A Lesson Before Dying—Plot
(Chapter and page numbers refer to the Vintage Paperback edition of the novel.)
Chapter 1 Summary:
The narrator, Grant Wiggins, opens the novel’s plot with a paradox: “I was not there, yet I was there.” “There” is the trial of Jefferson, a young man accused of murdering a shopkeeper. The trial is held in Bayonne, Louisiana, a fictional town in which Gaines set several novels. Bayonne, a town of about 6,000, is the parish seat; the courthouse and jail are located here. The man on trial is from “the quarter,” an African American community nearby. The time is the late 1940s.
In the courtroom, two attorneys present different versions of a murder. The court-appointed defense attorney reports Jefferson’s account of events: Two black men, Brother and Bear, offered Jefferson a ride, hoping to borrow money from him, but Jefferson was broke. The three drove to a store owned by Alcee Gropé, expecting him to extend them credit. Brother and Bear were a little drunk already, but they wanted more liquor. When Gropé refused to give them credit, Bear walked unsteadily behind the counter, alarming the storekeeper, who warned him to turn back. When Bear kept coming, Gropé pulled a revolver from the cash register and began shooting. Someone—probably Brother—returned fire; soon, Bear and Brother lay dead on the floor of the store, and Gropé was dying. Jefferson panicked, his mind a blank. All he could think was that he had been seen and would be accused. Jefferson grabbed whiskey and drank it, and his mind cleared. He knew he had to run, but he needed money to get away. In desperation, he stuffed money from the register in his pocket and started to leave—when two white men walked into the store. All Jefferson had done, the attorney argued, was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He hadn’t planned anything; he had only reacted.
The defense attorney argues that Jefferson is not a man, capable of decisions, but a foolish child, more like a beast than a human. He exclaims, “Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
The prosecution’s case is much briefer: Brother, Bear, and Jefferson planned to rob and kill Gropé. Brother and Bear had already paid with their lives; Jefferson must pay with his. After a short deliberation, the jury convicts Jefferson. At the sentencing trial, Jefferson has nothing to say for himself. He stares at the floor as he hears the sentence: death by electrocution.
Chapter 1 Analysis:
The narrator’s comment that though he did not attend the trial, he “was there as much as anyone else was there” implies a sense of community. When one black man stands trial, all the black members of the community feel as if they are on trial with him. Grant describes Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, as she watches her godson yet hears almost nothing of the trial. She does not bother to listen to the arguments because she knows that he will be found guilty—a black man accused of killing a white man always is.
In these opening pages, many details subtly create the world in which the main characters live, a pre-civil rights world of the South, rife with discrimination. From the foregone conclusion of the trial and the verdict decided by an all-white jury and judge, to passing references to segregated facilities and the attorney’s assumptions about Jefferson’s intelligence, Chapter 1 establishes a setting in which justice cannot be done. The defense attorney knows that he cannot win the case and instead appeals to the jury’s pity for a person who, as he describes him, is more like “a cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear” than a man who can make and carry out a plan.
Chapter 2 Summary:
Grant returns from teaching school on the day of the trial to find Miss Emma and Tante (Aunt) Lou, his aunt, sitting at her kitchen table. He tries to avoid the women, not wanting to see the grief on Miss Emma’s face, but Tante Lou insists that he speak with her. One memory of the trial grieves Miss Emma more than any other: “Called him a hog,” she says. Pinning Grant with her gaze, she gives him a task: “I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.” The two women tell Grant, “You the teacher” and force their will on him: He will teach Jefferson how to go to his death with the dignity of a man.
The women plan to ask Henri Pichot, a landowner who employs many black workers, to persuade the sheriff, his brother-in-law, to let Grant visit Jefferson. Grant does not want to take on this task. He hates teaching and wants to get away from his community. But he has nowhere to go, and Tante Lou makes it clear that, if he refuses to help Jefferson, he’ll have no place to live, either. After years spent raising him and making sure he is educated, she will throw him out if he refuses to teach Jefferson.
Chapter 2 Analysis:
In this chapter, readers first see the tense relationship between Tante Lou and Grant. Grant lives with his aunt, and she has given him the opportunities he has had in life—but to an end. She intends him to teach, to lead, to better their community. He feels that his teaching accomplishes nothing and wants to get out of his home town, leaving these imposed responsibilities behind. But Chapter 2 makes clear who has the upper hand. Tante Lou’s powerful will shapes Grant’s actions, as much as he would like to free himself from her influence.
Chapter 3 Summary:
Under coercion, and hating serving as a chauffeur to the women, Grant packs Tante Lou and Emma into his 1946 Ford for the drive to Henri Pichot’s plantation house. A silent war of wills is waged as Grant drives, not caring whether the car hits ruts in the roads, and feels his aunt’s gaze on the back of his head. Because they are black, they must enter through the house’s back door and wait in the kitchen for an audience with Pichot, who is entertaining Louis Rougon, a banker, in the library. Lou, Emma, and Grant wait and wait till Pichot finally comes to the kitchen to speak to them. He is clearly annoyed by the interruption. Emma, who worked for Pichot’s family for many years, presents her request: that he persuade the sheriff to allow Grant to visit Jefferson in jail. Rougon is taken aback by Emma’s sense that Pichot owes her any favors, despite her years of service. Pichot agrees to talk to the sheriff—on his own schedule—but he makes no promises and advises Emma to give Jefferson up to his fate.
Chapter 3 Analysis:
The setting of Pichot’s house reveals the discriminatory world in which the main characters live. The quarter is clustered around this old plantation house that no black person may enter through the front door. The kitchen is the appointed place for blacks to wait . . . and wait on Pichot, who employs many of them. Grant hates the house, detests being forced to go in the back door, and resents his aunt for forcing him to wait on Pichot. Pichot, for his part, is uncomfortable with Grant: “I was too educated for Henri Pichot; he had no use for me at all anymore.” Yet for Emma’s sake, Grant addresses Pichot as “sir” and lowers his eyes in deference—hated acts of subjugation.
Chapter 4 Summary:
Grant drives his aunt and Miss Emma back to the quarter and then leaves, telling his aunt that he’ll eat in Bayonne—a calculated thrust at the woman who has always cooked for him. Grant’s drive into Bayonne provides details about this town. It is divided into a white part and a black part, in back, and has two of most amenities: a black movie house and a white movie house, a black school and a white school, and so on. Grant heads for the Rainbow Club, a bar and restaurant that caters to blacks, run by Joe Claiborne and his wife, Thelma. The bar’s booths sit in semidarkness and Grant can think quietly. This is also where Grant most often meets Vivian, the woman he intends to marry as soon as she can get a divorce from her husband. Joe is surprised to see Grant on a Monday—a school night—but he needs a drink and, even more, he needs to see Vivian. When she arrives, he proposes that they leave Bayonne, running away from their troubles. But she says that they have commitments that they must honor. Grant hates these obligations, but he loves Vivian, who must be careful of her behavior so that her husband will have no reason to take custody of their two children from her.
Chapter 4 Analysis:
This chapter provides some back story for Grant. His parents moved to California when he was young, leaving him behind to be raised by his aunt. He has visited them in California, and he could have stayed there, far from the unjust, unequal community he grew up in. Yet, as Vivian points out, he came back. The chapter also makes explicit Grant’s disgust with the verdict against Jefferson—“The jury, twelve white men good and true, still sentenced him to death”—and his own sense of incompetence—“Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live.”
Chapter 5 Summary:
This chapter describes the setting of the school and introduces the children Grant teaches. Class is held in a one-room school housed in the black community’s church. The children pledge allegiance to the flag and repeat Bible verses from memory to start the day, but Grant hardly listens. He seems already to have given up on his students and on their futures. Facilities at the school are minimal: The children use the backless church benches as desks, kneeling on the floor to write or balancing books in their laps. They are in school only from late October to mid-April, since they are needed to work in the fields otherwise. So that Grant can work with groups of children, the older students teach the younger students.
On this day, Grant, who is always stern with his students, is particularly irritable. He punishes a child for using too much precious chalk and scolds another for writing sentences that slope. Angrily, he ties the students’ fumbling efforts to Jefferson’s fate in the electric chair, frightening them. Class is interrupted when a small man in his late fifties comes to deliver a message. Farrell Jarreau works for Pichot, who, he says, wants to see Grant at 5 o’clock. Farrell clearly respects Grant, calling him “professor,” while Grant has only pity for the man who, so late in his life, “was still only a messenger to run errands.”
Chapter 5 Analysis:
A major conflict in the novel is Grant’s position outside the close-knit community of the quarter. He grew up there and knows the people well—all their problems, the situations of all the families under “the rusted tin roof of each house.” Yet he does not feel bound to them by communal ties. In fact, he finds ways to separate himself from them, as if trying to keep from becoming integrated into the community. This chapter also presents the schoolchildren appealingly. They study under difficult conditions, and Grant is stern with them; yet they want to please their teacher.
Chapter 6 Summary:
Entering the plantation house through the hated back door, Grant waits for Pichot in the kitchen, as before. Inez offers him coffee and, later, food, but he refuses both—a gesture he repeats often in the novel. She also asks him to sit down, but he prefers to stand—perhaps in solidarity with Miss Emma, who stood waiting on Jefferson’s behalf. Inez says that Pichot is entertaining Louis Rougon again and that Louis has offered a bet on whether Grant can succeed in “educating” Jefferson. Pichot won’t take it.
Though he arrived at the arranged time, Grant waits well over two hours before Pichot comes to the kitchen. During that time, Edna Guidry, the sheriff’s wife, finds an excuse to come into the kitchen. So nervous and flustered that she can hardly hold a conversation, she nevertheless expresses concern for Jefferson and for Gropé’s widow. Overcome, she flees the kitchen.
When Pichot finally comes into the kitchen, he is accompanied by Louis Rougon, an unnamed fat man, and Sam Guidry, the sheriff. Inez, knowing she is not welcome in this conversation, leaves, and Grant remains standing, secretly hoping that the sheriff will refuse to let him visit Jefferson. Guidry says that he would “rather see a contented hog go to that chair than an aggravated hog,” but his wife has persuaded him to allow the visits. Guidry lays out conditions for the visits as Pichot looks on uncomfortably.
Chapter 6 Analysis:
Hints of Grant’s willingness to play his role in the community emerge in this chapter. He stands for almost three hours waiting, in solidarity with Emma and Lou; and he curbs his replies to the sheriff, using “sir” often in his speech, because he knows that Guidry is looking for any excuse to deny Emma’s request. Still, Guidry doesn’t like Grant, telling him, “Maybe you’re just a little too smart for your own good.” Grant doesn’t respond: “I knew when to be quiet.”
Yet despite these acts of solidarity, Grant hopes that Guidry will not allow him to visit Jefferson. He desperately wants to be rid of Emma’s expectations. He is torn between becoming “the teacher” and escaping his obligations.