A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Chapter 1 | Summary



Set in rural pre-civil rights era Louisiana, the plot of A Lesson Before Dying centers on the relationship between two black men: Jefferson, an uneducated young man on death row for murder, and his reluctant, conflicted mentor Grant Wiggins, who teaches at the school on the sugarcane plantation where he, Jefferson, and most of the black characters live and work. Grant narrates the novel, which opens with his description of Jefferson's trial one October in the late 1940s. Grant begins, "I did not go to the trial ... Still, I was there." Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma, and Grant's aunt Lou attend, but they know Jefferson's conviction is a foregone conclusion.

Grant recounts Jefferson's version of the crime. Jefferson was walking when he was picked up and taken to a store by two men, Brother and Bear. The white shopkeeper Alcee Gropé refused to give Brother and Bear wine on credit. Bear, who was drunk, became aggressive. Gropé shot and Brother shot back. Gropé, Brother, and Bear died in the gunfire. Traumatized, Jefferson calmed himself with a drink before emptying the cash register. Two white men intercepted him as he left with the liquor and the money.

The prosecutor argues the robbery and murder were premeditated. He describes Jefferson as an "animal" who "celebrated the event." Jefferson's court-appointed defense attorney argues his stupidity proves his innocence. His black features prove he is not a man, but rather "a thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton." He appeals to the jury's conscience and asks for mercy, since elderly Miss Emma would be hurt were Jefferson to be executed. Moreover, even if Jefferson were guilty, executing him would make as much sense as "put[ting] a hog in the electric chair."

The all-white jury promptly convicts Jefferson for first-degree murder and robbery. He is sentenced to die in the electric chair.


Jefferson, Grant Wiggins, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou are part of the community of African Americans who live and work on the same sugarcane plantation where their ancestors were enslaved. Eighty years have passed since slavery ended, but in this era of Jim Crow segregation, laws and social norms perpetuate the historical repression and exploitation of black people by denying them access to education, economic opportunity, and political and social power. White dominance is maintained by various mechanisms, including the white-controlled criminal justice system.

Jefferson is poor, uneducated, and ignorant of life beyond the plantation. His conviction is inevitable, because his real crime is his blackness. The trial is merely a public performance of white hatred and a display of white power. The defense attorney's dehumanization of Jefferson embodies the attitudes underlying the racist social order, built on exploiting the labor of blacks, which has changed little since the days of slavery. His argument hardly differs from the prosecution's argument in its assumptions, tone, or language. Jefferson is an animal, without rights and unworthy of justice—as are all black people in the eyes of whites. Gaines will use the hog comment as a motif to demonstrate how white racist attitudes are internalized by blacks, which perpetuates black disenfranchisement.

In this chapter as well as in the rest of the novel, Gaines uses verbal irony, contradiction, and other techniques to reveal important truths concealed within the explicitly stated narration and dialogue. This layer of meaning, called subtext, includes the characters' authentic attitudes, feelings, and motivations, as well as the author's attitude toward his subject matter. In A Lesson Before Dying, subtext helps build symbolic and thematic meaning. The defense attorney's appeal to mercy and conscience is verbal irony. He knows, as do the reader and the characters, that he places no value on Jefferson's life. This subtext illuminates the norms and power dynamics that define white-black relations in this society.

Narrator Grant Wiggins uses intentional contradiction to express complex truths in simple language. He conveys his emotional investment as well as his inner conflict through his statement that he both was and was not at the trial. Similarly, he claims Emma "heard nothing said in the courtroom ... (Oh, yes, she did hear ... one word, for sure: 'hog')." This reveals Emma's (and the black community's) sense of powerlessness. She already knows the trial's outcome, so she doesn't bother listening. But the word "hog" reaches her. This moment of horrifying dehumanization sets the plot into motion. The subtext is that as long as the black community accepts the myth of white supremacy and black inferiority, white power will continue to determine how blacks live and how they die.

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