. Grant is so happy with this sign of interest that he grins and shakes Jefferson’s hand. When Paul asks Grant if everything is okay, he says that it is.
Grant’s encouragement that Jefferson write down his thoughts shows that reading, writing, and arithmetic do have practical value: they help people like Jefferson make sense of their thoughts. It’s not entirely clear why Jefferson finally thanks Grant for his behavior. Perhaps Vivian was right: he’s been slowly changing and growing over the course of the last few months. Just as Grant has gradually become more and more invested in Jefferson’s happiness, Jefferson has come to recognize that he does have a friend in Grant. In this way, Jefferson’s progress is a slow progression, not a sudden breakthrough, even if it looks like one. The gift of pecans also reminds Jefferson that he’s loved—not only by Grant but by a whole community. Thus, Jefferson thanks the children, not just Grant.
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