A Lesson Before Dying Themes

Instructor: Mary-Lynn Chambers

Mary-Lynn has taught university level composition and literature classes and has her PhD in English and Communications.

Ernest J. Gaines drives home the themes of race relations, injustice, and salvation in ''A Lesson Before Dying'' set in Pre-Civil Rights Louisiana where a black man is unjustly executed for murder.

A Tall Task

A frustrated black teacher, Grant, is faced with the impossible task of changing a white community's perception of an innocent black man convicted of murder. Jefferson, a twenty-one year old male who had led a quiet life in the fictional town of Bayonne, Louisiana, rages at the injustices steeped in racial conflict that have led to his upcoming execution. This deeply emotional novel is permeated with varied themes of salvation in a Catholic community that celebrates Jesus Christ's offered salvation, yet they are unwilling to extend that same salvation to others.

Race Relations

Set during the Jim Crow enforced segregation, this Southern community testifies to the racial tension that was commonplace. Whites had their church and school in the front side of town, but on the backside of town, the blacks blended church and school under the same roof where Grant Wiggins was struggling to educate his students.

Grant was the only educated black man in the community, yet he is still forced to follow the dictates of the whites. Through Grant's narration, the reader sees his struggle with a system designed to promote one race over another. Throughout the story line, racial tensions are seen in the division of town, wealth, respect, and justice.


An innocent man found guilty and sentenced to death. That is an injustice, but add to the injustice of guilt the vile words spoken by the judge, and you will see another reason why injustice is a theme that is highly prevalent within this novel. The judge likens Jefferson to a hog, and it is Grant's job to transform Jefferson into a man - in his own eyes and in the eyes of the white community. The trouble is, the judge is white and the jury is white, so how does a black man get a fair trial?

This is not the only struggle with injustice seen in the novel as we see the students in Grant's class treated unjustly. Furthermore, we see Miss Emma's (Jefferson's godmother) appeal for action, based on her years of service, ignored by those who should have been grateful and attentive to her plea. Injustice is rife within the pages of this book, yet the hope remains that salvation will come for the helpless victim of an unjust legal system.


Whether considering salvation found sitting in a pew or when facing the executioner's chair, salvation is a definite theme in A Lesson Before Dying. Grant is an agnostic teaching school in a church. He struggles with the idea of salvation provided by a church that is tainted by human prejudice and greed; although, the church is clearly the center of the community and gives the black folks hope.

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