A Lesson Before Dying is set in the late 1940’s, in the former slave quarters of the Marshall plantation and the town of Bayonne. Gaines takes his reader back to a time when racial segregation was both legal and endemic in the South, a time when black people could barely hope for recognition of their humanity, much less find justice in a court of law.
It is in this world that a dirt-poor, semiliterate black man, Jefferson, is accused of murdering a white liquor-store owner. In the Bayonne courthouse, Jefferson is quickly condemned to death by an all-white jury. Although he is innocent, the verdict is never in doubt. Even his attorney characterizes Jefferson as subhuman, claiming that electrocuting him would make no more sense than electrocuting a hog.
Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, aided and abetted by Tante Lou, prevails upon Tante Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins, to help Jefferson face death like a man, with dignity. Grant, the teacher in the quarters where Jefferson lived, is very reluctant to undertake the task, but the women and Grant’s girlfriend Vivian convince him that he has no choice but to try.
Grant’s initial efforts are disappointing. Jefferson has accepted his lawyer’s depiction of him as a hog, and he resists all attempts to help him break through his self-loathing. Furthermore, in order to help Jefferson, Grant must cope with his own doubts about his role, both as man and teacher. The task also puts his own pride at grave risk, as he must seek the cooperation of white men such as Henri Pichot and Sheriff Guidry, who want to stifle his “smartness.”
Lashed by the righteousness of Tante Lou and the Reverend Ambrose, his chief tormentor, Grant persists and finally succeeds in befriending Jefferson, largely through simple kindness. He bolsters Jefferson’s courage, helping him to face Gruesome Gerty, the portable electric chair, with unflinching dignity.
The novel thus ends with hope, both for Grant, the protagonist, and for the South. Grant has learned that his teaching is not in vain, that his education has given him the power to help others discover their humanity. He has also earned the respect and potential friendship of a young white deputy, Paul, who holds out the promise for a future racial harmony.
Except for a few segments in which A Lesson Before Dying subtly slips into a third-person point of view and the section in which Jefferson speaks through his diary, the novel is presented in the first-person voice of its protagonist, Grant Wiggins. The reader thus closely audits Grant’s own progress from doubt and moments of self-hatred to an honest confrontation with his feelings of anger and bitterness, love and shame. His growth parallels that of Jefferson, who, by facing death bravely, at the end has become his teacher’s teacher.
In the year 1948, in rural southern Louisiana, Jefferson, a barely literate black man of twenty-one, has been sentenced to death because he had the misfortune to be a bystander at a shooting that resulted in the death of a white man. The action of the novel covers the period between sentencing and execution. That the sentence will be carried out is never in serious doubt. The question the novel explores is the terms on which Jefferson will confront his own death.
The issue that organizes the novel arises from the plea a desperate defense attorney made to the jury at Jefferson’s trial. Recognizing that an acquittal was impossible, he made it his goal to save Jefferson from the electric chair. A man, argued the attorney, can and should be held accountable for his actions. But when you look at Jefferson, he asked, do you see a man? To execute someone so simple, he concluded, would be like putting a hog in the electric chair.
The strategy did not work, but its effects are still felt, not by the jurors, but by Jefferson and those who care about him. His aged godmother, Miss Emma, accepts that Jefferson must die, but he must not die in the belief that he is no better than a hog. Before he dies, Jefferson must learn the lesson of his own dignity and humanity.
For this lesson, a teacher is required. Miss Emma, with the cooperation of her friend Lou, turns to Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins. A product, like Jefferson himself, of the black quarter, Grant is a university graduate who now teaches the children of the quarter between the months of October and April, when the children are not working in the fields. At first, Grant resists the call. He has plenty on his mind, including the complexities of his relationship with Vivian, a schoolteacher in the nearby town of Bayonne who is in the process of getting divorced from her husband. Moreover, Grant is a man whose allotment of hope is just about used up. He cannot bring himself to believe that his work with the children can possibly make a positive difference in their lives. What, then, can he do for Jefferson? Who am I, Grant wants to know, to say what a man is, or how a man should die? It is hard enough to figure out how a man should live.
Even with Grant’s reluctant participation, other obstacles remain, notably that represented by the local white power structure. Miss Emma can claim a right to special consideration because of the services she has rendered to powerful white families over the years. Her claim is acknowledged by the white people she has to convince, yet they remain dubious. For one thing, it is hard for a member of the white community, in this time and this place, to understand a project the purpose of which is to affirm the humanity of a black man, especially one under sentence of death. They want the execution to go smoothly and quietly. They are afraid that what Miss Emma proposes may stir up trouble, especially as it involves this educated black man, Grant, whose correct grammar strikes some of them as a provocation. For Emma’s sake, they give their grudging consent to the undertaking.
Grant is not the only one involved in the attempt to do something for Jefferson. Grant and the Reverend Ambrose, the preacher from the quarter, often find themselves at cross purposes. For the Reverend Ambrose, what matters is not whether Jefferson affirms his human dignity but whether he finds salvation. Tensions between the Reverend Ambrose and Grant threaten to break out into conflict at any time.
The most challenging obstacle to the success of the project is Jefferson himself. He heard what his attorney said, he understood what he heard, and he is tempted to accept it. He has known few possibilities in his life, he has had very few choices, and now a freakish combination of circumstances has determined that he must die. Is this what it is to be a man? At one point, he even goes down on all fours and, hog-fashion, pushes his snout into his food dish.
At first, Jefferson resists all of Grant’s efforts, and Grant, who was never enthusiastic about the project, is prepared to admit defeat. Miss Emma and Tante Lou, however, expect him to try—even more, they expect him to succeed—and Vivian adds her voice to theirs. In a situation he would never have chosen to become involved in, Grant must commit himself to the effort. The struggle begins to pay off when Jefferson agrees that he does not want to cause further pain to his godmother. In thus concerning himself with another, in the shadow of his own death, Jefferson begins to sense his place in the human family. He is touched by a gift from the schoolchildren, and he is grateful for the radio Grant brings to him. As he lets himself know these emotions, he begins to recognize that he is indeed a man.
Grant himself is by no means untouched by what is happening. In the commitment he found it so difficult to make, and in thus opening himself to the pain of sharing Jefferson’s agony, he has begun to move toward a new realization of his own humanity.
The law takes its course. At the time designated by the state, Jefferson dies in the electric chair. Paul, a white jailer who has treated Jefferson and Grant with sympathy and respect, is able to tell Grant that Jefferson was the bravest man in the room. He also brings the diary that Jefferson has been keeping at Grant’s suggestion. Capitalization is erratic, the spelling is weak, the punctuation is uncertain, and the style is inelegant, but the message of Jefferson’s diary is clear: “tell them im a man.” Paul and Grant, white man and black man, realize that Jefferson has indeed taught them a lesson before dying.