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A Lesson Before Dying Chapter 1

Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This lesson is a summary of the first chapter of ''A Lesson Before Dying'', a novel by Ernest J. Gaines. The narrator, Grant Wiggins, describes the outcome of the trial of a young African-American man accused of robbing and killing a white man.

'I was not there, yet I was there.'

The book opens with the narrator, Grant Wiggins, setting the scene and describing the trial proceedings and verdict in the trial of a young African-American man named Jefferson. Grant wasn't physically at the trial, but even without going, he knew what the verdict would be - Jefferson was accused of robbing and murdering a white man. There's the sense that everyone knew what the verdict would be.

Throughout the chapter, Grant describes the courtroom and testimony as if he had been sitting there.

The Courtroom

Grant imagines sitting near his own aunt and Jefferson's godmother during the trial. He compares their demeanors. His aunt follows the prosecutor with her eyes as he paces back and forth. In contrast, Jefferson's godmother stares steadily at the back of his head. She hardly seems to be listening to anything because she already knows what is coming.

The prosecution and the defense agree on one thing: Jefferson was found in Mr. Gropé's liquor store, his pockets full of money from the cash register and a half-empty bottle of whiskey in his hand. Mr. Gropé, the white store owner, and two black boys were dead on the floor.

Jefferson's Story

Grant relates Jefferson's side of the story. Jefferson says he was on his way to a bar when Brother and Bear pulled up in a car and gave him a ride. They had been drinking and asked if he had any money to buy alcohol at Gropé's store. Jefferson didn't have any. Brother and Bear seem to think Gropé will let them have the alcohol on credit.

When they arrive at the store, Mr. Gropé is the only one in the store. He greets Jefferson and asks about his family. Then Brother and Bear try to get him to let them have the alcohol. He resists and they walk around the counter. Gropé pulls out a gun and shoots at Brother and Bear. The boys shoot back. When it's over, Brother and Bear are dead and Mr. Gropé is dying.

Jefferson describes wanting to run but not being able to; he's hardly able to figure out where he is and what's going on. Mr. Gropé calls to him and Jefferson tries to tell him that he needs to tell the police that it was all Brother and Bear, that he didn't have anything to do with it. Mr. Gropé is dead.

The boy grabs a bottle of whiskey and drains half of it to try to pull himself together. He realizes that he needs to get out of there, but he hesitates and grabs the money from the cash register before heading for the door. Just then, two white men come in.

The Prosecution's Story

The prosecution predictably argues that the three boys planned to go rob and kill Mr. Gropé. Brother and Bear are dead, and their co-conspirator, Jefferson, now needs to pay for his role in the crime, too. They said that Jefferson was an animal that celebrated with a drink over the bodies in the store.

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