61 pages 2 hours read

Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines, is an award-winning work of fiction published in 1993. It received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that same year. The story is arguably a work of historical fiction based on true accounts of young Black men on death row in Louisiana in the 1940s.

Plot Summary

The story opens in a courtroom in 1947 Louisiana, where a 21-year-old Black man named Jefferson, is accused of killing a white shopkeeper during a robbery. In his defense, his attorney argues to the white jury that he cannot be held responsible for the crime because he is no different from a “hog.” In Chapters 1-8, Grant Wiggins, a local schoolteacher, learns that his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, want him to ask permission to visit Jefferson on death row. Grant, his aunt, and Miss Emma go to the plantation “big house” to ask Henri Pichot, a plantation owner, to help sway the sheriff to permit Grant’s visitations. Grant goes to the local Rainbow Club to visit his girlfriend, Vivian, where he complains that he does not know how he will teach Jefferson to die like a man. Vivian tells him he must.

Back at school, Grant tries to use Jefferson’s story as a teaching tool to motivate his students to apply themselves. That same day, Grant is summoned to the big house. After making a wager that Grant cannot teach Jefferson to die like a man, the white men gathered at Henri Pichot’s plantation home to support the sheriff in granting permission for the visits to death row.

Meanwhile, Dr. Joseph Morgan, the superintendent of schools, makes his annual visit to Grant’s school, where he conducts inspections of the children that Grant compares to the ones white slave masters made before purchasing new slaves. Grant recalls his visits to his mentor teacher, Professor Antoine, a biracial man who spoke often in defense of Hitler and the KKK hating Black people, and Grant wonders if he will make any difference by being a teacher.

Chapters 9-28 feature a chronological depiction of Grant’s visits to Jefferson between the months of October 1947 until his execution in April of 1948. Grant and Miss Emma make their first visit to Jefferson on death row. They pass by confederate statues and flags, endure a search, and a guard takes them through to the Black cell block, where they find Jefferson unable to acknowledge them or eat the food they brought for him. The second and third visits go the same way, and Grant grows frustrated with subjecting himself to the continued humiliation of going to the courthouse when it doesn’t seem to be making any difference to Jefferson.

Grant makes his first solo visit to the jail and tries to convince Jefferson, who imitates a hog by snorting and eating his food with his face, that he is not an animal. After the visit, Grant goes to the Rainbow Club and listens to the old timers talk about their hero, Jackie Robinson, and Grant fails to convince Vivian to run away with him. Grant feels guilty about not going directly home to report on his visit when he finds out Miss Emma, Reverend Ambrose, and his aunt have been waiting for five and a half hours to hear how it went. Grant lies about the visit and says Jefferson asked after his godmother and was thankful for the food she sent.

Vivian comes to visit Grant in the quarter for the first time. Vivian suspects she might be pregnant, and they discuss potential names for the baby, including Paul, Paulette, or Molly. Grant learns that Vivian is not close with her family because they did not approve of her marrying a dark-skinned man. Grant chooses to introduce Vivian to his aunt and Miss Emma when they return from church that day. The next day, Miss Emma goes to visit Jefferson and slaps him in the face when he says he will only eat corn because that is what hogs eat. Miss Emma confronts Grant about how he lied after his last visit. On Grant’s next visit, he formally meets the white deputy named Paul Bonin, who supposedly comes from “good stock.” Paul informs Grant about how Jefferson is doing. Jefferson insults Vivian, but Grant knows he is just in pain. The sheriff tells Grant that his aunt and Miss Emma have requested the visits to take place in the dayroom so that they have a place to sit. Grant accompanies the women and Reverend Ambrose on the next visit which takes place in the dayroom. Jefferson arrives in shackles but does not eat. He wants to talk about the electric chair, but Grant redirects the conversation. Despite Grant continuing to think the visits are pointless, Vivian says something is changing.

Grant and his students put on their annual Christmas pageant, and Grant remembers that nothing ever changes. Grant is summoned to the big house where he, Reverend Ambrose, and Sheriff Guidry discuss the court’s recent decision to execute Jefferson on Friday, April 8th. Grant and Vivian join the other visitors calling on Miss Emma, who is sick in bed after hearing the news. Grant argues with Vivian about the burden Black men must carry because of slavery and says the cycle will not be broken unless Jefferson chooses to break it by giving his godmother a memory of which she can be proud.

In his next visit, Grant sees a change in Jefferson: He seems more talkative and agrees to let Grant bring him a radio. Grant collects donations and delivers the radio later that same day. On their next visit to the jail Jefferson refuses to visit with Miss Emma, Grant’s aunt, and Reverend Ambrose unless he can have his radio playing. They blame Grant for giving him the “sin box” and worry about his soul. When Grant goes for his visit, Jefferson is a changed man who can have a civil conversation and even asks that Grant thank the children for the pecans they sent him. On the group’s next visit, they meet Jefferson in the dayroom. Grant has brought Jefferson a notebook and pencil and tells him to write down his thoughts. Grant lectures Jefferson on the meaning of friendship, heroes, myths, and manhood. For the first time, Jefferson eats a bit of his godmother’s soup.

After what Grant considers to be a very successful visit with Jefferson, he is ready to relax with Vivian at the Rainbow Club. While waiting for her, he gets into a serious fight with two biracial bricklayers who are baiting him by bad-mouthing Jefferson. Grant recovers from the fight at Vivian’s house, where he learns that he has let her down by getting into this fight and compromising the custody of her kids. Vivian also shares that her current husband will not grant her a divorce unless she stays local so he can see the kids every weekend.

Reverend Ambrose visits Grant on Sunday after church and tries to convince him to play a more active role in saving Jefferson’s soul by telling Jefferson he must get on his knees and “believe.” Grant insists he will only be able to help Jefferson stand like a man, but he will tell Jefferson to listen to Reverend Ambrose. Grant notices that Jefferson is starting to write in the notebook. Jefferson compares himself to Jesus on the cross, and Grant confesses to be a “lost” man. He does tell Jefferson that dying in the electric chair will make him a man. In his last night, Jefferson writes down his thoughts in his notebook. He expresses his appreciation for Mr. Wiggins, apologizes for insulting Vivian, professes love for his Nannan, and takes responsibility for his part in the crime for which he is accused.

The townspeople prepare for the arrival of the electric chair and their first ever execution. Jefferson makes arrangements for his few possessions and asks deputy Paul if he will be present for the execution. On the day of the execution, Grant is at school. He instructs his students to remain on their knees until he hears from the courthouse. Grant goes outside to be alone, sees a butterfly land in front of him and takes that as a sign that it is over. As he walks back to the church, Paul drives up to hand him Jefferson’s notebook and tell Grant that he wants to be his friend and never forget Jefferson. Grant returns to his students and cries.