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A Lesson Before Dying

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A Lesson Before Dying

By Ernest J. Gaines (1993)

“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.” —from A Lesson Before Dying


The oldest of 12 children, Ernest J. Gaines was born in 1933 and grew up impoverished on a cotton plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. In 1948, he moved to Vallejo, California, and spent much of his time at the local library reading and writing, endeavors that eventually led him to earn a creative writing degree from Stanford University, a 1968 National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and the National Medal of Arts. Set in the rural south in the 1940s during Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, Gaines’s eighth novel, A Lesson Before Dying, tells the story of a falsely-accused young black man on death row and a Louisiana-born, college educated teacher who visits him in prison and helps him regain his dignity. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. “Gaines has a gift for evoking the tenor of life in a bygone era and making it seem as vivid and immediate as something that happened only yesterday” (Christian Science Monitor). The Chicago Tribune writes, "[t]his majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives."

Introduction to the Book

Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (1993) poses one of the most universal questions literature can ask: Knowing we're going to die, how should we live? It's the story of an uneducated young black man named Jefferson, accused of the murder of a white storekeeper, and Grant Wiggins, a college-educated native son of Louisiana, who teaches at a plantation school. In a little more than 250 pages, these two men named for presidents discover a friendship that transforms at least two lives.

In the first chapter, the court-appointed lawyer's idea of a legal strategy for Jefferson is to argue, "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." This dehumanizing and unsurprisingly doomed defense rankles the condemned man's grief-stricken godmother, Miss Emma, and Grant's aunt, Tante Lou. They convince an unwilling Grant to spend time with Jefferson in his prison cell, so that he might confront death with his head held high.

Most of the novel's violence happens offstage in the first and last chapters. Vital secondary characters punctuate the narrative, including Vivian, Grant's assertive yet patient Creole girlfriend; Reverend Ambrose, a minister whom the disbelieving Grant ultimately comes to respect; and Paul, a white deputy who stands with Jefferson when Grant cannot.

White, black, mulatto, Cajun, or Creole; rich, poor, or hanging on; young, old, or running out of time—around all these people, Gaines crafts a story of intimacy and depth. He re-creates the smells of Miss Emma's fried chicken, the sounds of the blues from Jefferson's radio, the taste of the sugarcane from the plantation. The school, the parish church, the town bar, and the jailhouse all come alive with indelible vividness.

In the tradition of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966), Gaines uses a capital case to explore the nobility and the barbarism of which human beings are equally capable. The story builds inexorably to Jefferson's ultimate bid for dignity, both in his prison diary and at the hour of his execution. That Ernest J. Gaines wrings a hopeful ending out of such grim material only testifies to his prodigious gifts as a storyteller.

How A Lesson Before Dying Came to Be Written

The following is excerpted from Ernest J. Gaines's interview with Dan Stone.

"I used to have nightmares about execution. I lived in San Francisco, just across the bay from San Quentin. Ten o'clock on Tuesdays was execution day. I wondered what this person must go through the month before, the week before, then the night before. I'd see myself, my brothers, and my friends going to that gas chamber. I'd have those nightmares over and over.

I wanted to write a story about an execution, so a colleague told me about this material that he had about a young man, who had been sent to the electric chair twice. The first time the chair failed, but a year later, he was executed. That happened in 1948, the same year that I left to go to California.

I visited small-town sheriffs and jails. I met a minister who had escorted a young man to the electric chair. The electric chair at Angola was called Gruesome Gertie. I had a lawyer in my creative writing class who had a client on death row, and I would ask him questions. I'd ask him about the size of the strap, the height and weight of the chair. The character Paul in A Lesson Before Dying is built around this student. And that's how I wrote the novel."

"Students are always asking me, 'Do you know the ending of your novel when you start writing?' And I have always used the analogy of getting on a train from San Francisco to go to New York. It takes three or four days to get there. I know some facts.... What I don't know is how the weather will be the entire trip.... I can't anticipate everything that will happen on the trip, and sometimes I don't even get to New York, but end up in Philadelphia."
—Ernest J. Gaines from "Writing A Lesson Before Dying", an essay in Mozart and Leadbelly


Ernest Gaines portrait

Photo © Joseph Sanford

Ernest J. Gaines (b. 1933)

Gaines's father left the family early, and his mother moved to New Orleans to find work. This left the boy in the care of his disabled aunt, whose strength returns in Tante Lou and several of Gaines's other female characters. Barely into his teens, Gaines began to write and stage steadily more ambitious plays at the local church.

In 1948 Gaines rejoined his mother in Vallejo, California, where she had found work in California's great post-World War II economic boom. He discovered the downtown Carnegie Library and plundered it for books with two necessary qualities: "Number one, they had to be about the South, and two, they had to be fiction."

The 1950s ushered Gaines from high school to junior college, to an Army tour in Guam, to college back in California, and finally into the writer Wallace Stegner's prestigious creative writing program at Stanford, where classmates included Wendell Berry and Ken Kesey. He soon won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for a novel in progress.

That novel developed into 1964's Catherine Carmier, followed three years later by Of Love and Dust, which coincided with a fellowship for Gaines from the National Endowment for the Arts. He broke through to a wider public with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

More well-received novels followed, including A Gathering of Old Men in 1983, shortly after the start of his years teaching writing at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. There he conceived the idea for his sixth novel, A Lesson Before Dying—though a decade would pass before it saw print.

A Lesson Before Dying (1993) surpassed even the rapturous reception accorded Miss Jane Pittman. The Pulitzer jury shortlisted Gaines again. He walked off with the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. A MacArthur Fellowship finally gave him some financial security, and he married Dianne Saulney, a Miami attorney who grew up in—where else?—Louisiana. His numerous awards since then include a National Humanities Medal in 2000 and National Medal of Arts in 2013.

Updated July 2017

An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines

On August 16, 2007, Dan Stone of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Ernest J. Gaines at his home in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. An excerpt from their conversation follows.

Dan Stone: When did books first become important to you?

Ernest J. Gaines: As a child in Louisiana, there was no library that I could go to. But when I went to California, I found myself in the library. And at 16, I started reading and reading. I especially read anybody who wrote about the land. I'd look at the dust jacket, and if there was a tree or lake or field on it, I'd flip through. I especially liked to read the 19th-century Russian writers—Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev—because they wrote about the land and peasant life.

DS: What experiences from your own life did you work into A Lesson Before Dying?

EG: The first six years of my education were in my plantation's church, and I used that as Grant's school. We worked and picked pecans to buy our clothes, and we went to school about five and a half months of the year because we had to begin to work in the field at age eight, from mid-March until about mid-September.

DS: It's assumed that Jefferson is innocent, but in the beginning, this is never stated. Did you intentionally give two sides?

EG: I don't know whether he's innocent or guilty. The point of the story is how two men would grow to become real men. Jefferson, with only a few months to live; Grant with another 40 years or more to live—what will they do with that time? Neither one is going anywhere in life. Grant wants to get away. Jefferson is just there, doing whatever people want him to do. He never argues, he never questions anything. I wanted the story to be about how both men develop.

DS: Grant gives Jefferson a radio. How is music able to break down those barriers?

EG: Music is very important to me. When I was growing up, there were maybe one or two radios on the quarters here. We'd listen to the music at my grandmother's house, especially late at night when you could hear the blues. It is the blues that reaches Jefferson spiritually. The minister tried to reach him, but I think he was closer to those old blues. So the purpose of the radio was to get Jefferson to open up.

DS: Why is Grant so unable to help Jefferson at the beginning of the novel? What is his deepest struggle?

EG: Grant is struggling with the South at that time. This man was terribly angry. He didn't know who he was—and that's the worst thing in the world that can happen to a man. He hated where he was, but at the same time, he can't leave. I don't know what would have happened to me, had I stayed here. I probably would have ended up teaching in a little school and angry the rest of my life. So the two best moves I've ever made in life were the day I went to California and the day I came back here. My folks took me away from here in 1948 and then in 1963 I came back here.

DS: The California poet Robinson Jeffers wrote about something he called "the inevitable place"—that some people are tied to a place where they inevitably have to return. They can go anywhere in the world, but that's the spot for them. It seems Louisiana is that place for you.

EG: Definitely so. I tried to write about the Army and the year I spent in Guam. I tried to write ghost stories about San Francisco. I can't write about San Francisco! But I can write about that little postage stamp of land in Louisiana. In my case, the body went to California. The soul remained here with my aunt and my brothers and sisters and friends and the old shack we lived in.

(National Medal of) Art Talk with Ernest Gaines (Art Works Blog, 9/13/2013)

  1. A Lesson Before Dying is mostly narrated by the teacher Grant Wiggins from the first-person point of view. What important attributes does he reveal about himself in the opening chapters? What kinds of things does he conceal?
  2. Why hasn't Grant left Louisiana, though he says he wants nothing more than to get away? What is he trying to escape?
  3. Grant was educated in the 1930s, and 1942 marks his first year as a teacher. What do we know about Grant's school days, and how does this inform his own teaching methods?
  4. Miss Emma and Tante Lou pressure Grant to visit Jefferson in prison. Why does Grant follow their advice against his own wishes?
  5. Why does Grant refuse to sit down and eat in Henri Pichot's kitchen?
  6. Grant's girlfriend is a light-skinned Catholic mother of two who is not yet divorced. How do these differences create tension in their relationship?
  7. How does the radio mark a turn in Grant's relationship with Jefferson?
  8. Grant describes the cycle of life for black men in the South to Vivian. What is his answer to the question: "Can the cycle ever be broken?" Is the answer relevant today?
  9. Do you agree, as Grant says, that he can never be a hero but that Jefferson can be?
  10. What effect does Chapter 29—the only time in the narrative when we see Jefferson's writing—have on the reader? Why might Gaines make the choice to use Jefferson's diary to tell this part of the novel?
  11. How does the white deputy, Paul, contrast with other white men and women in the novel? Why is it important that Paul attends Jefferson's execution?
  12. Would you have been able to stand with Jefferson? Why wasn't Grant at the execution?


A Lesson Before Dying Audio Guide

Ernest Gaines


Audio Tabs

A National Endowment for the Arts audio guide about Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying, featuring Burl Cain, Ruby Dee, Ernest Gaines, Ash Green, Romulus Linney, Sister Helen Prejean, Ken Yatta Rogers and Cicely Tyson.


NEA Big Read: Meet Ernest Gaines

A recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship early in his career, Ernest Gaines is best known for his 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and his 1993 novel, A Lesson Before Dying, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. He also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

A Lesson Before Dying Author Captivates Readers in Columbus, Georgia

Large screen shows author Ernest Gaines skyping in for the audience.

Photo courtesy of Chattahoochee Valley Libraries

"We were able to get Mr. Gaines to Skype in from his home in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. It was, quite simply, one of the most powerful library programs we have hosted over the last several years. Mr. Gaines read the famous ‘Diary’ section of his work, and then he answered questions from our audience for another 45 minutes. Even with the technological distance we could feel and experience his warmth and grace. Audience members were quite moved by the event…many called me in the next few days to let me know how powerful an evening it was."

- from a report by the Chattahoochee Valley Library, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2015-16.