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A Lesson before Dying

A Lesson before Dying

4.0 289
by Ernest J. Gaines

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From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the


From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting. 

Editorial Reviews

Two African-American men in rural Louisiana are pulled together by circumstance in this gripping novel. A young teacher who has come back to his hometown to help raise the poor quality of education is reluctantly persuaded by his aunt to counsel a man on death row. Emotionally charged and written in a straightforward, powerful style, Gaines sketches the dramatic moments between teacher and inmate with warmth and insight. Read by Jay Long.
Carl Senna
Despite the novel's gallows humor and an atmosphere of pervasively harsh racism, the characters, black and white, are humanly complex and have some redeeming quality...."A Lesson Before Dying," though it suffers an occasional stylistic lapse, powerfully evokes in its understated tone the "new wants" in the 1940's that created the revolution of the 1960's. Ernest J. Gaines has written a moving and truthful work of fiction. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gaines's NBCC Award-winning novel tells of the relationship forged between a young black man on death row and his teacher in 1940s Louisiana. (June)
Library Journal
What do you tell an innocent youth who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and now faces death in the electric chair? What do you say to restore his self-esteem when his lawyer has publicly described him as a dumb animal? What do you tell a youth humiliated by a lifetime of racism so that he can face death with dignity? The task belongs to Grant Wiggins, the teacher of the Negro plantation school who narrates the story. Grant grew up on the Louisiana plantation but broke away to go to the university. He returns to help his people but struggles over ``whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be.'' The powerful message Grant tells the youth transforms him from a ``hog'' to a hero, and the reader is not likely to forget it, either. Gaines's earlier works include A Gathering of Old Men ( LJ 9/83) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Bantam, 1982). BOMC and Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selections; previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/92.-- Joanne Snapp, Randolph-Macon Coll . , Ashland, Va.
School Library Journal
YA-- No breathless courtroom triumphs or dramatic reprieves alleviate the sad progress toward execution in this latest novel by the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Bantam, 1982). The condemned man is Jefferson, a poorly educated man/child whose only crimes are a dim intelligence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being black in rural Louisiana in the late 1940s. To everyone, even his own defense attorney, he's an animal, too dumb to understand what is happening to him. But his godmother, Miss Emma, decides that Jefferson will die a man. To accomplish just that, she brings Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation's one-room school and narrator of the novel, into the story. Emotionally blackmailed by two strong-willed old ladies, Grant reluctantly begins visiting Jefferson, committing both men to the painful task of self-discovery. As in his earlier novels, Gaines evokes a sense of reality through rich detail and believable characters in this simple, moving story. YAs who seek thought-provoking reading will enjoy this glimpse of life in the rural South just before the civil rights movement.-- Carolyn E. Gecan, Thomas Jefferson Sci-Tech, Fairfax County, VA
Sacred Fire
A Lesson Before Dying is a coming-of-age story set in a small Louisiana town in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man involved in a shoot-out during a robbery, is convicted of murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Says the defending attorney to the jury, "What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

Grant Wiggins, the hope of the community, has returned to teach school after having left for a university education. He fights internal demons, his aunt, and his guilt-ridden sense of community in deciding whether to escape the small town (and the small- town mentality) or to stay. He receives a visit from his aunt, Jefferson's godmother. With the pain of history on her face, the godmother spoke. "Called him a hog... I don't want them to kill no hog," she said. "I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet." Grant's mandate was to instill in Jefferson a firm sense of self in the short time prior to his execution—a Herculean task, in that Grant had yet to come to terms with his own expectations of himself. In the end, and through their interaction, the two men come to realizations that allow each of them to successfully meet their demons.

In A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines personifies the angst of expectation that comes with being the first of a generation to succeed, the resolute power of community, and the importance of reciprocity—giving back to that which nurtured us.

Kirkus Reviews
Two black men (one a teacher, the other a death row inmate) struggle to live, and die, with dignity, in Gaines's most powerful and moving work since The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). The year is 1948. Harry Truman may have integrated the Armed Forces, but down in the small Cajun town of Bayonne, Louisiana, where the blacks still shuffle submissively for their white masters, little has changed since slavery. When a white liquor- store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent black bystander Jefferson gets death, despite the defense plea that "I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." Hog. The word lingers like a foul odor and weighs as heavily as the sentence on Jefferson and the woman who raised him, his "nannan" (godmother) Miss Emma. She needs an image of Jefferson going to his death like a man, and she turns to the young teacher at the plantation school for help. Meanwhile, Grant Wiggins (the narrator) has his own problems. He loves his people but hates himself for teaching on the white man's terms; visiting Jefferson in jail will just mean more kowtowing, so he goes along reluctantly, prodded by his strong-willed Tante Lou and his girlfriend Vivian. The first visits are a disaster: Jefferson refuses to speak and will not eat his nannan's cooking, which breaks the old lady's heart. But eventually Grant gets through to him ("a hero does for others"); Jefferson eats Miss Emma's gumbo and astonishes himself by writing whole pages in a diary—a miracle, water from the rock. When he walks to the chair, he is the strongest man in the courthouse. By containing unbearably painful emotions withinsimple declarative sentences and everyday speech rhythms, Gaines has written a novel that is not only never maudlin, but approaches the spare beauty of a classic.

From the Publisher
"This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives." —Chicago Tribune

"A Lesson Before Dying reconfirms Ernest J. Gaines's position as an important American writer." — Boston Globe

"Enormously moving. . . . Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes." —Los Angeles Times

“A quietly moving novel [that] takes us back to a place we've been before to impart a lesson for living.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Oprah's Book Club Series
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still, I was there. I was there as much as anyone else was there. Either I sat behind my aunt and his godmother or I sat beside them. Both are large women, but his godmother is larger. She is of average height, five four, five five, but weighs nearly two hundred pounds. Once she and my aunt had found their places--two rows behind the table where he sat with his court-appointed attorney--his godmother became as immobile as a great stone or as one of our oak or cypress stumps. She never got up once to get water or go to the bathroom down in the basement. She just sat there staring at the boy's clean-cropped head where he sat at the front table with his lawyer. Even after he had gone to await the jurors' verdict, her eyes remained in that one direction. She heard nothing said in the courtroom. Not by the prosecutor, not by the defense attorney, not by my aunt. (Oh, yes, she did hear one word--one word, for sure: "hog.") It was my aunt whose eyes followed the prosecutor as he moved from one side of the courtroom to the other, pounding his fist into the palm of his hand, pounding the table where his papers lay, pounding the rail that separated the jurors from the rest of the courtroom. It was my aunt who followed his every move, not his godmother. She was not even listening. She had gotten tired of listening, She knew, as we all knew, what the outcome would be. 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. Though he told them no, he had nothing to do with it, that he was on his way to the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge when Brother and Bear drove up beside him and offered him a ride. After he got into the car, they asked him if he had any money. When he told them he didn't have a solitary dime, it was then that Brother and Bear started talking credit, saying that old Gropé should not mind crediting them a pint since he knew them well, and he knew that the grinding season was coming soon, and they would be able to pay him back then.

The store was empty, except for the old storekeeper, Alcee Gropé, who sat on a stool behind the counter. He spoke first. He asked Jefferson about his godmother. Jefferson told him his nannan was all right. Old Gropé nodded his head. "You tell her for me I say hello," he told Jefferson. He looked at Brother and Bear. But he didn't like them. He didn't trust them. Jefferson could see that in his face. "Do for you boys?" he asked. "A bottle of that Apple White, there, Mr. Gropé" Bear said. Old Gropé got the bottle off the shelf, but he did not set it on the counter. He could see that the boys had already been drinking, and he became suspicious. "You boys got money?" he asked. Brother and Bear spread out all the money they had in their pockets on top of the counter. Old Gropé counted it with his eyes. "That's not enough," he said. "Come on, now, Mr. Gropé," they pleaded with him. "You know you go'n get your money soon as grinding start." "No," he said. "Money is slack everywhere. You bring the money, you get your wine." He turned to put the bottle back on the shelf. One of the boys, the one called Bear, started around the counter."You, stop there," Gropé told him. "Go back." Bear had been drinking, and his eyes were glossy, he walked unsteadily, grinning all the time as he continued around the counter. "Go back," Gropé told him. "I mean, the last time now--go back." Bear continued. Gropé moved quickly toward the cash register, where he withdrew a revolver and started shooting. Soon there was shooting from another direction. When it was quiet again, Bear, Gropé, and Brother were all down on the floor, and only Jefferson was standing.

He wanted to run, but he couldn't run. He couldn't even think. He didn't know where he was. He didn't know how he had gotten there. He couldn't remember ever getting into the car. He couldn't remember a thing he had done all day.

He heard a voice calling. He thought the voice was coming from the liquor shelves. Then he realized that old Gropé was not dead, and that it was he who was calling. He made himself go to the end of the counter. He had to look across Bear to see the storekeeper. Both lay between the counter and the shelves of alcohol. Several bottles had broken, and alcohol and blood covered their bodies as well as the floor. He stood there gaping at the old man slumped against the bottom shelf of gallons and half gallons of wine. He didn't know whether he should go to him or whether he should run out of there. The old man continued to call: "Boy? Boy? Boy?" Jefferson became frightened. The old man was still alive. He had seen him. He would tell on him. Now he started babbling. "It wasn't me. It wasn't me, Mr. Gropé. It was Brother and Bear. Brother shot you. It wasn't me. They made me come with them. You got to tell the law that, Mr. Gropé. You hear me Mr. Gropé?"

But he was talking to a dead man.

Still he did not run. He didn't know what to do. He didn't believe that this had happened. Again he couldn't remember how he had gotten there. He didn't know whether he had come there with Brother and Bear, or whether he had walked in and seen all this after it happened.

He looked from one dead body to the other. He didn't know whether he should call someone on the telephone or run. He had never dialed a telephone in his life, but he had seen other people use them. He didn't know what to do. He was standing by the liquor shelf, and suddenly he realized he needed a drink and needed it badly. He snatched a bottle off the shelf, wrung off the cap, and turned up the bottle, all in one continuous motion. The whiskey burned him like fire--his chest, his belly, even his nostrils. His eyes watered; he shook his head to clear his mind. Now he began to realize where he was. Now he began to realize fully what had happened. Now he knew he had to get out of there. He turned. He saw the money in the cash register, under the little wire clamps. He knew taking money was wrong. His nannan had told him never to steal. He didn't want to steal. But he didn't have a solitary dime in his pocket. And nobody was around, so who could say he stole it? Surely not one of the dead men.

He was halfway across the room, the money stuffed inside his jacket pocket, the half bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand, when two white men walked into the store.

That was his story.

The prosecutor's story was different. The prosecutor argued that Jefferson and the other two had gone there with the full intention of robbing the old man and killing him so that he could not identify them. When the old man and the other two robbers were all dead, this one--it proved the kind of animal he really was--stuffed the money into his pockets and celebrated the event by drinking over their still-bleeding bodies.

The defense argued that Jefferson was innocent of all charges except being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There was absolutely no proof that there had been a conspiracy between himself and the other two. The fact that Mr. Gropé shot only Brother and Bear was proof of Jefferson's innocence. Why did Mr. Gropé shoot one boy twice and never shoot at Jefferson once? Because Jefferson was merely an innocent bystander. He took the whiskey to calm his nerves, not to celebrate. He took the money out of hunger and plain stupidity.

"Gentlemen of the jury, look at this--this--this boy. I almost said man, but I can't say man. Oh, sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call this--this--this a man? No, not I. I would call it a boy and a fool. A fool is not aware of right and wrong. A fool does what others tell him to do. A fool got into that automobile. A man with a modicum of intelligence would have seen that those racketeers meant no good. But not a fool. A fool got into that automobile. A fool rode to the grocery store. A fool stood by and watched this happen, not having the sense to run.

"Gentlemen of the jury, look at him--look at him--look that this. Do you see a man sitting here? I ask you, I implore, look carefully--do you see a man sitting here? 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? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan--can plan--can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa--yes, yes, that he can do--but to plan? To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes. Ask him to name the months of the year. Ask him does Christmas come before or after the Fourth of July? Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose, to quote one passage from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying 'man'--would you please forgive me for committing such an error?

"Gentlemen of the jury, who would be hurt if you took this life? Look back to that second row. Please look. I want all twelve of you honorable men to turn your heads and look back to that second row. What you see there has been everything to him--mama, grandmother, godmother--everything. Look at her, gentlemen of the jury, look at her well. Take this away from her, and she has no reason to go on living. We may see him as not much, but he's her reason for existence. Think on that, gentlemen, think on it.

"Gentlemen of the jury, be merciful. For God's sake, be merciful. He is innocent of all charges brought against him.

"But let us say he was not. Let us for a moment say he was not. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen,? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.

"I thank you, gentlemen, from the bottom of my heart, for your kind patience. I have no more to say, except this: We must live with our own conscience. Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience."

The jury retired, and it returned a verdict after lunch: guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. The judge commended the twelve white men for reaching a quick and just verdict. This was Friday. He would pass sentence on Monday.

Ten o'clock on Monday, Miss Emma and my aunt sat in the same seats they had occupied on Friday. Reverend Mose Ambrose, the pastor of their church, was with them., He and my aunt sat on either side of Miss Emma. The judge, a short, red-faced man with snow-white hair and thick black eyebrows, asked Jefferson if he had anything to say before the sentencing. My aunt said that Jefferson was looking down at the floor and shook his head. The judge told Jefferson that he had been found guilty of the charges brought against him, and that the judge saw no reason that he should not pay for the part he played in this horrible crime.

Death by electrocution. The governor would set the date.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives."- Chicago Tribune

"A Lesson Before Dying reconfirms Ernest J. Gaines's position as an important American writer."- Boston Globe

"Enormously moving... Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes."- Los Angeles Times

Meet the Author

Ernest Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupée Parish near New Roads, Louisiana, which is the Bayonne of all his fictional works. He is writer-in-residence emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In 1993 Gaines received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for his lifetime achievements. In 1996 he was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of France’s highest decorations. He and his wife, Dianne, live in Oscar, Louisiana.

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A Lesson before Dying 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 289 reviews.
Fully More than 1 year ago
This is a modern day classic. I've read and taught this book since 1998. I never get tired of the story and I constantly find new facets of the book that I am just now seeing. From the Christ figure of Jefferson to Grant's ambiguous atheism, Gaines takes an interesting look at the problems of faith for black men in the 1940's Deep South. Also, Grant's journey to manhood parallels Jefferson's. Could either of them have done it without the other? Their are other themes present as well: Human dignity, Community Responsibility, Running away from one's problems,and Universality are some of them. I've found that I learn something from this book every single time I read it with my classes. The humanity of Jefferson's diary always moves my students. Even though Jefferson isn't an educated, or even a smart man, he is still a man deserving of dignity and decency and justice. While seeming to be a rather dark subject, A Lesson Before Dying is an uplifting story of hope and redemption. I can't imagine not having this book in my classroom.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Lesson Before Dying is a book about a mentally retarded man, Jefferson. Jefferson is wrongly convicted of a murder. He is called a 'hog' during his trail. His aunt, Miss Emma, wants him to become a man before he dies. Miss Emma asked the community's teacher, Grant, to make her son a man before his execution.
Grant is left with an enormous task when he reluctantly agreed. Grant has to break down the barriers surrounding Jefferson, who refuses to eat and talk to his visitors, but in the end, two complete opposite people become the best of friends.
I really enjoyed this book. It has a moving plot that makes you think about the life you are living. At times in the middle of the book it got a little tedious waiting for the end, but it picked up speed again toward the end of the story.
This book is a historical fiction book set in the 1940's while whites still had the upper hand. This book is for advanced young adults readers and older.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This has got to be one of the best works of fiction that I have ever read. Some of the most beautiful and moving passages ever written -- especially the writings by Jefferson. Felt like I was there. Unforgettable!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book taught me what true shame is about, but it also taught me humility and strength.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing book. I have read it several times.  The first was when I was in high school.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm reading this in class, and it is really suprising. I love the concept of the story and the plot. The movie is also something to look foward to, but it may look boring but I thought it would be good read because i have black/ french heritage so i could relate ancestors with this novel!
jsiriann More than 1 year ago
This book was great,I recommend this to anyone that can relate to the coming of age. This novel brings you to a small town in the southern states in the 1940's. A uneducated black man named Jefferson is in the middle of a shootout, where Jefferson is the only survivor. Jefferson is put on trial for murder, and as Jefferson and his friends and family are put though life changing events where they learn about each other and their ideals. Jefferson learns about heroism and how some push to be a hero and some fail to try.
Duker79 More than 1 year ago
This was a great book I really enjoyed this book it was an easy read and I could not put it down once I started! I originally picked this book up because I read the first chapter on an online review page and on this website you are limited to one chapter so after I had read the first chapter I was hooked on the book I tried to get the book as soon as possible so I could read it. I loved this book so much that I would be willing to read this book a second time and I have never considered reading a book twice that is how much I loved this book. Throughout the book Jefferson displays the theme of redemption in death. At the end of the novel Jefferson redeems himself in front of his community because he defies his society that tells him that he is a hog but instead of acting like the hog that everyone says he is he makes his community proud by standing strong at the execution being the "strongest man in the room." This novel is a heart wrenching book that made me feel for Grant Wiggins, Jefferson and Jefferson's friends and family and at points made me wanted to cry. The only thing I did not like about this book was that it went into extreme detail for instance the author would explain what the characters were eating and it said things that were not important sometimes, but other than that Ernest J. Gaines is a brilliant author. This book should be considered a classic literature but I do not think that it should be taught in high schools just because it had some bad parts and some not so good language it is definitely considered a young adult book it has some mature themes in it. One of the many things that I liked about this book is how much smarter Jefferson is than everyone gives him credit for. One thing that I like about the main character Grant Wiggins is that he never calls himself a teacher but in the end he teaches a "hog" to be a man and is a very smart man. One thing that I would change about this book is just not putting in every detail about Grant Wiggins and Vivian's relationship because I did not see how it tied into the story. This book reminds me of the movie The Green Mile. The Green Mile is about a guard who works in the jail for the people that are going to be executed. Tom Hanks plays a character that feels bad for a jailer that is to be soon executed. This movie reminds me of this book because there is a guard in there named Paul and he is emotionally compensated about the execution of Jefferson. This book has been a truly inspiring book it has taught me many life lessons for instance choose wisely on the people you hang out with it might cost your life.
DarleneGinn-Hargrove More than 1 year ago
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I loved reading this book and can hardly wait to read other Ernest J. Gaines masterpieces. A tale of weakness, strength, and redemption and of two very different men living on a Lousiana plantation in the 40's. Lots of tears shed, not a lot of good times and well worth the time and expense. I highly recommend it.l
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