A Lesson Before Dying Summary

A Lesson Before Dying written by Ernest J. Gaines portrays the struggles of a black minority with their identity amongst the dominant white community they are in. The writer focuses on the cultural aspect of the society where the Afrocentric ideologies contradict with that of the Western. He also shows how the Western majority finds a way of demeaning the black minority in the case of Jefferson who is convicted of a murder he has not committed. The writer also shows the character development of Grant through his introduction with Jefferson which ironically is his job with Jefferson. The story opens up with a slow-witted man Jefferson witnessing a murder happen in a cafe. By process of elimination via racial discrimination, because Jefferson was a black man, he was pronounced guilty and given a death sentence by the all-white jury. Here, his dimwits are not treated as an individual trait but rather certified as a racial character which projects the white people’s interpretation of the black. Jefferson had his claims of innocence, stating what had truly happened that day and how the murder occurred. He said initially he was on his way to the bar but later had changed his mind and visited the liquor store with two men who were already on their way there. When he had arrived at the liquor store, he had witnessed a feud that had occurred between the two men and the store owner. A shooting had commenced very soon afterwards, leading to Jefferson remaining the only person alive in the scene, while the rest of the three were dead. Being unable to do anything in the situation, Jefferson was soon arrested as the suspected murderer and soon stood for trial. During the trial, three perspectives were brought out. One from Jefferson’s own, one from the prosecutor and the last from the defense lawyer. Jefferson’s lawyer had conveyed that he was nothing but a silly fool (like a hog). He had continuously treated Jefferson’s existence as one of a mere object, referring to him as “it”, “thing” etc.  and insisted he would be incapable of scheming such a heist. Sentencing him to death would be completely useless as their set of beliefs suggested that death is a transition of life. Despite hearing out the lawyers and their defense, the jury decided to sentence Jefferson to death by electrocution. The date of the sentence was announced by the jury and Jefferson and his attending family was left in peril.

Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother had been quite upset after hearing about the unfair judgement and also the inhumane treatment Jefferson had received from the defense lawyer during the trial. She had her mind set on the arranging a death for Jefferson with respect. For her, the death itself was not of value, but Jefferson’s respect was. She could not get over how her grandson was referred as a “hog”. In hopes to getting a respectable treatment for Jefferson during his death, she approached Grant who was a well-reputed person for fighting for the injustices done on black folks. Initially, he had been reluctant to take on this case but with ample amount of pressure from his aunt Tante Lou, he finally takes on Jefferson’s matter.

It seemed that the words of the lawyer had not only affected Miss Emma but also Jefferson. When Miss Emma, Grant and his aunt had gone to visit Jeff in the prison, they had seen how less he wanted to interact with them. All the questions and queries by Grant were left unanswered. He had tried his best to reach out to the offended soul but in no way did Jefferson yield. This continued for a good three hours and then they had decided to leave.

Grant, however, does not give up. He continues to visit Jefferson in the cellar hoping to communicate in some way with him. This did not go well as Jefferson would continuously agitate Grant and provoked him to leave. He would not respond or answer anything, pretending to be a hog. Grant’s first attempted lessons for Jefferson was to teach him about dignity. This concept was soon brushed off by Jeff who had pointed out that he was a hog and not a “youman”. Further steps of provocation were taken by Jefferson by eating and snuffling like a hog. These actions were purely done so Grant would become frustrated and leave Jefferson alone. This resulted in Grant wasting an hour every day in attempts of breaking Jefferson. During the fourth visit, Grant decided to start off their conversation around the last meal of Jefferson. This made Jefferson spill about what he would love to eat before he died. Jefferson stated how he wanted a tub full of vanilla ice cream because it was his favorite and that he had never had more than a pint of vanilla ice cream in a single go. This topic started to break the ice for the both of them and they finally started to communicate. Grant, keeping Jefferson’s request in mind, gathered money from the townspeople to get a small radio for him. He also requested that Jefferson fill out a notebook with his thoughts every time it occurred to him. Later when Grant visits him, he finds that the notebook was filled out. All the pages in the notebook were filled with writing about the difference of hog and men. This clearly showed how hurt Jefferson had been after the words of the white defense lawyer.

The writer also provided a glimpse of Grant’s social and romantic life with Vivian, his girlfriend and Reverend Ambrose. Vivian hated how, despite having love in their relations, Grant was always very self-centric. This was a problem since Vivian never got the attention and priority which she had expected from Grant as her lover. The story here gives the information that Jefferson’s case was not only handled by an atheist but also a selfish person. A soul of a man was expected to be purified for death by a man whose soul did not belong to God or himself. The reverend had repetitively urged Grant to give up on his atheistic belief and for once, help out a man’s soul along with rebuilding his character.

Grant had gone full throttle in developing the character of Jefferson. He had been trying to explain the importance of death to Jefferson which led to the question of Grant’s faith in heavens. Jefferson, being curious, wanted to know what Grant believed in. He revealed that he was an atheist and because of that, Grant was a bad person. He then quickly adds how Jefferson’s good actions will result in him vouching for Grant in the heavens as well if he takes the sinners on earth. Grant also enlightened Jefferson about the long, painful history of black men and women being slaves to the white and that the white jury and lawyer’s way of demeaning Jefferson had agitated an entire population of black people in all the community. Hence, Jefferson had become symbolic to the people of his own community and his death would be seen as a fighting stance against the injustice done to them. 

Because more and more people had started to learn about Jefferson’s case and the injustice that had been served to him, more people had come each day to visit Jefferson in the cellar to talk to him and give him hope. The crowd ranged from younger kids to older men and women and the majority were people from his race, his community. Meanwhile, the attorney had announced the sentenced date to be two days after Easter. After this announcement, the crowd had started to grow each day. This had made Jefferson understand the weight of the responsibility which he had to carry to his deathbed. He had realized that his death was purposeful and needed to establish a statement in the society. Even though everything had been going how Grant had wanted, he dreaded the day that approached. 

Grant had spent a great amount of time with Jefferson. In the process of fixing his character and reforming his soul for his death, Grant had ended up becoming friends with Jefferson. As the day of Jefferson’s sentence came, Grant had found himself unable to come up to Jefferson. He had been incapable of seeing Jefferson for the last time. During the time of the execution, Grant had requested his students to kneel down and pray for his soul. Unable to hold back his overwhelming distress, Grant excuses himself out of the classroom. A few moments later, a deputy from the prison came to visit Grant. He informed him that Jefferson had been the bravest person amongst all the people to be executed. He confirmed that the execution had successfully taken place. This had sunk Grant’s heart even further for he had known for sure he had lost a friend. The news of his dead friend had made him cry, something Grant had hardly done in his life.