The strong will of two women provides the energy that sets the action of A Lesson Before Dying in motion. The tension between two men who both have something to learn about what it is to be a man provides the central structural principle of the novel.
Miss Emma and Tante Lou are old women in 1948, the year in which the action of the novel takes place. Both were born not long after emancipation, and both have been servants in the homes of white people. They have learned the practice of humility, as required by their position in a racially ordered society, and they also know the deeper humility that is part of their Christian faith. They also know their own worth, and they know how important that knowledge is. That is, in part, what motivates their determination that Jefferson will not go to his death thinking himself less than a man. They know what they can claim for themselves within the place society has defined for them. They employ this knowledge when they present their project to Henri Pichot, whose influence in the region makes his approval a necessity. He must acknowledge that Miss Emma has a right to ask for special consideration, for even this insane social system has its rules, but the women must in turn ask in the tones required by their position within the system. Fortunately, Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and Henri Pichot know how the game is played.
Grant and Jefferson form at first glance an obvious contrast. Grant is an educated man who has known the world beyond the quarter, while Jefferson may seem to represent Grant’s worst fears of what the quarter may normally be expected to produce. The design of the novel demands that these two touch each other at a very deep level, and that can happen convincingly only if it becomes evident that the two men share some quality that will permit that touching to occur. What both men need, as gradually becomes clear, is a recognition and acceptance of their own humanity. The circumstances of Jefferson’s life and of his impending death make this immediately evident in his case. Grant, however, lives in a psychological prison. He is helpless to bring about a satisfactory resolution to his relationship with Vivian, and he is convinced that his efforts to educate the children of the quarter are an exercise in futility. That he is required by social convention to conceal the signs of his own education when talking to white people intensifies his sense of hopelessness. He lives therefore from moment to moment, in a constant, barely repressed awareness of his impotence. What he does not at first recognize is that his call to teach Jefferson will allow him to find his own dignity and humanity. Thus, he and Jefferson share a lesson, the lesson, perhaps, all people must learn before dying.
The interaction among these principal characters is enriched by an abundance of sharply drawn minor characters, both black and white. As is customary in Gaines’s work, there are no stereotypes or caricatures to be found in this novel. He treats all of his characters, even those of whose conduct he must disapprove, with imaginative sympathy and generosity.