A Lesson Before Dying: Novel Summary:chp 13-18

Chapter 13 Summary:

On Sunday morning, the church bell rings to call the people of the quarter to service. Miss Eloise Bouie walks by Lou’s house to pick her up, and Emma joins them as they walk on. Grant does not go with them; after he came back from college, he told his aunt that he had lost his belief. He said that if she tried to force him to go to church, he would leave. So Tante Lou limits her disapproval to silent, critical glances and loud, protracted hymn-singing.


Grant tries to grade papers but makes little progress; he can’t stop thinking about what happened when he came home from Bayonne on Friday. Reverend Ambrose, Emma, and Lou sat around the kitchen table, waiting on his report. They detained him and tried to pry information out of him, but he evaded them, saying merely that Jefferson “was all right.” Ambrose forced the question: “Deep in you, what you think?” he asks—does Jefferson grasp his situation? Is he ready to die? How is his soul? Ambrose recalled baptizing Jefferson, but “like so many others, he didn’t keep the faith.” Ambrose’s main concern now is that Jefferson die in the faith. Grant told him flatly that seeing to Jefferson’s soul is the reverend’s concern, not his. 


Now, as he tries to work, Grant hears singing from the church and feels sorry for the pain his refusing to attend services causes his aunt. To his great surprise, he turns to see Vivian in the doorway of his room.


Chapter 13 Analysis:

Conflicts between characters abound in this novel, and this chapter introduces a new conflict that will increase the pressure on Grant. His desertion of his childhood faith sets him against Reverend Ambrose, whose primary concern for Jefferson is that he die holding onto his faith and believing that, although he suffers injustice now, he will receive peace and reward in heaven. These are comforting beliefs, but Grant no longer accepts them, and he is deeply uncomfortable with the idea that because he is “the teacher,” he must also take responsibility for bringing Jefferson back to the faith.


Ambrose also serves as a surrogate father-figure in the novel. Grant’s father is absent and has been most of his life; Grant looks to Antoine to be a mentor but finds only hatred and despair. Ambrose, on the other hand, offers wisdom and compassion, yet these traits also drive Grant away.


Chapter 14 Summary:

Vivian wanted to see Grant and so drove to the quarter. She has never been to his home before. They kiss and then go to the kitchen for coffee and cake. Grant tells her that he finds Sundays sad, but she points out that, for laborers, Sunday is a good day. Perhaps, she suggests, he ought to find something to do on Sunday—for example, go to church: “I know you believe,” she claims. “You don’t want to, but I know you do.” He denies this, however, saying, “The only thing I believe in is loving you.” 


They go for a walk in the fields, cutting sugar cane to eat and looking for pecans. As they lie down in the cane field, Vivian reveals that she is pregnant, and Grant wonders whether he wants his child to grow up in the quarter. They make love.


Chapter 14 Analysis:

Vivian’s character is revealed in this chapter. Grant has carefully kept their worlds apart—she is in Bayonne, and he is in the quarter. Yet she boldly brings their worlds together, coming uninvited to his aunt’s house. Readers also learn that Vivian cares about people generally from her comments about Sundays. 


Chapter 15 Summary:

As they walk back to Lou’s house, Grant and Vivian talk about their students’ Christmas programs and, inevitably, about Jefferson. Vivian asks Grant whether he wants her to stay and meet Lou, and he says yes. Vivian worries about how Grant’s family will feel about her; she doesn’t want a repeat of what happened with her husband. She met this dark-skinned man while at college and married him, knowing that her family would not accept him because of his skin color. In fact, they not only rejected him but then shunned Vivian and her children as well. She has contact with her mother and aunts only through letters. 


At the house, Emma, Inez, and Eloise are visiting with Lou. Grant introduces Vivian, and the women react politely but coolly. Grant comments that “they did not want to know her.” But he is firm with them: “This is the woman I’m going to marry one day. So you might as well start getting along right now.” Over his aunt’s objections, he makes coffee for the women since he and Vivian finished off the coffee earlier. He and Vivian serve the women coffee and cake and then wash up as Vivian responds to the women’s questions: Yes, she loves her mother. Yes, she goes to church. Yes, she is in love with Grant. She and Grant go out on the porch, where she seems unsettles and decides to leave. When she goes inside to get her purse, the women respond more favorably to her, saying that she is “a lady of quality” with “good manners.” The ice has, apparently, been broken.


Chapter 15 Analysis:

Throughout the novel, gathering to share coffee and food is a sign of community. When Grant and Vivian make and serve coffee and cake for Lou and her friends, they are insisting that Vivian be accepted in the quarter. The gesture is successful but also a bit ironic, given how often, by this point in the story, Grant has refused when other characters offered him coffee. He rejects the very gesture of community that he now uses to integrate Vivian into his home life.


Readers also see that Vivian is a strong and gracious woman who is willing to meld her life with Grant’s and take his family and friends as her own.


Chapter 16 Summary: 

Walking in the schoolyard, his ruler at his side as always, Grant sees Reverend Ambrose, Emma, and Lou in the reverend’s car, headed for Bayonne. Grant’s students are planning their annual Christmas program, and Grant asks them to remember Jefferson as they plan. After school, Grant stays in the church, grading papers, till a boy comes to summon him to Emma’s house, where he finds Emma, Lou, and the reverend at the table. They offer him coffee, and as usual he refuses, a sign that he doesn’t want to be part of their conversation. He can tell from how quiet they are that the visit did not go well and that they know he lied about Jefferson’s condition. In this case, Jefferson behaved so badly that Emma slapped him, and now, as she thinks of it, she is heartbroken. Later Grant learns that Jefferson pretended to be asleep when they visited and then wouldn’t speak. His eyes were “blank, blank,” and when Ambrose assured Jefferson that he was praying for him, Jefferson looked at him hatefully. He then repeated his hog-like behavior, causing Emma to slap him. She then embraced him and wept, but he did not respond. 


Now, at the kitchen table, Lou and Ambrose try to comfort her, and Grant admits that Jefferson acted the same way when he visited. He wants to give up on reaching Jefferson, but Emma pleads with him to go back and try again because “you the teacher.” Grant, knowing that he cannot change their minds, leaves the trio at the table.


Chapter 16 Analysis:

Here at the halfway mark of the novel, emotions of grief, anger, and despair dominate. Jefferson’s thoughts are full of fear and self-hatred; Grant is trapped by guilt and obligation; and Emma wonders if anyone, even the teacher, can help her beloved grandson. The chapter ends with Grant fleeing Emma’s house, pursued by Lou’s demanding words: “You ain’t going to run away from this, Grant.”


Chapter 17 Summary:

By the time Grant visits Jefferson again on Friday, his anger has ebbed away. Perhaps, he thinks, his inability to stay angry stems from his unwillingness to believe in anything. At the jail, he submits to the usual humiliating search and then decides to talk to Paul about Jefferson. As they walk toward the cell, Paul says, “We might as well call each other by our names.” He shakes Grant’s hand, and an unexpected alliance is made. Paul explains that he has been warned not to get too close to any prisoner who is scheduled for execution, but he wants to treat Jefferson decently. He describes Jefferson’s daily routine and lets Grant into the cell. 


The visit begins badly. Grant offers Jefferson’s his nannan’s food, which Jefferson rejects. Then Grant explains how heartbroken Emma felt after their visit. “Everybody cry,” Jefferson responds. “I cry.” Grant asks Jefferson to consider being kind to Emma to spare her suffering, but Jefferson responds by saying that Grant is “vexing him.” Jefferson tries to divert the argument by crudely insulting “that old yellow woman you go with.” Grant feels a surge of anger; he would strike any other man who spoke this way, but the look on Jefferson’s face—an “expression of the most heartrending pain I had ever seen”—stops him. He tells Jefferson that Vivian is the only reason he continues to visit the jail—that she cares about Jefferson. Tears are in Jefferson’s eyes, but he angrily lashes out, spilling the sack of food and saying, “Food for the living.” The visit is over; Grant waits for Paul to walk him out of the jail. 


Paul says that the sheriff wants to see Grant, so they go to his office. Guidry says, none too happily, that Lou and Emma want to visit Jefferson in the day room so that Emma has a place to sit down. The sheriff’s wife has asked him to allow this. “Women,” he scoffs, but he says he will allow the visit if Jefferson is shackled.


Chapter 17 Analysis:

Many little details develop a sympathetic portrait of Jefferson in this chapter. The dull routine of his days and the indignities of his prison life become clearer. The fact that the barber finds little to shave reminds readers of how young he is, and his red eyes testify to how little sleep he gets, despite having so much time to sleep. Grant, too, begins to feel sympathy for Jefferson during this visit, rather than merely regarding him as an obligation. 


This chapter also develops the relationship between Paul Bonin and Grant. Grant says that Paul seems better educated than the sheriff or the chief deputy, which is why Grant is willing to approach Paul for information on Jefferson. Education, it seems, can span the gulf between races. The chapter includes another instance of a white man forcing a black man to stand and wait on him, when Grant stands in the sheriff’s office while Guidry takes a phone call.


Chapter 18 Summary:

Jefferson agrees to wear shackles so that visits can take place in the day room—“If that’s what they want.” It’s a small act, but it is the first concession he has made to his godmother since the trial. Ambrose, Lou, and Emma arrive, and Emma sets the table as if they were in her kitchen. Emma is pleased with the result: “Don’t it look nice? Ain’t this much better?” Paul arrives, escorting Jefferson, and kindly wishes them a good dinner. But despite Emma’s attempts to create a more normal environment, Jefferson keeps his head down and refuses to eat. Emma even tries to feed him as if he were a little child. 


When Grant visits a few days later, he sees that Jefferson, who claims not to be hungry, is losing weight. Grant asks what Jefferson wants to talk about, and Jefferson says “That chair”—the last thing that Grant wants to talk about. He tries instead to tell Jefferson about his students’ Christmas program. “That’s when He was born, or when He died?” Jefferson asks. When Grant confirms that Christmas is when Christ was born, Jefferson recalls that “Easter when they nailed Him to the cross. And He never said a mumbling word.” 


Shaken, Grant turns the conversation to obligation and suggests that Jefferson has an obligation to Emma. Not hogs, Jefferson retorts. Hogs don’t love, hogs don’t give. Grant counters that hogs don’t speak or wear clothes, so Jefferson, who does, is clearly human, not a hog. He asks again for Jefferson to be kinder to Emma, but Jefferson says that if the visits hurt his godmother, she should just stay home. 


As Grant leaves the jail, Paul inquires sympathetically about the visit. Grant, discouraged, drives to the Rainbow Club to see Vivian. He still cannot commit to his task as teacher—to his students, to Jefferson. He tells Vivian, “If you’d just say the word, I’d drop everything.” But Vivian says that if they left, she would come to hate him for leaving and he would come to hate her for letting him leave. “Nothing is changing,” he complains, but she replies, “Something is.”


Chapter 18 Analysis:

Two things become clear about Grant in this chapter. First, he hasn’t met Jefferson on Jefferson’s own ground yet; perhaps it is too painful for him to risk. Rather than talking about what Jefferson needs to talk about—his coming death—he focuses on Emma’s suffering. Second, he is so torn between his responsibilities and his desire to escape that he can’t even make the decision to stay or go. He tries to push it off on Vivian. Readers begin to see that two characters, not just one, have a lesson to learn before the date of the execution.


This chapter also introduces a subtle comparison between Jefferson and Jesus. Jefferson thinks of Jesus going to the cross and remarks “and He never said a mumbling word.” These are words from a hymn that Jefferson must have learned when he was a child. Jesus, unjustly accused and condemned, said no angry words against his accusers. In later chapters, this comparison is more fully developed.