The novel centers around Jefferson’s unjust conviction and his friends’ attempts to help him die with human dignity. A relatively simple man, Jefferson has spent his entire life on the plantation, working for poor wages. He has always worked without protest, believing that his place in the world is a lowly one. When Jefferson’s lawyer defends Jefferson by likening him to a mindless hog, Jefferson becomes terrified and infuriated, obsessed by the possibility that he really is no better than a hog. He rages in his cell, mimicking a hog’s behavior and jeering at his friends and family, or refusing to speak to them.

When Grant visits Jefferson for the first time, Jefferson is so withdrawn and sullen that Grant thinks it will be impossible to help him. Jefferson does change with Grant’s help, however. He begins to believe in his own worth, and he realizes his life and manner of dying might have symbolic importance for his community. Gaines casts Jefferson as a Christ figure, a man to whom people look for their own salvation. Jefferson becomes brave and thoughtful, and his journal reveals the truth that even the most woefully uneducated man can possess depths of intelligence and lyricism.