A Lesson Before Dying by Gaines: Characters & Summary

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

A Lesson Before Dying is a novel about the deeply seated racial prejudice and hatred running rampant in the rural south during the 1940s. However, it is also a story about family, community, and the dignity that all of us as humans have, whatever color our skin happens to be.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying takes place in segregated Bayonne, Louisiana during the 1940s. It is the story of one man's doomed attempt to help another man rise above the prejudice and hatred running rampant in the Jim Crow south. This novel was published in 1993. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and was selected as an Oprah Book Club pick in 1997.

Major Characters

Grant Wiggins is an elementary school teacher in his mid-twenties. He has the distinction of being the only educated black man in town. He hates the South and the racist community he has grown up in. He resists helping Jefferson at first, but eventually the goodness and sense of justice within him wins out.

Jefferson is a young black man who is accused and convicted of murders he swears he didn't commit. When he's called a 'hog' by the white lawyer representing him, Jefferson gives up on the struggle for equality. It takes Grant to help Jefferson see the value in himself and in his community.

Tante Lou is Grant's aunt who basically raised him. She is deeply religious and resents Grant's atheism.

Miss Emma is Jefferson's religious godmother. When she hears the lawyer's words, she believes her God-given duty is to help Jefferson die 'like a man'.

Plot Overview

The novel opens with the news that a black man named Jefferson has been convicted of murder. His sentence? Death. The problem is that the slow-witted Jefferson swears he's innocent. The crime went down like this: Jefferson, heading to a bar, decided to go to a liquor store with two acquaintances instead. The two men began arguing with the man behind the counter, and shots were fired. When the smoke cleared, Jefferson was alive and three men were dead.

Jefferson's lawyer compares him to a hog in the trial, unable to carry out such a crime. The jury doesn't buy it. Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, can't stand the thought of Jefferson dying like an animal, so she begs a black teacher named Grant Wiggins to help Jefferson recover his dignity. Grant is a local boy who went away to college and returned to Bayonne, Louisiana, to teach. He is the only black man in his community who has gotten a college education. He's known around town as someone who hates prejudice, but he doesn't want to get involved. Grant changes his mind after his aunt, Tante Lou pressures him.

So Grant, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou go to visit Jefferson in prison. But Jefferson refuses to let Grant help him, so they leave. Grant wants to give up but doesn't, though Jefferson won't speak to him at first. Grant tries to instill some dignity in Jefferson; Jefferson grunts like a hog. Grant keeps trying.

Finally, it is a conversation about ice cream that breaks the walls Jefferson's thrown up around himself. Grant, at the end of his rope, asks Jefferson what he wants for his final meal. Jefferson says he wants to eat a whole gallon of ice cream, since he has never had more than a little bit at a time.

Grant continues to make progress with Jefferson. He buys him a radio and brings Jefferson a notebook to write down whatever he thinks about. The next visit, Jefferson shows Grant the page he's written about the differences between hogs and men.

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