Review #125 // A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying

Jefferson is accused of a crime he didn’t commit and is sentenced to death. In his defense, his attorney calls him a hog, claiming that something that isn’t human doesn’t deserve to be treated as one. Jefferson’s godmother, incensed by this, employ’s Professor Grant Wiggins, to make a man of Jefferson before his final days.

Why this book?: It’s my first required read for my AP Lit class. I’d also heard interesting things about it before having to pick it up for class.

If done differently, this book could have been so much more. Unfortunately, Gaines focused so much on making it meaningful that it basically stifled every other aspect of this book. And, in the end, it wasn’t even that “meaningful”. The meaning was there, but how it was written was like it was nothing.

My first problem was the characters. Yes, the book was supposed to focus on Grant’s and Jefferson’s development, but it really wasn’t? The book was more of a “you have to be religious or your going to hell” kind of thing, and when it wasn’t that it was a “I’m going to be myself and not what my family say’s I’m going to be”. And, yeah, that last sentiment is nice, but when I constantly felt attacked for not being religious? No thanks. An unnecessary romance was thrown in for Grant, and I honestly think that Gaines spent more time on Grant/Vivian than he did with Grant/Jefferson. And since Vivian had no personality to begin with, I got bored with her fast.

The most interesting part of the story was whenever Grant went to visit Jefferson. But, to be frank, there really was nothing happening there either. Grant visited Jefferson, they argued, silence, Grant left, the end. There was only one point where you saw Grant make a different to Jefferson, and it was so sudden and monologue-ish that it took a while to register as the “meaningful” part of the story. One moment, Jefferson was Jefferson, the next, Grant tells him to be a hero, and Jefferson realizes that he’s not a hog. That’s nice, but there was no development leading up to it that I wasn’t really impressed. I didn’t see anything to be wow-d by.

Going back to the part with the religion, that actually kinda hurt me? The way religion was based in this book, it was forced on you so much that if you weren’t religious, you were going to be uncomfortable no matter what. And, I don’t mean this in a way to shit on religion, but please, forcing religion on people is more harmful than good. I felt unsafe, uncomfortable, and disgusted with both myself and the book. Don’t force religion on people, friends.

Last thing. “Making a man” of Jefferson? Really? What does that mean? Why couldn’t they “make a woman” out of Jefferson, because it honestly looked like the women in this story had a better handle on everything compared to the men.

Final Rating: ★★★☆☆


With the amount that I ranted, I guess I could have given it a lower rating. But, the book wasn’t bad. Just boring, and a bit uncomfortable. I still enjoyed other parts, and what the book was supposed to beI just can’t get over how much this book tricked me. For a book that is supposed to focus on helping one person, it sure as hell focused a lot on another person.

Would I Recommend?

If you want to make up your own mind, go ahead. I just felt like this book could have been done a lot better, and that the addition of forcing a religion on someone wasn’t that great.

A Lesson Before Dying

Additional Information:

Published: December 1st, 1993

Publisher: Vintage

Page Count: 256

Genre: Classics/Historical Fiction

Synopsis: via Goodreads

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 informed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.

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