Chapter 31 is the last chapter of the novel and takes place on the day jefferson was due to be executed. Grant is at the school in the quarter. He has told all the children to go home early to eat, to come back to school, and to stay on their knees in the schoolroom until they hear the news that Jefferson has finally gone to the electric chair. Grant waits outside. He is full ofdoubts about both his relationship with Jefferson and his own worth: Page 250 “Why wasn’t I there (at the execution)? Why wasn’t I standing beside him? … Why wasn’t I back there with the children? Why wasn’t I down on my knees? Why?” The title of the novel is “A lesson before dying” therefore we have to ask ourselves if eventually this lesson has been taught and most important has been learnedsuccessfully. We may also wonder if this experience really changed anything in Grant “ the teacher” and if Grant is still the selfish, cynic disenchanted man that was painted at the beginning of the novel.
The novel ends with a paradox. Indeed, the whole story unfolds during Jim Crow era and deals with what it is to be black in this society; yet this is a white man who comes to break the news ofJefferson's execution to Grant and who has witnessed the “success” of Grant's lesson. What is important here are not the minutiae of the execution, but the manner of Jefferson’s death. Paul is a white deputy who has been one of Jefferson’s jailers. He is the only white man that Jefferson feels has treated him with real respect: “He’s the only one around here who knows how to talk like a human topeople.” He is the only white man in the prison who has shown compassion and understanding for Jefferson's visitors.
This is Paul's first visit in the quarter probably because of segregation.” p 254 “ line 9 : “ He had never been in the quarter before”. As soon as Paul looks at him, Grant realizes how touched and shocked he has been by the execution. p 253 “ his eyes more intense than I had everseen, “ like someone in shock”. Immediately we know something happened at the jail, that it was not an “ordinary” execution of a black man as whites were used to. A white man, namely Paul, however human he may be has been deeply moved. This is something. Yes, Jefferson died like a man, he walked to that chair. P 254 line 4 “ Tell nanan I walked ”. Here echoes Grant's lesson chapter 24 when he toldJefferson that friends do things for others but also Miss Emma's words at the beginning when she insisted on seeing a man walking to that chair not even discussing the injustice of the sentence. Jefferson is proud of himself but he also wants to please his Godmother.
This is highly significant, as Jefferson has been able to give the lie to the suggestion that he was no better than a ‘hog’, he haswalked like a man. This is all the more significant as this comes from the mouth of a white man. On several occasions Paul indicates to Grant that Jefferson was “ the strongest man in the crowd” p 253, l 30, that he was “ the bravest in that room today” last page.
There's no doubt for us readers that Grant accomplished his mission in making Jefferson die like a man on a personal level but what wealso realize is that Jefferson's achievement will be remembered by blacks as well as by whites. We understand that, though Grant cannot yet take responsibility for Jefferson's achievement, he intends to talk about it with kids. We feel it when he comes into the church and puts down the notebook on his desk saying to the children: “ We'll talk about it”. This is also a lesson which will have to beremembered by whites as Paul says to Grant that he “ will never forget this day” and that it “ would be an honour to testify before the children that Jefferson died like a great man giving him the figure of a hero and even a Christ like figure. Again it comes as a paradox that this Christ like figure is given by a white man. Paul insists on saying the he is a witness: Line 29 “I’m a witness”,...