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Literature / A Lesson Before Dying

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"Do you know what his nannan wants me to do before they kill him? The public defender called him a hog, and she wants me to make him a man. Within the next few weeks, maybe a month, whatever the law allows—make him a man. Exactly what I'm trying to do here with you now..."

A Lesson Before Dying is an award-winning historical fiction novel written in 1993 and the eighth novel by African-American author Ernest J. Gaines. Grant Wiggins is a schoolteacher for the black children of a plantation town near Bayonne, Louisiana who feels trapped in his role grappling with the racism of the pre-Civil Rights South. When a young man named Jefferson is wrongly convicted of murder and placed on death row, Wiggins' aunt enlists him to equip Jefferson with the self-concept he needs to die with dignity in a world that denies his humanity. Grant is less than enthusiastic about his mission.


The novel received a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1993, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was chosen for Oprah's Book Club in October 1997.

A Lesson Before Dying contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Absurdly Long Wait: Henri Pichot summons Grant to his home, telling him to be there by 5:00. Pichot does not come to meet him until 7:30.
  • Accidental Misnaming: Dr. Joseph Morgan, the school superintendent, repeatedly calls Grant (whose last name is Wiggins) Higgins. It's gotten better, though; he used to call him Washington.
  • Arc Words: "Man."
  • Berserk Button: For Grant, hearing people talk about looking forward to Jefferson's execution.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Professor Antoine considers himself superior to anyone darker-skinned than himself, but white people superior to him. The only reason he still lives in the quarter because it's the only place he could feel superior to anyone.
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  • Butterfly of Death and Rebirth: While Grant is waiting outside on the afternoon of Jefferson's execution, a small butterfly lands near him for no apparent reason. He takes it as a sign that it's all over.
  • Crapsack World: Grant considers the plantation town to be one for him and the other black residents, and one that he can never improve and desperately wants to escape.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Grant, especially to his aunt and Miss Emma.
  • Dehumanizing Insult: During Jefferson's trial, the public defender compares him to a hog, claiming that he has to be innocent of the murder because he is too stupid to have planned any kind of crime. The jury find him guilty anyway.
  • Everything Sounds Sexier in French: When Grant goes to visit Vivian at her school, he writes "Je t'aime" Translation  on the chalkboard next to some text from the class's French lesson. She writes back, "Je t'aimerais toujours" Translation .
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  • Failure Is the Only Option: Professor Antoine considers trying to educate and improve the lives of the plantation children an exercise in futility.
  • Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: The school superintendent, Dr. Joseph Morgan, is so obese he struggles to climb three stairs. Ironically, he also gives the students a lecture on the value of nutrition and exercise for health.
  • Friend on the Force: Paul Bonin, a prison guard, is more sympathetic to Grant, Emma, and Jefferson than the other guards and he and Grant form a sort of friendship.
  • Generation Xerox: Grant is afraid this is happening with his pupils and their older relatives.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Grant buys Jefferson a radio in an effort to cheer him up. He likes it so much he spends all his time listening to it and won't leave his cell, even to meet with Miss Emma.
  • History Repeats: As he watches the children cutting wood, Grant reflects on how he had been in their place years before and doubts whether he is reaching any of them.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: According to Jefferson's testimony, after Jefferson's friends and the shopkeeper the friends attempted to hold up had all killed each other, Jefferson "suddenly realized he needed a drink, and needed it badly." He grabs a bottle of whiskey off a shelf and swigs from it just as two white customers walk in.
  • Internalized Categorism:
    • Jefferson, after being called a hog by the public defender, seems to believe he is one. The first time Grant visits him alone, he even gets down on his hands and knees and eats like an animal from the paper bag of food that Grant brings him.
    • Matthew Antoine, Grant's former teacher, hates himself for being biracial.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Jefferson's trial and conviction for a murder he did not commit is the inciting event of the novel.
  • Posthumous Character: Brother and Bear, Jefferson's two friends; Alcee Gropé, the liquor store owner; and Matthew Antoine, Grant's former teacher.
  • Southern Gentleman: Henri Pichot.
  • Status Quo Is God: In-universe, Professor Antoine believes and Grant fears that improving the lives of the plantation community by educating the children is impossible and trying is a waste of effort.
  • Stoic Woobie: Jefferson.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Vivian, Grant's married girlfriend.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The trial and conviction in the novel is loosely based on the real-life conviction and execution of Willie Francis, a black teenager who was convicted of murder on slim evidence and sentenced to the electric chair twice in 1945 and 1947.