A Lesson before Dying Essay - A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying

In A LESSON BEFORE DYING, Ernest J. Gaines returns to the southern Louisiana setting he has established in his earlier fiction as his own. The year is 1948. Jefferson, a barely literate young black man, sentenced to death for a shooting in which he was innocently involved, has heard his defense attorney say that executing Jefferson would be like putting a hog in the electric chair. Jefferson has suffered so many outrages to his manhood during his short lifetime that he is altogether too ready to accept his attorney’s assessment.

But Jefferson’s aged godmother resolves that, if Jefferson must die, he will first come to know that he is a man. She enlists as her reluctant instrument Grant Wiggins, a university graduate who teaches the children in the black quarter during the months when they are not working in the fields. At first, Grant and Jefferson seem a study in contrast, but as they slowly move toward mutual trust and respect, it is clear that Grant, as much as Jefferson, has a great deal to learn about what it is to be a man. Grant and Jefferson will finally share equally in the lesson all of us must learn before dying: what it means to be human.

What could degenerate into melodrama or didacticism becomes in Gaines’s hands a probing and honestly felt study of human possibilities. Gaines creates a cast of sharply drawn minor characters, all of whom, including those of whose conduct he must disapprove, he treats with sympathy and insight. He is at his best in his nuanced observation of the ironies and intricacies of negotiation between races and between generations. Readers who have waited ten years for a new novel by Gaines will find in A LESSON BEFORE DYING further confirmation of his assured, self-effacing, spiritually generous art.


Auger, Philip. “A Lesson About Manhood: Appropriating The Word in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 74-78. Auger explores the issues of dignity and self-worth in Gaines’s novel, focusing on the problems black men face when attempting to define their manhood. His discussion also includes an examination of Gaines’s other works that deal with the same theme.

Babb, Valerie M. Ernest Gaines. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A major critical introduction to Gaines, with a chronology and bibliography. The best general introduction to Gaines published before A Lesson Before Dying. Strongly recommended as starting point for further study.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooton. “Looking Ahead.” In Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer’s Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. In an interview, Gaines discusses A Lesson Before Dying as a work in progress. Comparisons of his comments and the finished work provide valuable insights into the processes of creation and revision.

Larson, Charles R. “End as a Man.” Chicago Tribune Books, May 9, 1993, 5. More than any other novel of African American life, A Lesson Before Dying is about being a man in the face of adversity and about the morality of connectedness, of each individual’s responsibility to his community.

Rubin, Merle. “Convincing Moral Tale of Southern Injustice.” The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1993, 13. A review for the general reader. Gives a synopsis of the novel and an upbeat appraisal typifying the book’s reception in most reviews. For Rubin, A Lesson Before Dying is an important “moral drama.”

Senna, Carl. “Dying Like a Man.” The New York Times, August 8, 1993, p. G21. An enthusiastic review that helps illuminate the racial lines and tensions among the book’s black, white, and Creole characters. Senna does claim that the novel has an occasional “stylistic lapse” but gives no specific examples.

Sheppard, R. Z. “An A-Plus in Humanity.” Time 141 (March 29, 1993): 65-66. Reviews A Lesson Before Dying, giving a short plot synopsis. Praises the author’s level-headed ability to convey the “malevolence of racism and injustice without the usual accompanying self-righteousness.”

Wardi, Anissa J. Review of A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines. MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 192-194. A highly favorable review that explores the “role of language in symbolic enslavement.” Wardi also offers a brief plot synopsis and character analysis. She praises the novel as “an extraordinary literary accomplishment.”

Yardley, Jonathan. “Nothing but a Man.” The Washington Post Book World 23 (March 28, 1993): 3. A brief but excellent explication of the novel. Focuses on Grant as protagonist and notes that the lesson referred to in the work’s title is one learned by him as well as by Jefferson. Also remarks on Gaines’s admirable restraint in treating racial themes.