The question posed highlights the brilliance of author Ernest J. Gaines’s efforts to force the reader to ponder the issue of racism. The story is set in a small community in the 1940s, where a young, innocent black man by the name of Jefferson follows two men to a liquor store, not knowing they are about to commit a robbery. During the holdup, the store owner and the robbers are killed, and only Jefferson remains at the scene. Amidst an air of racism, he is quickly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
The spark that ignites the theme of a lesson being taught emanates from a speech made by Jefferson’s defense attorney at the criminal trial. Attempting to persuade the jury that the defendant was dim-witted and therefore did not understand what he was doing or intend to do wrong, the lawyer cannot escape his own racist beliefs. He not only argues the defendant’s diminished mental capacity, but also insists that Jefferson is less than a man:
The defense argued that Jefferson was innocent of all charges except being at the wrong place at the wrong time... he has reached the age of twenty-one... but would you call—this—this—this a man? No, not I. I would call it a boy and a fool... A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa... I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
After the speech, Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, resolves to see Jefferson die like a man, not a fool and a hog. To accomplish this, she approaches Grant Wiggins, a former laborer who left the plantation and attended college. Grant returns to his hometown as an educated man, but he still feels inferior to whites and hates the racism he witnesses and suffers. He deals with it by isolating himself from the community. He refuses to help Miss Emma in a request to teach Jefferson to die with dignity, but she enlists the help of Grant’s aunt, Tante Lou, who pressures him to assist the condemned man.
Jefferson initially resists learning anything from Grant, since he heard his own lawyer’s argument referring to him as a hog rather than a man. The plot of the book revolves around the transformation of Jefferson from a victim self-identifying with an animal to a man of dignity and heroism.
The task for the reader is to determine whether the lesson referred to in the title of the book is the obvious one that the protagonist Grant imparts to Jefferson or the lesson Jefferson teaches Grant and the people living in the racist community that have wrongfully convicted him based on their hatred. Toward the end of A Lesson Before Dying, Grant says,
Do you know what a hero is, Jefferson? A hero is someone who does something for other people... He is above other men... I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the South today... I want to run away. I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else.
In contrast to the protagonist’s vision of himself expressed in the quote above, Jefferson leaves a note in his diary before going to his execution which reads:
good by mr wiggin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wiggin....
At the end of the novel, Grant’s attitude has improved somewhat, but he is still despondent over the racist society in the South. Jefferson dies as a man with dignity, and his heroism is recognized in the community—but he is still executed. Gaines, through his characters, expresses hope that things will improve in society, but he is not satisfied with the progress made. The author intentionally leaves some ambiguity. The protagonist obviously teaches Jefferson a valuable lesson about dignity and manhood. It is left to the reader to determine whether Jefferson’s example of how to die a hero is a more significant lesson.