A Lesson Before Dying Summary

Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying

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A Lesson Before Dying Summary

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Widely celebrated for its unflinching examination of racism in mid-20th century America, A Lesson Before Dying is perhaps Ernest J. Gaines’s best known and most respected novel. Inspired by a real-life case, it tells the tale of a young Black man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the segregated American South. The story takes place in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana, and is narrated by Grant Wiggins, a Black teacher from the local plantation school. It begins with Grant describing the trial of Jefferson, a simple, uneducated 21-year-old Black man wrongly charged with murdering a white store owner.

Grant tells the reader how Jefferson accepted a lift from two other Black men and traveled by car with them to a liquor store where the other men requested drinks on credit. When the store owner refused, things quickly escalated into a shootout in which the store owner and the two men were all killed. Terrified and overwhelmed, Jefferson tried to calm himself down by drinking a little of the store’s whiskey and then, realizing he would have to flee, took some money from an open cash register even though he recognized this was morally wrong. Two white men then discovered him trying to leave the store and he was arrested. The prosecuting attorney’s spin on this was that Jefferson arrived fully intending to rob the store and kill the owner and that, once this was complete, he drank the whiskey to celebrate his crimes. The defense attorney countered this by saying that Jefferson was mentally incapable of planning such a crime. The DA further suggested that Jefferson was little better than a hog and, in fact, executing him would be akin to executing a hog. A white jury quickly found Jefferson guilty and he was sentenced to death.

Later, Grant is approached by Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, who is a friend of his aunt, Tante Lou. She wants Grant to help her teach Jefferson so that he may die with dignity, as a man rather than “a hog.” Although Grant hates the racism directed at the Black community, he initially refuses the request, believing that it is an impossible task. Building up Jefferson’s dignity would require dismantling a lifetime of systematic racism that has shaped the man’s character. Despite his reservations, Tante Lou persuades Grant to help Miss Emma and they are eventually given permission to visit Jefferson in prison. However, when they visit him, they find him taciturn and withdrawn, and he remains this way for several more visits. Things get worse when Grant goes to see Jefferson on his own. After Grant tries to persuade him to eat the food Miss Emma has sent, Jefferson crawls around his cell pretending to eat like a hog. However, though Jefferson is standoffish and refuses to engage with Grant, Grant still remains with him for the whole allotted hour so as not to let the racist sheriff know how badly his efforts are going.

The same pattern repeats for several more visits until Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and others ask the sheriff’s wife to persuade her husband to allow Jefferson’s visiting hours to occur in a dayroom rather than a cell. In the relative light and comfort of the dayroom, Jefferson moves towards enlightenment, beginning tentatively to see himself as a human being deserving of dignity. He even initiates a conversation with Grant about his predicament and treatment. Jefferson also opens up to Grant when asked about his last meal, admitting that he wants a gallon of ice cream because he has only ever been allowed tiny amounts. Their relationship continues to grow and strengthen, especially when Grant gives Jefferson a radio to distract him and then a notebook in which to record his thoughts. When Grant visits him after this, he discovers that Jefferson has used the notebook to record his explanation of how men are different from hogs.

Through this increasingly strong connection, Grant is able to explain to Jefferson how significant his death will be for the whole Black community. He explains that when his defense attorney compared him to a hog, he insulted all Black people, drawing on a long history of white supremacist lies and propaganda. He also explains that, because of this, Jefferson’s response to death will be important to the whole Black community. The question of whether he dies with dignity and self-respect will influence their dignity and self-respect, too. As more and more members of the Black community come to visit Jefferson, he begins to truly appreciate the reality of what Grant has told him and the scale of what is at stake. He comes to accept that his execution will take on a significance far beyond that of any ordinary death. In his diary entries, the reader also learns that he is far more introspective, articulate, and aware than had been previously suggested. The novel ends with Grant in his schoolroom, his students all kneeling in prayer at the moment Jefferson is to be executed. A white deputy who had bonded with Jefferson informs Grant that the execution is over and offers Grant his friendship and Jefferson’s diary. In the story’s final moments, Grant informs his students that Jefferson is dead and, both grieving for his friend and recognizing the positive impact Jefferson’s dignified death has had on the Black and white communities alike, he begins to cry.

Perhaps the aspect of A Lesson Before Dying most commonly commended is the insight it offers readers into life under Jim Crow racial laws. Within this, critics often point to its centering of Black experiences and its recognition of the importance of community and cooperation to many Black Americans, both past and present. As well as being a critically acclaimed novel, A Lesson Before Dying has also been adapted as a play and a HBO television drama.