Though Ernest J. Gaines’s powerful novel A Lesson Before Dying is considered a fictional work, it is rooted in truth in two ways. For one thing, it is loosely based on a true story: In 1945, a black teenager named Willie Francis was detained and sentenced to death by electrocution for the murder of a pharmacist. In complete contrast to A Lesson Before Dying’s Jefferson, Francis eventually did confess to the crime (though allegedly, under duress) and managed to survive not one, but two attempted executions. Some other hard-to-ignore facts: The jury was all white. There was never really any evidence to detain Francis in the first place. Be sure to introduce students to Francis’s story, as it mirrors and contrasts that of Jefferson’s in quite interesting ways.

Most importantly, though, A Lesson Before Dying is true, and brutally so, because of the very-real themes it presents, particularly about race, prejudice, and death. Slavery had been abolished by the 1940s, but its effects still lingered through segregation and the unjust Jim Crow laws. And just like with “real” history, these themes resonate today, as racism and inequality are still prevalent. For example, the novel demonstrates the negative correlation between under-funded education and the success rate of students of color, through the fates of Grant Wiggins’s students. These students who do not succeed are more likely to work in the fields or even end up in jail. Gaines’s novel will surely educate students about the horrible treatment African Americans endured during this period of inequality and hate. Encourage open and meaningful discussion; allow students to express outrage, confusion, sadness, or all of the above. Consider reflecting on how readers might (or might not) have felt differently about Jefferson’s situation had he not been sentenced to death and only imprisoned, or had he committed the crime after all (like Willie Francis). These nuanced conversations will likely lead to greater questions: Where is the line between justice and injustice? How might we correct the flaws in our court system today?

These themes alone are enough to make A Lesson Before Dying a valuable, necessary part of your syllabus, but in case you aren’t convinced, there is plenty more to learn from the novel. You can facilitate students’ analysis of Grant’s pessimistic tone, several instances of symbolism (the butterfly, the flags), and the various philosophical allusions that crop up. We hope these highlights below will convince you to give this heartbreaking, historically significant work a try.

Summary of A Lesson Before Dying

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1993
  • Length: 256 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 750
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-10
  • Awards: National Books Critics Circle Award for Fiction (1993); Oprah’s Book Club choice (1997)

Having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, a young black man named Jefferson is unjustly arrested and sentenced to death by electrocution for robbery and murder. His defense attorney calls him a mere “hog” in an attempt to vindicate him. Jefferson’s aunt, worried that Jefferson’s impending death has robbed him of his sense of humanity, enlists lawyer Grant Wiggins to visit Jefferson and help him become a man before he is due to die. The task proves to be emotionally difficult and reveals prejudices Grant feels about himself—and lessons he himself must learn in his lifetime.

What Your Students Will Love

  • Miss Emma’s supportive nature, and Tante Lou’s tough love
  • Students will likely feel outraged about the unjust treatment of black people during this time and speak passionately on the subject.

Potential Student Struggles

  • The chapters that quote directly from Jefferson’s diary may be tricky to decipher; students may find reading the excerpts aloud helpful.
  • Though inevitable, Jefferson’s death at the close of the novel is truly devastating.

Learning Objectives for Teaching A Lesson Before Dying

  • Trace the significant themes of the novel involving race, prejudice, and mortality.
  • Identify various symbols, allusions, and forms of imagery throughout the novel.
  • Reflect on the African-American persecution that occurred during the 1940s, and how racism still exists in modern times.
  • Discuss the extent to which A Lesson Before Dying is a true story, and by extension, learn about the history upon which the book is based.
  • Debate the idea of justice vs. injustice, and relate the flaws of the 1940s legal and school system to those of modern day.
  • Consider Jefferson’s relationship with death, and with his own humanity, as the novel progresses.
  • Understand Grant Wiggins’s internal struggles as he tries to help Jefferson.
  • Examine how Miss Emma and Tante Lou are driving forces for Grant.

Literary Elements in A Lesson Before Dying

  • Allusion
  • Historical Fiction
  • Imagery
  • Setting
  • Symbolism
  • Tone

Major Themes in A Lesson Before Dying

Race: The novel exposes its readers to the persecution of African Americans in the 1940s due to the segregation and hate perpetuated by the Jim Crow laws.

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Prejudice: Not only does Gaines explore prejudice in the context of race, but also within the justice system, within schools, and even within an individual, someone who holds prejudices about himself.

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Death: Beyond the murder and execution of the novel, A Lesson Before Dying further addresses death by examining how to die as a fully grown adult, even in unjust circumstances.

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Other Resources for Teaching A Lesson Before Dying

Resource Format
A Lesson Before Dying Paperback Student Edition
A Lesson Before Dying Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Lesson Before Dying Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Lesson Before Dying Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Lesson Before Dying AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Lesson Before Dying Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Lesson Before Dying Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

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