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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

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Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson Before Dying

Award: National Book Critics Circle Award

(Full name Ernest James Gaines) Born in 1933, Gaines is an American novelist and short story writer.

For further information on Gaines's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 11, and 18.

A Lesson before Dying (1993) is Gaines's first major publication in ten years. Like all of his fiction, it is informed by his upbringing on a Louisiana plantation. Set in 1948 in rural Louisiana, A Lesson before Dying presents the story of Jefferson, a black man accused by a white community and sentenced to death for a murder and robbery he did not commit. His attorney's defense—that Jefferson would be incapable of planning and carrying out the crimes of which he is accused because he is merely a dumb animal incapable of independent thought—is unsuccessful. This reasoning, however, robs Jefferson of his self-respect and he withdraws into a nearly catatonic state. His godmother, Miss Emma, resolves that if he must die, "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." She enlists Grant Wiggins, a successful young black man, to be Jefferson's mentor and to help him find dignity while he awaits execution. Jonathan Yardley describes the book as "quintessential Gaines, a fine introduction to his world and his view of it for anyone unfamiliar with his work—and, for those who know that work, a welcome opportunity to return to familiar territory."


Gaines, Ernest J. (Vol. 3)