Important Quotes from A Lesson Before Dying

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Ernest J. Gaines's novel 'A Lesson Before Dying' is a story about a black man wrongfully accused of a crime and is executed for it. In this lesson, we will review quotes in the novel that are important to the themes found within the story.


Ernest J. Gaines' novel A Lesson Before Dying is an important novel about racism, prejudice and injustice in Louisiana prior to the Civil Rights Movement. The story takes place between 1947 and 1948. A young black man named Jefferson gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time when two other men attempt to rob a mini mart, which results in the death of Mr. Grope, a white man. Jefferson is charged for the murder, and the story unfolds as he is tried, convicted, and sent to death for a crime he didn't commit. In this story, themes such as racism, prejudice, and injustice surface. In this lesson, we will read and discuss several important quotes from the story.


Racism is still a major problem in the South when Jefferson's story takes place. Black men and women are segregated from whites and are not given access to the same resources. Grant Wiggins, the narrator of the story, shows us this racial discrepancy when he discusses the layout of Bayonne, the city they live in. Grant says, 'There, instead of houses and trees, there were fishing wharves, boat docks, nightclubs, and restaurants for whites. There were one or two nightclubs for colored, but they were not very good.'According to this quote, blacks are not given the same recreational outlets as the black people.

Division between races is further explained in the explanation as to why Jefferson was charged for the murder of Mr. Grope. Gaines writes, 'A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die.' A white man was killed and somebody had to pay for it. Jefferson was a black man, and he was the perfect person to put up for the crime given that racism drove many decisions in the South during this time.


Prejudice is another important theme touched on in the book. Before we discuss prejudice in the story, let's clear up the difference between racism and prejudice. Racism is bias based on race, while prejudice is discrimination based on opinions formed by false information.

In the story, Jefferson's lawyer uses his knowledge of the jury's prejudice of black people to try and convince them that Jefferson couldn't be smart enough to commit the crime. He says, 'Gentlemen of the jury. . . look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand - look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?' He uses the physical description of Jefferson to paint a picture for the jury that compares Jefferson to an unintelligent animal. In fact, he ends up comparing him to a hog.

The novel further demonstrates the idea of prejudice in the story through Professor Antoine's perspective. In fact, through Professor Antoine, Gaines shows us that prejudice doesn't exist solely between different races, but that it can persist within the races as well. For example, Professor Antoine says, 'Don't be a damned fool. I am superior to you. I am superior to any man blacker than me.' This quote opens our eyes to see that even people within a race have prejudice toward one another, and in this case, Professor Antoine demonstrates that the darker one's skin color, the more inferior they are.

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