National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

In all my stories and novels, no one ever escapes Louisiana.

  1. A Lesson Before Dying is mostly narrated by the teacher Grant Wiggins from the first-person point of view. What important attributes does he reveal about himself in the opening chapters? What kinds of things does he conceal?
  2. Why hasn't Grant left Louisiana, though he says he wants nothing more than to get away? What is he trying to escape?
  3. Grant was educated in the 1930s, and 1942 marks his first year as a teacher. What do we know about Grant's school days, and how does this inform his own teaching methods?
  4. Miss Emma and Tante Lou pressure Grant to visit Jefferson in prison. Why does Grant follow their advice against his own wishes?
  5. Why does Grant refuse to sit down and eat in Henri Pichot's kitchen?
  6. Grant's girlfriend is a light-skinned Catholic mother of two who is not yet divorced. How do these differences create tension in their relationship?
  7. How does the radio mark a turn in Grant's relationship with Jefferson?
  8. Grant describes the cycle of life for black men in the South to Vivian. What is his answer to the question: "Can the cycle ever be broken?" Is the answer relevant today?
  9. Do you agree, as Grant says, that he can never be a hero but that Jefferson can be?
  10. What effect does Chapter 29-the only time in the narrative when we see Jefferson's writing-have on the reader? Why might Gaines make the choice to use Jefferson's diary to tell this part of the novel?
  11. How does the white deputy, Paul, contrast with other white men and women in the novel? Why is it important that Paul attends Jefferson's execution?
  12. Would you have been able to stand with Jefferson? Why wasn't Grant at the execution?

"Students are always asking me, 'Do you know the ending of your novel when you start writing?' And I have always used the analogy of getting on a train from San Francisco to go to New York. It takes three or four days to get there. I know some facts.... What I don't know is how the weather will be the entire trip.... I can't anticipate everything that will happen on the trip, and sometimes I don't even get to New York, but end up in Philadelphia." —Ernest J. Gaines from "Writing A Lesson Before Dying" an essay in Mozart and Leadbelly, 2005

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