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In Search of the Novel: Ten Novels

A Lesson Before Dying

by Ernest Gaines


In a rural Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana, a white shopkeeper had died during a robbery attempt. Jefferson, a young black man, is in jail awaiting execution for the murder he did not commit. A country schoolmaster, Grant Wiggins, understands that the verdict and the penalty were inevitable for any African American. Likewise, Wiggins finds that he is also deprived of liberty. Although university-educated, his ways are barred. He can find no better job than teaching in the small plantation church school. When visiting the house of a white person, African Americans must come in by the kitchen door. Custom and the law rigidly separate the races. He longs to leave Louisiana with his girlfriend, Vivian—to leave the antebellum attitudes persisting eighty years after the Civil War. However, Jefferson’s grandmother, Miss Emma, pleads with Wiggins to teach her grandson pride and how to die as a man. During the ensuing weeks, both Wiggins and Jefferson learn lessons before dying—lessons about love, salvation, and their common humanity.


Before he is to be executed, Jefferson is instructed by the white sheriff to write in his journal that he has been treated fairly. The prisoner obeys, but fairness is far from reality in this Southern town in 1948. The wretched segregated jail that holds Jefferson is merely a miserable extension of the Jim Crow system that prevails outside and condemns all blacks. It is a system that, according to Carl Senna, “will break down educated men like Grant and prisoners like Jefferson to ‘the nigger you were born to be’ ” (“Dying Like a Man: A Novel about Race and Dignity in the South,” The New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1993, p. 21). The novel explores how any black man—the doomed, impoverished Jefferson or the college-educated teacher—can rise above that condemnation. It also dramatizes the social distances not only between white and black but also between Grant, the teacher, and Jefferson, the poor illiterate.

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