Novel Review: A Lesson Before Dying


The cover of “A lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines.

Slavery may have ended years ago but racism and segregation are still very much alive. This can be seen conveyed in the novel, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, which is set in the 1940’s.

When Jefferson, a black man, is falsely accused of murdering a white storekeeper, he is given the death penalty and the only one who is capable of giving him an education and helping him realize his worth on the last few months of his life is Grant, a black professor of a small black school.

Ernest J. Gaines illustrates that white people saw themselves as superior because they believed themselves to be more educated than black people, which is portrayed through the use of powerful and beautiful diction. 

During Jefferson’s trial, his assigned public defender is talking to an all white jury trying to prove Jefferson’s innocence and persuade them not to give the death penalty. During his argument the defender explains, 

“What justice would there be to take his life?…Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this’” (Gaines 8). 

A hog is the lowest animal that Jefferson could be compared to as it implies that Jefferson is dirty, disgusting and dumb, as pigs are known to be.  As Jefferson is black and uneducated, his lawyer humiliates and belittles him in an attempt to break him. To make him feel worthless and useless, like an animal.

Like nothing.

This is powerful because it is one of the first examples of blatant racism in this novel. The prosecutor sees Jefferson as less because of his lack of education and his skin color so he insults him out loud. Another example of powerful language is also during Jefferson’s trial while his defender is talking to the Jury. He says, 

“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’” (Gaines 7).

 He uses the phrase “a thing” to emphasize how Jefferson is not a man or a human being in his eyes. He sees him as an object and addresses him as such.

Directly in front of Jefferson, he insults his intelligence, affirming his uselessness. This is powerful language because it shows how many people in the 1940’s still didn’t see black people as humans, but as slaves who were only good for labor.

They didn’t see them as smart, capable human beings.

Although slavery had been abolished by that time period, black people were still being segregated and looked down upon. An additional quote that proves this, is during the visit of the superintendent at Grant’s school where he taught. During this visit, the superintendent checks how Grant is running the class, how he is teaching the students and how well the students appear. While examining the students he happened to inspect a particular student who was known to have bad manners, to never follow directions, and to never pay attention. He proceeded to ask the boy to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In response,

“The boy raised his hand to his chest. “Plege legen toda flag. Ninety states. ‘Merica. Er–er–yeah, which it stand. Visibly. Amen.” Dr. Joseph grunted…Dr. Joseph seemed quite satisfied” (Gaines 56).

The act of Dr. Joseph, seeming satisfied, showed how he found pleasure in knowing that the black students who were being taught, in reality, weren’t learning anythingat all. He liked knowing that he was right. In his mind, black people weren’t capable of understanding and learning in school. He liked knowing that they were wasting their time, that in the end, no matter who was teaching these kids they would all end up the same and would never succeed in life.

This reveals how white people took satisfaction in knowing that black children weren’t learning anything from school. white people wanted black people to remain uneducated to continue making them feel superior, smarter and better than them. They knew that if black people were to be educated, they would no longer have the power to make them see themselves as inferior.

Ernest J. Gaines continues building the theme of how white people saw themselves as superior because they believed themselves to be more educated than black people through powerful and beautiful diction.

An example of this beautiful diction is when Grant’s aunt tells him that he will not be like the other students from his grade who did not learn anything from school and went back to the fields or the city looking for work. 

“But she told me that I would not be one of the others, that I would learn as much as he could teach me, then I would go away to learn from someone else. But that I would learn as much as he could teach me” (Gaines 63).

The phrase ‘as much’ shows how Grant’s aunt wanted Grant to get the most education he could get. She tells him that he is not going to be like the other students who didn’t get an education and ended up right back in the same place. She doesn’t ask, she doesn’t request, she urges and directly tells him that this is what he was going to do, that he was going to learn as much as he could in order to have a future. She knew that education was the only thing that would make Grant aware that he was no different from the white people. That he was a human who was just as capable and smart as them. This is beautiful because of his aunt’s persistence and determination to get Grant an education. This shows how important education was for Black people and how much they valued it because they knew that this was the only way for the cycle of white people belittling black people because of a lack of education to be beaten. Furthermore, another quote that shows the theme is when Grant is at Henry Pichot’s house talking to Sam Guidry about why he was the one who was going to talk to Jefferson and why it wasn’t going to be Jefferson’s godmother. He explained, 

“’She doesn’t feel that she has the strength to come up here all the time.’ “She doesn’t, huh?” Sam Guidry asked me. He emphasized “doesn’t.” I was supposed to have said “don’t.” I was being too smart. “Yes, sir,” I said. “She doesn’t feel that she can.” I used the word “doesn’t” again, but I did it intentionally this time” (Gaines 48).

The word “intentionally” demonstrates how Grant was aware of how educated he was and that he wasn’t supposed to sound this educated in front of white men.

He knew the language he should use around them because due to their perceived superiority any sign of Grant thinking he was smarter would have put his life in danger. However, despite knowing this, he repeated the word “doesn’t” intentionally to make it clear that he wasn’t stupid and although they wanted him to act like he was, he wasn’t going to let them have that power over him to diminish him. This proves the theme because although they knew Grant was educated they still wanted him to act as if he wasn’t. They didn’t like knowing that a Black person could be more educated than a White person. This is beautiful because it shows how Grant didn’t let the white men strip his voice. Although Grant couldn’t talk as freely as he wanted to, he still let the white men know that he was educated and that he knew they weren’t superior to him.

A final example of the theme is when Grant is talking to his aunt and tells her that after everything she had pushed and encouraged him to do, she now stripping his freedom away from him. He brings up the fact that although she was the person who most pushed him to leave and get an education, she was also the one who pushed him to the very things she told him not to do. She responds saying, “‘I’m sorry, Mr. Grant, I’m helping them white people to humiliate you. I’m so sorry. And I wished they had somebody else we could turn to. But they ain’t nobody else’” (Gaines 79). The phrase “nobody else” makes this beautiful because it shows how Grant was the only one who could help Jefferson. He was the only one capable of making Jefferson realize that he was human and that the white men could not strip him of his humanity. He was the only one who could give Jefferson an education. Although Grant didn’t want that responsibility and had no clue how he would even get Jefferson to realize this, he had no other option. It all fell on him, he was Jefferson’s last hope. Grant was the only person who could make Jefferson see his worth by letting him know that he was more than what they were naming him, he was human. Even if he wasn’t educated, he was not clueless. This helps prove the theme by emphasizing the importance of education to black people. Grant’s aunt tells him he is the only one who could help Jefferson because he was the only one with an education. Black people who had fallen to the whites went around believing that they were less human because of their lack of education.

In the book, there is a clear theme of how white people saw themselves as superior because they believed themselves to be more educated than black people. Although the year is now 2021, there are still many aspects of our world today that are illustrated in this novel. Racism and white superiority is still very much a thing and is visible right in front of our eyes. Many may say that racism is not half as bad as it used to be and although that may be slightly true, many issues that Black people had to face years ago, are still faced to this day. This novel makes it clear that this is a problem and change needs to happen fast.