It is a Sunday, and Grant is sitting in his bed. Emma, Lou, and Ambrose have just arrived at his house, having come from church. He thinks about the beans his aunt has grown for as long as he can remember, as well as the pecan and peanut trees. As he muses, Lou enters his room and tells him that Reverend Ambrose wants to talk to him. To please his aunt, Grant agrees, puts on his shoes, and tucks in his shirt.
Grant thinks about slow, steady processes. This shows that he’s come a long way from the earlier chapters, in which he was exasperated with the slow pace of life on the plantation, because of which progress of any kind seemed impossible. Now, he’s realizing that progress is slow, often agonizingly so. One side effect of his realization is that he has more respect for the people who involve themselves in their community instead of trying to leave it; thus, he respects Lou and obeys her.
Ambrose enters the room; though Grant invites him to sit, he says that he prefers to stand. He makes some small talk about Grant’s pupils at school, and they agree that they try to do their best. Then, Ambrose comes to the point: Jefferson is to be executed in less than three weeks, and his soul is not yet saved. Though Grant maintains that Jefferson’s soul is Ambrose’s concern, not his—he can only teach reading, writing, and arithmetic—Ambrose tells him that Jefferson will only listen to him. Grant claims to believe in God, but not heaven. In response, Ambrose asks Grant if he thinks he’s educated, and then tells him that in spite of his college degree, he lacks any knowledge of himself or his people. Ambrose tells Grant that he won’t let Grant send Jefferson to hell—he’ll fight Grant for Jefferson’s soul, and win. Yet when Grant offers to stay home and never see Jefferson again, Ambrose insists that he continue visiting.
Ambrose and Grant begin by trying to establish a bond between them: they’re both educators, in a sense, and they’re both dedicated men who have to struggle against many challenges to reach their pupils. Ambrose makes clear the problem that Grant faces when he says that Grant has no knowledge of his community. This is largely true: Grant has shown many times throughout the novel that he’s uninterested in what his neighbors and peers do—he fantasizes about leaving them instead of trying to understand them. Ambrose’s point is that Grant can’t reach Jefferson if Grant doesn’t respect the community that produced Jefferson. In order to respect it fully, Ambrose implies, Grant must embrace God, and Christianity.
Grant is annoyed with Ambrose, and gets up to leave. As he does so, Ambrose puts his hand on Grant’s shoulder and calls him “boy,” which infuriates Grant. Ambrose tells Grant that Jefferson must be strong for Emma so that she can enjoy her few remaining years; to be strong, he says, Jefferson must kneel as he walks to the electric chair. Grant denies this—he says that Jefferson must walk to his death. Unable to convince Grant, Ambrose tells him that he is lost; Ambrose himself claims to be found.
Ambrose’s behavior in this chapter parallels that of the racist white people we’ve seen earlier. Indeed, many of the things that Ambrose wants of Grant sound like things Pichot and Guidry want; for instance, he tells Grant to tell Jefferson to kneel, which is presumably what Pichot wants Jefferson to do, too. Yet we shouldn’t assume that Ambrose is an instrument of white racism. We’ve seen evidence that humility and modesty do have value, even if they seem to appease or satisfy racists.
Ambrose proposes that Grant tell Jefferson about heaven, even though he doesn’t believe it to be real. Grant refuses to tell a lie for Ambrose. Ambrose calls Grant a fool. Ambrose has spent his life telling lies, he says, as a preacher and a member of his community. When people are depressed and in pain, he lies and tells them that they will get better. When Grant was away at university, he goes on, Lou worked hard in the fields to support him, often cutting her hands and knees in the process. Yet Lou lied to Grant and pretended to be in good health. In this sense, Ambrose concludes, Ambrose is an educated man and Grant is a fool: Ambrose understands the people he lives with, and recognizes that it’s sometimes necessary to lie in order to bring peace and happiness to others.
Here, it becomes clear how blind Grant really is to his community. After years of living with Tante Lou, he had no idea that she hurt herself to support him—Lou herself never told him. Earlier in the book, Grant sometimes felt that Lou was manipulating Grant to do things he didn’t want to do. Here, though, it’s clear that she’s always acted out of a genuine desire to help Grant and make his life better. Ambrose shows himself to be much more sophisticated than Grant: where Grant believes in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Ambrose recognizes that there are actually many different kinds of truth. There is literal truth, but also spiritual or metaphorical truth, the function of which is to give people hope and inspiration. Earlier in the novel Grant lied to Miss Emma for his own selfish purposes: to avoid a hard scene he didn’t want to face. Ambrose here suggests that lies can also be productive, if they are created not out of selfishness but the desire to support and empower.