A Lesson Before Dying: A Novel

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A Lesson Before Dying: A Novel

by Ernest J. Gaines

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group | September 28, 1997 | Trade Paperback |

4.6 out of 5 rating. 5 Reviews
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A Lesson Before Dying, is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s.  Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach.  As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson''s godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death.  In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting-and defying-the expected.

Ernest J. Gaines brings to this novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have unformed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 272 Pages, 5.12 × 7.87 × 0.39 in

Published: September 28, 1997

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375702709

ISBN - 13: 9780375702709

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– More About This Product –

A Lesson Before Dying: A Novel

A Lesson Before Dying: A Novel

by Ernest J. Gaines

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 272 Pages, 5.12 × 7.87 × 0.39 in

Published: September 28, 1997

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375702709

ISBN - 13: 9780375702709

Read from the Book

I was not there, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still, I was there. I was there as much as anyone else was there. Either I sat behind my aunt and his godmother or I sat beside them. Both are large women, but his godmother is larger. She is of average height, five four, five five, but weighs nearly two hundred pounds. Once she and my aunt had found their places--two rows behind the table where he sat with his court-appointed attorney--his godmother became as immobile as a great stone or as one of our oak or cypress stumps. She never got up once to get water or go to the bathroom down in the basement. She just sat there staring at the boy''s clean-cropped head where he sat at the front table with his lawyer. Even after he had gone to await the jurors'' verdict, her eyes remained in that one direction. She heard nothing said in the courtroom. Not by the prosecutor, not by the defense attorney, not by my aunt. (Oh, yes, she did hear one word--one word, for sure: "hog.") It was my aunt whose eyes followed the prosecutor as he moved from one side of the courtroom to the other, pounding his fist into the palm of his hand, pounding the table where his papers lay, pounding the rail that separated the jurors from the rest of the courtroom. It was my aunt who followed his every move, not his godmother. She was not even listening. She had gotten tired of listening, She knew, as we all kne
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From the Publisher

A Lesson Before Dying, is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s.  Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach.  As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson''s godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death.  In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting-and defying-the expected.

Ernest J. Gaines brings to this novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have unformed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.

From the Jacket

From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn''t commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.

About the Author

Ernest J. Gaines was born on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, near New Roads, Louisiana, which is the Bayonne of all his fictional works.  His previous books include A Gathering of Old Men, In My Father''s House, A Long Day in November, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Bloodline, Of Love and Dust, and Catherine Carmier. He divides his time between San Francisco and the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, where he is writer-in-residence.

From Our Editors

Even though he wasn't anywhere near the scene of the crime, a young black man is destined to die in the electric chair. A white shopkeeper dies during a bungled robbery attempt and Jefferson, the ill-fated black man fingered for the crime, is destined to suffer the ultimate penalty. While Jefferson wastes in prison, an idealistic white teacher returns to his roots, only to discover that the racism dividing African Americans from their white neighbours still prevails. Ruled by the rigours of a class and race-based society, Jefferson and Grant Wiggins meet on the only level they can, as teacher and student. A warm and poignant tale populated with unforgettable characters and truths.

Editorial Reviews

"This majestic, moving novel is an instant classic, a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives."- Chicago Tribune

"A Lesson Before Dying reconfirms Ernest J. Gaines''s position as an important American writer."- Boston Globe

"Enormously moving... Gaines unerringly evokes the place and time about which he writes."- Los Angeles Times

Bookclub Guide

US

1. All the characters in A Lesson Before Dying are motivated by a single word: "hog." Jefferson''s attorney has compared him to a hog; Miss Emma wants Grant to prove that her godson is not a hog; and Jefferson at first eats the food she has sent him on his knees, because "that''s how a old hog eat." How are words used both to humiliate and to redeem the characters in this novel?

2. . Grant''s task is to affirm that Jefferson is not a hog, but a man. The mission is doubly difficult because Grant isn''t sure he knows what a man is. What definition of manhood, or humanity, does A Lesson Before Dying provide? Why is manhood a subversive notion within the book''s milieu?

3. At various points in the book Gaines draws analogies between Jefferson and Jesus. One of the first questions Jefferson asks his tutor concerns the significance of Christmas: "That''s when He was born, or that''s when he died?" Jefferson is executed eight days after Easter. In what other ways is this parallel developed? In particular, discuss the scriptural connotations of the word "lesson."

4. For all the book''s religious symbolism, the central character is a man without faith. Grant''s refusal to attend church has deeply hurt his aunt and antagonized Reverend Ambrose, whose religion Grant at first dismisses as a sham. Yet at the book''s climax he admits that Ambrose "is braver than I," and he has his pupils pray in the hours before Jefferson''s death. What kind of faith does Grant acquire in the course of this book? Why does the Reverend emerge as the stronger of the two men?

5. One of the novel''s paradoxes is that Ambrose''s faith--which Grant rejects because it is also the white man''s--enables him to stand up against the white man''s "justice." How do we resolve this paradox? How has faith served African-Americans as a source of personal empowerment and an axis of communal resistance?

6. Grant believes that black men in Louisiana have only three choices: to die violently, to be "brought down to the level of beasts," or "to run and run." How does the way in which Gaines articulates these grim choices--and suggests an alternative to them--make A Lesson Before Dying applicable not only to Louisiana in 1948 but to the United States in the 1990s?

7. Women play a significant role in the book. Examine the scenes between Grant and Tante Lou, Grant and Vivian, and Jefferson and Miss Emma, and discuss the impetus that Gaines''s women provide his male characters. In what ways do these interactions reflect the roles of black women within their families and in African-American society?

8. A Lesson Before Dying is concerned with obligation and commitment. Discuss this theme as it emerges in the exchanges between Emma Glenn and the Pichots, Grant and Vivian, and Grant and the Reverend Ambrose. What are the debts these people owe each other? In what ways do they variously try to honor, evade, or exploit them?

9. Like Faulkner and Joyce, Gaines has been acclaimed for his evocation of place. In A Lesson Before Dying his accomplishment is all the more impressive because of the book''s brevity. What details in this book evoke its setting, and what is the relation between its setting and its themes?

10. From the manslaughter that begins this novel to the judicial murder at its close, death is a constant presence in A Lesson Before Dying. We are repeatedly reminded of all the untimely, violent deaths that have preceded Jefferson''s and, in all likelihood, will follow it. Why then is Jefferson''s death so disturbing to this book''s black characters, and even to some of its white ones? What does Jefferson''s death accomplish that his life could not?

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