A Lesson Before Dying Setting

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Ernest Gaines sets his novel ''A Lesson Before Dying'' in the bleak late 1940s in Bayonne, Louisiana, where there is conflict between the authoritative whites and oppressed blacks, as exemplified in Jefferson's story.

Historical Setting

It is the 1940s in the town of Bayonne, Louisiana where about half of the population is white and half is black. The latter struggle to live in a society that is segregated and biased against them. Black men can be implicated for crimes they did not commit while white men have few restrictions on how they can treat black people.

This is the overall, bleak setting for Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying. While the story is fictional, tragically, it has a historical setting. Like he does in the rest of his novels, Gaines sets his story in Bayonne, a fictional town in Louisiana that exemplifies the stereotypical Southern pre-Civil Rights town. The 1940s in the South bridge the time between the outright hostility toward blacks following the amendments to the constitution in the late 1800s that outlawed slavery and gave blacks equal protection and the right to vote, and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which outlawed discrimination in schools, employment, or even in public.

While blacks could no longer be slaves, according to the law, they were not able to find the employment that whites could. Many found work on plantations, much like Grant's parents and Jefferson did in the novel, where they were paid pitiful wages and often mistreated. Society was highly segregated, and the Jim Crow laws forced this separation by law, even requiring there to be separate schools for whites and blacks. While lynching had lessened by this point, due to the campaign of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1930s, life was still dangerous for black people in a predominately white society.

A Lesson Before Dying Setting

This historical background is what Gaines keeps in mind when writing A Lesson Before Dying. Bayonne represents the stereotypical Southern town that reflects all of these problems: Jim Crow laws, separate schools for whites and blacks, blacks being treated as second-class citizens regardless of their profession, and danger for black people when interacting with white people.

The narrator, Grant Wiggins, grew up on the Pichot Plantation where his parents worked as sugar cane farmers. This plantation is part of the back story of most of the main characters. Jefferson, the man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, worked there until his arrest and Grant's aunt had also worked there as a cook. Grant is always upset when going to the plantation house as an adult because he recognizes the injustice of the employment opportunities for blacks in society.

Jim Crow Laws and Racism

The Jim Crow laws are readily seen in the novel--and these make Grant embittered toward the society he has come back to from college. Despite his college education and position as a schoolteacher, he is still forced to act submissive and respectful towards whites because of his race. For example, when meeting Henri Pichot to discuss Jefferson's education, Grant recognizes that--even though it angers him--he must lower his eyes when speaking to the plantation owner as a sign of respect.

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