The story begins with the murder of Mr. Grope by two black men. An innocent bystander named Jefferson is charged with and convicted of the murder. He is sentenced to death. In his trial, Jefferson's attorney explains to the jury "What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this." Jefferson's godmother, Miss Emma Glenn, and Aunt Lou, ask Grant Wiggins, the local schoolteacher and Lou's nephew, to turn Jefferson from a "hog" to a "man". However, they must first get permission from Sheriff Sam Guidry. To accomplish this, they ask Sheriff Guidry's brother-in-law Henri Pichot for assistance. The Sheriff gives Grant permission. When Grant is not there, Miss Emma, Aunt Lou, and Reverend Ambrose also visit Jefferson. At the same time, Grant is dating a schoolteacher from nearby Bayonne named Vivian. Over the course of the novel, Grant and Jefferson form a close friendship. Unusual for the time, Grant also forms a friendship with Deputy Paul Bonin. In early February, it is announced that Jefferson will be executed on April 8. Around this time, Reverend Ambrose becomes concerned that Grant, an agnostic, is not teaching Jefferson about God and thus begins visiting him regularly. This conflict reaches a head when Grant buys Jefferson a radio, which the seniors in the black community, or "quarter", see as sinful. The novel ends with Jefferson's execution, and, much to Grant's surprise, a visit from Paul in which he tells Grant that "Jefferson was the strongest man in that crowded room" when he was executed.
The reader is given a unique outlook on the status of African Americans in the South, after World War II and before the Civil Rights Movement. We see a Jim Crow South through the eyes of a formally educated African American teacher who often feels helpless and alienated from his own country. In "A Lesson Before Dying," Grant is the only educated black man in the area and the only member of the black community who might be considered capable of becoming free of overt oppression. Nevertheless, his life and career choices are severely limited and he must refer to white male authority figures as "Sir." Because of this, he yearns to leave the disheartening situation he is in. Grant feels that he is cornered by myriad forces: his aunt’s incessant wants, pressure to conform to a fundamentalist religion he does not believe in, the children’s need for a teacher, and the community’s need for leadership.
"All there was to see were old white weather-houses, with smoke rising out of the chimneys and drifting across the corrugated tin roofs overlooking the yard toward the field, where some of the cane had been cut. The cane had not been hauled to the derrick yet, and it was lying across the rows. A little farther over, where another patch of cane was standing, tall and blue-green, you could see the leaves swaying softly from a breeze.
“My classroom was the church. My desk was a table, used as a collection table by the church on Sundays, and also used for the service of the Holy Sacrament. My students’ desks were the benches upon which their parents and grandparents sat during church meeting. Ventilation into the church was by way of the four windows on either side, and from the front and back doors. There was a blackboard on the back wall. Behind my desk was the pulpit and the altar. This was my school.”
Ironically, Grant, an agnostic, spends most of his time in the church on the Henry Pichot Plantation. The school that he teaches in is the same place in which the town gathers on Sunday morning for praise and worship. Grant is continually challenged with the fact that he is an outsider in his place of work; he does not attend church with the rest of his settlement. Throughout the entire novel, this school is seen as a place of discrimination. Segregated schools provide another example of racial persecution.
"Bayonne was a small town of about six thousand. Approximately three thousand five hundred whites; approximately two thousand five hundred colored. It was the parish seat for St. Raphael. The courthouse was there; so was the jail. There was a Catholic church uptown for whites; a Catholic church back of town for colored. There was a white movie theater uptown; a colored movie theater back of town. There were two elementary schools uptown, one catholic, one public, for whites; and the same back of town for colored. Bayonne’s major industries were a cement plant, a sawmill, and a slaughterhouse, mostly for hogs. There was only one main street in Bayonne, and it ran along the St. Charles river."
Bayonne is an actual city in France, but also the fictional Louisiana town depicted in the novel.
"We followed him down a long, dark corridor, passing offices with open doors, and bathrooms for white ladies and white men. At the end of the corridor we had to go up a set of stairs. The stairs were made of steel. There were six steps, then a landing, a sharp turn, and another six steps. Then we went through a heavy steel door to the area where the prisoners were quartered. The white prisoners were also on this floor, but in a separate section. I counted eight cells for black prisoners, with two bunks to each cell. Half of the cells were empty, the others had one or two prisoners. They reached their hands out between the bars and asked for cigarettes or money. Miss Emma . She told them she didn’t have any money, but she had brought some food for Jefferson, and if there was anything left she would give it to them. They asked me for money, and I gave them the change I had."
"The cell was roughly six by ten, with a metal bunk covered by a thin mattress and a woolen army blanket; a toilet without seat or toilet paper; a washbowl, brownish from residue and grime; a small metal shelf upon which was a pan, a tin cup, and a tablespoon. A single bulb hung over the center of the cell, and at the end opposite the door was a barred window, which looked out onto a sycamore tree behind the courthouse. I could see the sunlight on the upper leaves. But the window was too high to catch sight of any other buildings or the ground."
The title of this novel is imperative in understanding one of the major themes. The entire book focuses on Grant’s attempts to teach Jefferson a lesson. In order for Grant to be able to show Jefferson how to ‘become a man,’ he must himself understand the meaning. Symbolically, the butterfly towards the end of the novel is proof that both of these men have succeeded in their goals.
“I probably would not have noticed it at all had not a butterfly, a yellow butterfly with dark spots like ink dots on its wings, not lit there. What had brought it there? …I watched it fly over the ditch and down into the quarter, I watched it until I could not see it anymore. Yes, I told myself. It is finally over.”
At this point Grant realizes that Jefferson really did learn a ‘lesson before dying.’ When he says “It is finally over,” he is not only referring to Jefferson's life, but also that his cowardly nature is “finally over.” He has once and for all taken a stand for what he believes in. This insures that he, too, has benefited from this entire experience. Jefferson’s life was sacrificed in order for the white people in the community to gain a better understanding of the value of the black members of society.1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
October 1997 choice of Oprah's Book Club
On May 22, 1999 HBO premiered A Lesson Before Dying, which subsequently received two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Made-For-Television Movie and Outstanding Writing for a Mini-Series or Movie (South African writer Ann Peacock) and a Peabody Award. Don Cheadle portrays Grant, Mekhi Phifer portrays Jefferson, and Cicely Tyson is featured as Tante Lou.
A play by Romulus Linney and a Southern Writers' Project, based on the novel and having the same title, had its World Premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in January 2000 and Off-Broadway in September 2000.