Ernest J Gaines: A Lesson Before Dying

by Rachel Baker on October 15, 2007

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines is a historical social commentary about a black community, in the light of one of their own being convicted, tried and sentenced of first degree murder – of which he is innocent. It is the story of one man’s journey into what it is to be a man; and another man’s journey into what it means to die with honor and dignity. Lesson Before Dying was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. Sidenote: Sex, violence and profanity have kept this out of some AP English classes. For a list of more banned books click here .

This is one of those books that deserves to be read at least twice. The first reading should be for the historical background and the pure story. The second time should be for seeing the true value of the story.


This novel depicts the injustices of life for a black plantation community in 1940s Louisiana during the Jim Crow Era. The perceptive reader will be able to see parallels into the author’s life through the main character’s role in the beginning of the novel. Both Gaines and Grant, the protagonist, grew up on a plantation, left for California to live with their parents, and eventually went off to a university. Gaines was born in 1933 and would have had to deal with the issues of segregation and being disrespected even though he had an education and held a position of authority, just as Grant was. The tone of the novel evolves with Grant’s own evolution from cynic to confidence as he begins to recognize his own responsibilities against the injustice he faces on a regular basis.

There were two major migrations of blacks to northern and western states in search of better jobs with better pay. Gaines underlines the tension in the lives of African Americans; and how the migrations from the South took them away from their heritage, their roots, and left them in a place where they had to emulate their white brethren in order to succeed, while still giving the Southern White man the same respect they’d been used to receiving from black slaves, who were no more than property in their eyes for centuries.

The second time you read this novel, you should focus not on color but on the trials of humanity. Grant’s biggest challenge is not how much he hates the place he is in. He seems to be afraid of what he may find out about himself if he actually were to leave. Throughout the novel, every time Grant is in the presence of white men, he is angered by the injustice of being born black. This anger causes him to be blinded to the respect his community has for him as the educated teacher. He does not realize that Miss Emma (Jefferson’s grandmother) regards him as being in a more worldly educated man than the preacher.

Through his discussions with Jefferson and helping him to realize what it means to be a man and die with dignity, Grant begins to understand not only is he a man, but respect and dignity comes from within. He also begins to understand that he has to help Jefferson, not just for Jefferson, but for all the people in the community. He has been given the daunting task of giving hope and courage to his people, without even knowing what it means to have hope and courage.

In the end, Jefferson is executed (but you knew that was going to happen from the very beginning); and Grant has helped him to die with dignity and respect. Paul, the white prison guard who holds a pretty significant role in the novel, forges a friendship with Grant. This is the respect that Grant has been looking for his whole life. Paul sees him as a great teacher and a great man for facilitating the transformation he witnessed in Jefferson.

In closing, READ THE BOOK! Don’t take my word for how great it is. Remember, we all see things differently, because we are all in different places in our lives. What I got from this book is based on where I am in my own life.

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