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A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Plot Summary

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The novel opens in the late 1940s, in the autumn, when a 21-year-old uneducated black man named Jefferson is convicted without evidence for a white man's murder. Jefferson and his community live and work on a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana, just as their enslaved ancestors did. After his attorney argues Jefferson's blackness makes him incapable of planning and executing such a crime and compares him to a hog, 12 white men sentence Jefferson to death by electrocution. Jefferson's elderly godmother, Miss Emma, and her best friend, Tante Lou, are at the trial, and Emma leaves with a fierce conviction her godson must die knowing he's a man, not a hog.

Tante Lou's nephew Grant Wiggins is the man they recruit to teach Jefferson this lesson. Grant, who is the narrator, is the sole schoolteacher for the plantation's children. His classroom is located in a small Catholic church, where Reverend Mose Ambrose leads a congregation of devout and spirited worshipers. Grant does not worship among them, having renounced his faith after he left the plantation to attend college. Overwhelmed by futility and bitterness at the enduring subjugation of his community and his inability to change it through teaching, Grant wants to run away, but can't seem to. Grant's mentor, a bitter, angry mulatto named Matthew Antoine, who was the plantation school's previous teacher, taught him there are only two responses to the "burden" of his people's pain and suffering: stay and break under its weight, or run away. Grant doesn't want to work with Jefferson, but Tante Lou, with whom he lives, leaves him no choice. Nor does his mixed-race girlfriend, Vivian Baptiste, who is in the middle of a divorce and teaches school in the nearby town of Bayonne.

After securing permission to visit Jefferson from Sheriff Guidry, who insists the whole idea is a waste of time, Grant begins going to the jail, at first in the company of Miss Emma. Jefferson's refusal to speak or eat her home-cooked food deeply pains Miss Emma, and Grant is soon made to continue the visits on his own. Jefferson is at first hostile to Grant; Jefferson insists he is a hog, and at one point gets on the floor and eats out of a bag of food as a hog would. Grant, resentful that Jefferson is trying to make him feel guilty, wants to run away from everything.

However, Grant keeps going back, and while Jefferson continues to display apathy and low self-worth, he begins to ask about Jesus. It becomes apparent Jefferson uses the story of Jesus's death to understand his own situation. As Christmas approaches, Grant begins to speak meaningfully to Jefferson about things like his moral obligation to show Emma love by not refusing her food. Yet when Christmas comes, Grant is unhappy and alone, burdened by his feeling nothing is changing, or ever will.

Miss Emma is also concerned that Jefferson's soul is saved before he dies. To this end Reverend Mose Ambrose gets involved, but Jefferson is not receptive to Reverend Ambrose's message of sin and salvation. Miss Emma wants the two men to work together, but there is an antagonism between the man of God and Grant, the scornful nonbeliever.

In February of 1948 Jefferson's execution is set for April 8, the second Friday after Easter. The certainty of knowing the date makes Jefferson less hostile and more receptive, and Grant finally penetrates his defenses by giving him a radio. Jefferson listens to music nonstop. Reverend Ambrose becomes angry, thinking this "sin box" distracts Jefferson from God, while Grant believes the radio gives Jefferson something he desperately needs: enjoyment and a possession all his own. This exacerbates the tension between Reverend Ambrose and Grant.

The black plantation community rallies around Jefferson, and their support reaches him in prison through their visits and gifts. Grant tells Jefferson he wants to be his friend, and he will bring him a notebook to write his thoughts in. He tells Jefferson society operates according to a myth that white people are superior, and Jefferson can be a hero by approaching his death with dignity, as a man, thus revealing the myth for what it is—a lie. When Jefferson asks Grant to thank the schoolchildren for their gifts of pecans, Grant becomes overjoyed. That gratitude has replaced hostile apathy is significant progress.

With a few weeks before the execution, Reverend Ambrose asks Grant to help him convince Jefferson to pray for forgiveness and accept salvation. Grant says he won't lie to Jefferson by telling him God and heaven really exist. Reverend Ambrose says lying is necessary when it prevents pain, and black people can only endure their lives by believing in salvation; the minister points out all the little lies people tell so as not to burden others with their pain. When Jefferson asks Grant about God and heaven, Grant admits he doesn't believe, but says if Jefferson believes, maybe Grant can, too. Jefferson remarks that after a life of abandonment and hard, thankless work, he is now being asked to carry everyone's cross. He says he will do his best, and Grant realizes Jefferson is more of a man than he himself is.

Jefferson writes in his notebook in the form of a letter to Grant, the contents of which are presented in Chapter 29. He writes of his spiritual questioning and his gratitude to Grant, for making him feel like a person by being the first friend he ever had. The morning of his execution, which Grant refuses to attend, Jefferson writes "tell them im strong tell them im a man." In his final moments, Jefferson is calm, obedient, and dignified, just like he wanted to be.

The black plantation community treats the execution date as a day of respect for Jefferson, while in the town of Bayonne, the transport of the electric chair, in the back of a truck, and the loud noise of its generator shakes black people to their cores. White people in Bayonne use the electric chair's wheeling through town and the generator's noise as an excuse to ridicule the black community. The chair, known as "Gruesome Gerty" offends white people, who feel they shouldn't be forced to think about the horror of an execution.

Grant spends the morning of the execution alone outside the school on the plantation, berating himself for not being there and reflecting on how his lack of faith makes him weaker than both Reverend Ambrose, who is at the execution, and Jefferson himself. Grant wonders how life will be now, knowing things cannot stay the same.

When it is over, the only decent and kind white deputy at the jail, Paul Bonin, comes to the plantation to give Grant Jefferson's notebook, since Jefferson wanted Grant to have it. Paul says he witnessed Jefferson walk like a man to the chair, and credits Grant with Jefferson's incredible transformation. Grant says he wasn't responsible. Paul pledges his friendship to Grant, and when Grant reenters his classroom and faces his students, he is crying.

A Lesson Before Dying Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Jefferson is compared to a hog and sentenced to die.

Rising Action

2 Grant is chosen to teach Jefferson he's a man.

3 Jefferson is hostile. He says he's a hog, already dead.

4 Guilt and frustration make Grant want to run away.

5 The execution is set for a Friday after Easter.

6 Grant connects with Jefferson by giving him a radio.

7 When Jefferson expresses gratitude, Grant feels joy.

8 Grant tells Jefferson he can be a hero for his people.

9 Grant won't lie for the sake of Jefferson's salvation.

10 Grant wants Jefferson to believe so Grant might, too.


11 Jefferson will do his best to carry everyone's crosses.

Falling Action

12 The whole town experiences the arrival of the chair.

13 Grant hopes Jefferson believes in his final moments.

14 A butterfly signals to Grant the execution is over.


15 Paul comes as a friend to tell Grant of Jefferson's bravery.

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