A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A short time after receiving the first winter kindling, Grant takes Miss Emma to Bayonne—they are visiting Jefferson for the first time since he was sentenced. Tante Lou doesn’t go with them, but she tells Emma to let her know if Jefferson needs anything. On the drive to Bayonne, neither Grant nor Miss Emma says anything. Emma, who’s bringing Jefferson a basket of food, knows that Grant is reluctant to speak to Jefferson at all.
Gaines establishes suspense leading up to Grant’s first visit with Jefferson. It’s unclear what Grant will say to Jefferson—even Grant himself seems not to know.
Themes
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Grant and Emma arrive at the jailhouse where Jefferson is being held. It is a red brick building from the early 20th century, and looks vaguely like a European castle. Inside, Emma tells a guard that she’s here to see Jefferson. Grant remembers the bathrooms in the building: blacks have to use the bathrooms downstairs, which are disgusting; whites use the cleaner indoor bathrooms. A young deputy named Paul tells Emma that Jefferson has been very quiet lately. The other deputy goes through the basket of food and clothing that Emma has brought, and tells Grant to empty his pockets; Grant notes that he seems like a fairly decent man. The deputy tells Emma that she can’t bring Jefferson hatpins or knives, in case Jefferson tries to kill himself. Emma insists that he would never do such a thing, but the deputy responds, “you can never tell.”
The architecture of the jailhouse is significant: it harkens back to an earlier time, a time when blacks were even worse-off than they are in the 1940s. Indeed, every aspect of the building’s architecture reinforces whites’ superiority to blacks. Even the bathrooms testify to this: blacks must use the downstairs bathrooms, which are filthy and never cleaned. Paul the deputy is one of the only white characters in the novel who seems like a decent man—this will become important later. It’s also in this section that we get our second indication that Jefferson might hurt himself.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Paul leads Emma and Grant to Jefferson’s cell. As they walk there, the other prisoners ask Emma and Grant for food and money. Emma says she’ll give them what Jefferson doesn’t take, and Grant gives them some change. Paul locks Emma and Grant in Jefferson’s cell and leaves them alone, saying he’ll return in an hour.
Emma and the other visitors are generous to the other prisoners, recognizing that their reasons for being locked up may not be any better than Jefferson’s, who was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Even Grant gives them change, though his ”generosity” seems colder and less sincere than Emma’s.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Jefferson is quiet, and even when Emma strokes his hair he doesn’t speak. Emma shows him the food she’s brought him: fried chicken, yams, and tea cakes. Jefferson says that none of this matters, bringing Emma to tears. Jefferson asks when “they’re gonna do it,” and Emma asks him what “it” is. Jefferson stares into Grant’s eyes, and he feels that Jefferson knows that Grant knows what he’s talking about. Jefferson accuses Grant of being the man who will “jerk the switch,” and Emma tells him that Grant is his teacher.
Seen for the first time in his cell, Jefferson can’t stop thinking about his own death. His fear of dying is—understandably—so large that he assumes that everyone around him is involved in his execution, even Grant. Jefferson seems utterly unconcerned with Emma’s happiness—his comment that none of the food matters, for instance, brings her to tears. We’ve seen Grant behave in a similar fashion to Lou, suggesting a kind of doubling between Grant and Jefferson based on the rejection of food, which is a rejection of something shared between people—it is a rejection of bonds of kinship and community.
Themes
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
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Paul returns and opens the cell door. Emma tells Jefferson that they’ll be back soon. She leaves the food with him, and asks Paul to give whatever Jefferson doesn’t eat to the other inmates; Paul says he will. As Emma and Grant walk out of the jail, Emma calls out for Jesus. Grant makes eye contact with Paul, and Paul silently seems to tell Grant to put his arms around Emma—Grant does so.
Emma remains generous to the other prisoners both before and after she visits Jefferson. Paul, for his part, seems responsible and moral, agreeing to feed the prisoners after Jefferson is done. Even before he knows Paul properly, Grant communicates with Paul non-verbally, much as he’s done with Tante Lou. This suggests that Paul is trustworthy and deeply moral, and that there is the possibility for a white and black man to interact in ways that aren’t tainted by racism.
Themes
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon