In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines once again takes his reader to a familiar fictional setting based on his boyhood home in Point Coupée Parish near New Roads, Louisiana, which becomes the fictional St. Raphael Parish, with Bayonne as its parish seat. A small town of about six thousand inhabitants, Bayonne is one of the two main settings in the novel. The other is the old slave quarter on an antebellum plantation owned by Henri Pinchot located a few miles away, near the St. Charles River. The year is 1948, a time when segregation and racial injustice were oppressive realities for Southern blacks, a time, too, when most of them did not know that the winds of change, if ever so slightly, were beginning to stir. The basic plot is simple. A young, semiliterate black man, Jefferson, is tried for the murder of a white store owner, old Mr. Gropé; although Jefferson is innocent, the all-white, all-male jury sentences him to death in the electric chair. In pleading for his client’s life, Jefferson’s white lawyer argues that it would make no more sense to electrocute Jefferson than it would to execute a hog or some other dumb animal.
That assessment of Jefferson’s human worth deeply troubles his godmother, Emma Glenn, who enlists the aid of her friend, Tante Lou, to pressure Tante Lou’s nephew, Grant Wiggins, into trying to help Jefferson face death like a man, with dignity and courage. Grant, the sole teacher at the church school in the quarter, is reluctant to help, but he yields in the face of his aunt’s strong moral cajoling and the insistence of his friend Vivian, with whom he is in love.
Before he can even visit Jefferson at the jail in Bayonne, Grant must approach the plantation owner, Henri Pinchot, who,...
(The entire section is 716 words.)