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.