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A Guide to the Ernest J. Gaines Center

This guide will give you information about Ernest J. Gaines and the Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

A Lesson Before Dying

Background information:

Interviews can be found at:

Questions to consider:

  • Think about the first sentence of the novel. Grant says, "I was not there, yet I was there." What does this tell us about Grant before we even read the novel?
  • What role does food play in the life of the community? Why is it so important to Miss Emma that Jefferson eat her food each time she sends or takes it to jail? WHy does he first refuse to eat, but begins to accept food when the children send him nuts?
  • The radio and the journal that Grant bring to Jefferson play an important role in the novel. What do these items represent for Jefferson? Do they help Jefferson to become a man?
  • What does Miss Emma mean when she instructs Grant to teach Jefferson to walk to the chair as a man? Why does she choose Grant?
  • Most of Gaines' works deal with manhood. How does Grant cope with the problems of manliness for African American men? How does he change during the course of the novel?
  • While overhearing men at the bar discuss Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, Grant begins to think about his college days. He remembers reading James Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." Why is this digression in the novel?

Possible activities:

  • A Lesson Before Dying is partly based on the trial and execution of Willie Francis. Have students research the case against Willie Francis and then present on how the novel compares or contrasts with the real-life event.
  • Grant teaches in a church that doubles as a classroom. Have students compare and contrast their classroom and Grant's.
  • Gaines presents Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis as heroes in the African American community. Have students research these two athletes and discuss how, and why, Gaines uses them in the novel. Here is a handout from The Big Read on Louis and Robinson.
  • Literacy plays a major role in A Lesson Before Dying, think of Jefferson's notebook at the end of the novel. Have students research the role of literacy in African American literature, beginning with slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and moving on to autobiographies such as Richard Wright's Black Boy. Students could also research the role of literacy in relation to the American Dream as well, think of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. Have students discuss how Jefferson's acquisition of literacy differs from the other examples provided.
  • Have students research the Great Migration then discuss how the novel either adheres to this historical movement or counters it in some way.
  • Before reading Jefferson's notebook for class, have students write what they think Jefferson's notebook will look like. Have them either write as if they are Jefferson or have them describe what they feel Jefferson will talk about in his notebook.

Gaines on Writing A Lesson Before Dying

Because I teach creative writing at the University and because I teach at night, I have a chance to draw people from outside the University, and I always get attorneys. I've had one or more in each class since I started college teaching in 1981. All have a dream of being a Scott Turow or a John Grisham. During this time when my novel's plot was developing, one of my students was representing a condemned man on death row. And I would always ask him questions about this client: for example, what emotions did he show, knowing that he was going to die on a certain date, at a certain hour. I could always tell when my student had visited with his client because of the tired and pained look he brought into the classroom. He was much older than this young man, and through the years he had gotten very close to him. He had gotten too emotionally involved, and he knew it, and it showed.

A Lesson Before Dying - Related Materials

Church / School

This is the church where Gaines attended school before leaving for California. It served as inspiration for the one in A Lesson Before Dying.

Church / School


Draft of A Lesson Before Dying's Chapter 30