Published by Knopf in 1993, A Lesson before Dyingis set in Louisiana. Considered a success by readers and critics alike, the book appeals to most readers because of the intense emotions the story evokes. The author, Ernest Gaines, wants the reader to feel compassion for the young black man, Jefferson, whom jurors convict for a murder he did not commit. And readers find it difficult to ignore the personal struggles of Grant Wiggins as he teaches Jefferson to be a man.
Gaines credits his boyhood experiences for his ability to develop lifelike characters. In an interview with Paul Desruisseaux for the New York Times Book Review, Gaines says he learned by "working in the fields, going fishing in the swamps with the older people, and, especially, listening to the people who came to my aunt's house, the aunt who raised me." His attention to the people he loves results in characters that are believable. Alice Walker, in the New York Times Book Review, acknowledges Gaines's success with characterization in saying that Gaines "claims and revels in the rich heritage of Southern Black people and their customs; the community he feels with them is unmistakable and goes deeper even than pride.... Gaines is mellow with historical reflection, supple with wit, relaxed and expansive because he does not equate his people with failure."
Gaines's themes reveal universal truths. He demonstrates that racism destroys people; relationships suffer from people's choices; and pride, honor, and manhood can prevail in trying times. While some critics denounce Gaines for his failure to address blacks' difficulties in today's society, his defense is that he writes for all times and all people.
Before the Jail Visits
A Lesson before Dying examines the relationship established between two men in a rural Louisiana parish in the 1940s. One man, Jefferson, is convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The other man, Grant Wiggins, is the local schoolteacher.
The book is told from the point of view of Grant. Although he does not attend Jefferson's trial, he is able to give details from it because everybody in their small community has been talking about it. He explains that Jefferson ended up in trouble because he had received a ride from some friends: they stopped at a liquor store before taking him home, and when the friends tried to rob the store a shoot out occurred, leaving both of his friends and the owner of the store, who was white, dead. Panicking, Jefferson took money from the open cash register before fleeing, and the all-white jury found him guilty of both robbery and murder.
His lawyer, in trying to convince the jury to not impose the death penalty, portrayed Jefferson as being subhuman, presenting him as being too stupid to knowingly be guilty of a crime: "What justice would there be to take this life?" he asked them. "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." The afternoon...