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A Lesson Before Dying

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Grant Wiggins has been teaching on a plantation outside Bayonne, Louisiana, for several years when a slow-witted man named Jefferson is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Jefferson claims he is innocent of the crime. He says he was on his way to a bar, but changed his mind and decided to tag along with two men who were on their way to a liquor store. Upon arriving there, the two men began arguing with the storeowner, and a shootout ensued. The storeowner and the two men died, and Jefferson remained at the scene of the crime. He was arrested and tried for murder. Jefferson's lawyer argues in court that Jefferson is nothing but a poor fool, hardly more worthwhile than a hog, and therefore incapable of plotting such a scheme. The jury quickly brings back a guilty verdict.

Upon hearing the lawyer's speech, Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, resolves to help Jefferson die like a man, not a hog. She asks Grant to help her, knowing that he will resist. Grant left many years prior to attend college, and he returned an educated man. He deplores the injustices done to his fellow black men, but he does not want to get involved in Jefferson's case. However, after considerable pressure from his aunt, Tante Lou, he agrees to try to help Jefferson. Grant, Miss Emma, and Grant's aunt go to visit Jefferson in his cell, and they discover that he too heard the lawyer's words and has taken them to heart. Silent and moody, Jefferson resists Grant's feeble attempts to reach him. The three visitors spend an uncomfortable hour in the cell and then leave.

During the next few visits, Jefferson continues to frustrate Grant's attempts to communicate. When Grant attempts to teach Jefferson about dignity, Jefferson insists that dignity is for "youmans," not hogs. He eats and snuffles in imitation of a hog and tries to anger Grant with stubbornness and malice, but Grant maintains his patience. Each hour-long visit ends in failure, but Grant continues to try to reach Jefferson. On his fourth visit, Grant sparks a conversation with Jefferson about his final meal. Jefferson admits that he wants a gallon of vanilla ice cream because, although he loves ice cream, he has never had more than a thimbleful at a time. This admission begins to break down the barrier between the two men. Grant borrows money from some townspeople and buys Jefferson a small radio. On his next visit, he brings Jefferson a notebook and asks him to write down whatever thoughts come to his mind. Jefferson promises to do so, and by Grant's next visit, Jefferson has filled most of a page with thoughts concerning the difference between hogs and men.

Grant's relationships with his girlfriend Vivian and with Reverend Ambrose begin to intensify. Despite her love for Grant, Vivian dislikes his tendency to think only of himself, showing little regard for her needs. Grant uses Vivian to escape the troubles of his life, and he continually suggests that they run away from their hometown and their past in the South. The Reverend Ambrose, himself unable to reach Jefferson, urges Grant to put aside his atheistic beliefs and help save not just Jefferson's character, but his soul. The Reverend declares that Grant must learn to tell lies for

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