The chapter consists entirely of entries from Jefferson’s diary. Jefferson begins by writing that he’s unsure what to write; he has never written anything but homework—not even a letter.
With only three chapters left to go, Gaines shows us the world from Jefferson’s perspective. The establishment of a clear point of view for Jefferson symbolizes the newfound maturity and self-awareness that Jefferson has discovered under Grant’s guidance.
In the following entry, Jefferson describes a nightmare he had the previous night—he tried to write about it that night, but there was no light. Now that it’s morning, Jefferson has forgotten half of the dream’s contents, though he remembers walking to a door. He goes on to describe a recent visit from Miss Emma, during which she brought him Easter eggs. Also present at the visit was Reverend Ambrose, who told him that Christ died for his sins.
The fantasy of walking to a door seems to symbolize death and the afterlife—just as Jefferson and Grant don’t know if there’s a Heaven or not, Jefferson doesn’t know what lies “beyond the door.” We see, via Jefferson’s point of view, that Ambrose continues to impress upon Jefferson the importance of religion and the church.
Jefferson goes on to describe his traumatic experiences hauling water in the fields as a child and a younger man—sometimes he and the other workers would pray for relief from their hard work, but no relief ever came. The Lord seems to work for white people, he notes. He writes that he can no longer sleep, because he has a recurring dream in which he walks to a door and then wakes up. Jefferson writes in the notebook to Grant, saying that he has no idea what to write in his notebook.
Jefferson’s thoughts as a young man mirror Grant’s—both men experience so much hardship that they begin to doubt the mercy of God, and even think that God works for white people, not Black people. It’s also important that Jefferson addresses Grant. It shows that he understands how important his notebook is; he knows that Grant will use it to teach courage and dignity to others (and to himself). It’s likely that Gaines intends the notebook as a symbol of Scripture; Grant acts as a kind of apostle, passing on Jefferson/Christ’s teachings to the community.
The next entry in the diary is from a Monday, just a few days before Jefferson’s execution. Jefferson wants to see Miss Emma one more time before he’s executed. He has heard from Reverend Ambrose and Lou that Emma is ill; he hopes that he can see her one more time on the earth.
The fact that Jefferson refers to seeing Miss Emma once more “on the earth” suggests that he’s at least entertaining the possibility of life beyond the earth. Ultimately, it’s not clear if he believes in Heaven or not. Perhaps it’s enough that he’s hopeful that there is a Heaven.
The next entry describes a visit Jefferson receives from Sheriff Guidry, Henri Pichot, and “Mr. Morgan.” Pichot asks Jefferson how he’s doing; Jefferson says that he’s fine. Pichot offers to sharpen Jefferson’s pencil, and when Jefferson gives it to him, Pichot sharpens it using a small pearl knife he carries with him. Pichot offers Jefferson the knife, along with a gold chain, and Jefferson accepts them, saying that Pichot can have it back in only a few days. Pichot looks knowingly at Mr. Morgan and offers to double the bet; Mr. Morgan says that it isn’t Friday yet. Deputy Clark stops by Jefferson’s cell frequently and asks if he can get Jefferson anything, but Jefferson doesn’t feel that Clark is looking out for him. Only Paul treats Jefferson like a human being, Jefferson concludes.
In perhaps the most painful passage in Gaines’s novel, we come to understand what the terms of Pichot’s bet were. Just as Inez told Grant, Pichot wasn’t betting on Grant at all: he was betting on whether or not Jefferson would commit suicide before the day of his execution. It’s unclear who “Mr. Morgan” is, but it’s likely that Jefferson is talking about the same Dr. Morgan who examined Grant’s classroom in an earlier chapter—beneath his veneer of academic impartiality, Morgan is no less of a bigoted villain than Pichot. As horrifying as this moment is, it has a silver lining: it shows how white racists do have a personal stake in how Jefferson behaves leading up to his execution. Thus, for Jefferson to behave with dignity is a genuine victory against Pichot and against racism. And for Jefferson to seemingly not even recognize that Pichot is giving him the knife in hopes that Jefferson will kill himself with it, Jefferson show’s his moral superiority.
In his next entry, Jefferson describes a visit Grant organized, so that most of the children in his classroom came to the jailhouse to visit Jefferson. Jefferson hadn’t realized that so many children would be coming, and when his cousin Estelle kissed him goodbye, he broke down in tears. Afterwards, many of the older members of the community visit the cell to say goodbye. Even Bok gives Jefferson one of his prized marbles, albeit the smallest one, and only after much encouragement from Rita Lawrence. Jefferson cries after his visitors leave, but he’s careful to wait until they can’t hear or see him. He doesn’t sleep much in the following days, but rather takes short naps throughout the day.
We see the selfless sacrifice that the members of Jefferson’s community make for Jefferson’s sake. Grant organizes the visit, and even the children themselves give Jefferson gifts. It’s important that Jefferson didn’t realize how many visitors he’d have—Jefferson doesn’t realize how many people love him and depend him. He seems to treat this knowledge as an impetus to behave with even more courage and dignity—thus, he waits to cry until everyone’s left, showing his self-control and selflessness. He is recognizing and embracing his importance to the community.
A few days later, the guards bring Jefferson to the dayroom to say goodbye to Miss Emma, who is very ill. When she sees Jefferson, she pulls him close to her and embraces him, keeping her eyes closed. Jefferson tells her that he is strong and that she need not worry about him. Emma only lets go of Jefferson when Lou gently tells her to do so.
In a way, Jefferson has been building up to this moment throughout A Lesson Before Dying. At first, he neglected his godmother, who’s raised him since he was a child. Now he lets her embrace him (and embraces her back) for as long as she needs.
Jefferson uses his diary to apologize to Grant for insulting Vivian. He describes the visit Grant and Vivian make to see him after Miss Emma’s visit—he thinks Vivian is the prettiest woman he’s ever seen, and enjoys it when Vivian kisses him goodbye. Grant tells Jefferson that he won’t see him again, and Jefferson begins to cry, though he apologizes for doing so in his diary. He tells Grant that no one else was ever so good to him—Grant was the first person to make him feel like “somebody.”
Here, Jefferson’s actions resemble nothing so much as a sinner confessing his sins on his deathbed. (Ironically, this would make Grant, not Reverend Ambrose, the “priest.”) His final words to Grant show that Grant has succeeded as a teacher.
Sheriff Guidry asks Jefferson what he wants for his last meal; Jefferson requests pork chops cooked by Miss Emma, with a little ice cream and a moon pie for desert. The guards take Jefferson to clean himself, and when he’s returned to his cell, he finds the food waiting for him; he eats it, knowing it’s the best food Emma ever cooked. He watches the sun going down, writing that he’ll never see another sunset but he will see another dawn, since he plans to stay up all night.
Jefferson enjoys the food he eats before he dies—he’s finally learned to take pleasure in the physical world instead of rejecting material pleasures and falling into cynicism and self-loathing. He experiences the love and connection Emma is expressing through the food she cooks. With his comments on the sun, he shows that he’s hopeful, even on the last day of his life.
Sheriff Guidry walks to Jefferson’s cell as he sits writing. He asks Jefferson if he’s been a fair guard to him, and lists all the things he’s done for Jefferson—allowed him to have visitors, to use a radio, etc. Jefferson acknowledges that the sheriff has treated him well, and Guidry tells him to write this in his diary. He offers to keep the light on that night so that Jefferson can continue to write; Jefferson accepts the offer.
We see how reading and writing can be used as weapons against white racists. Guidry seems afraid of Jefferson’s notebook—he doesn’t want word of his injustices getting out. Again Jefferson’s diary seems to be connected with the Bible, and Guidry doesn’t want to be portrayed as a Pontius Pilate.
The final entries in Jefferson’s diary are scattered, as Jefferson’s mind darts around in his final hours of life He writes that he’s unsure if there’s a heaven or not—Ambrose says there is but his life has suggested that there’s none. He says that he had no business going with Brother and Bear, because they’re no good. He also notes that he’s no longer listening to the music on the radio because it’s for the living, not the dead. He thanks Grant for being good to him and tells him to tell the community that he’s been strong in the final hours of his life. He writes that the sky looks very blue, and that he’ll pass his diary along to Paul before he’s taken to the electric chair.
Jefferson’s comment about not going with Brother and Bear shows how he is accepting responsibility for his own actions. That he was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit is unjust, but he has matured to the extent that he can see the ways that his own immaturity has impacted his own life. Jefferson has progressed from a callow fool to a mature man who understands the repercussions of his actions on his community, and puts the needs of that community first. Paul is identified here as the one who will carry Jefferson’s words on after Jefferson has died, just as St. Paul carried the teachings of Jesus after Jesus was crucified.