Published by Knopf in 1993, A Lesson Before Dying is set in Louisiana. Considered a success by readers and critics alike, the appeal for most readers is derived from the intense emotions the story evokes. The author, Ernest Gaines, wants the reader to feel compassion for the young black man, Jefferson, whom jurors convict for a murder he did not commit. Nor can readers ignore the personal struggles of Grant Wiggins as he teaches Jefferson to be a man.
Gaines credits his boyhood experiences for his ability to develop lifelike characters. In an interview with Paul Desruisseaux for the New York Times Book Review, Gaines says he learned by “working in the fields, going fishing in the swamps with the older people, and, especially, listening to the people who came to my aunt’s house, the aunt who raised me.” His attention to the people he loves results in characters that are believable. Alice Walker, in the New York Times Book Review, acknowledges Gaines’s success with characterization in saying that Gaines “claims and revels in the rich heritage of Southern Black people and their customs; the community he feels with them is unmistakable and goes deeper even than pride.... Gaines is mellow with historical reflection, supple with wit, relaxed and expansive because he does not equate his people with failure.”
Gaines’s themes reveal universal truths. He demonstrates that racism destroys people; relationships suffer from people’s choices; and pride, honor, and manhood can prevail in trying times. While some critics denounce Gaines for his failure to address blacks’ difficulties in today’s society, his defense is that he writes for all times and all people.