Ernest J. Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying is an exploration of what it takes to enact positive social change by challenging deeply rooted prejudices and forms of oppression. Set in the heavily segregated world of 1940s Louisiana, Gaines uses the transformations of both Jefferson and Grant to demonstrate that resistance is possible, even within the most rigid social structures. The characters, and subsequently the reader, know almost immediately what the outcome of Jefferson’s trial will be, and this knowledge makes achieving justice feel like a hopeless pursuit. Grant himself embodies this cynicism and resents the fact that he, as well as his community at large, remains trapped in what appears to be an endless, unbreakable cycle of oppression. Jefferson, meanwhile, represents the product of centuries of racial discrimination as he believes that he is less than human and unworthy of love from those around him. Both of these characters feel insignificant, and yet, they manage to teach each other that even small, personal changes can have a lasting influence. At Miss Emma’s request, Grant initially sets out to help Jefferson reclaim his sense of humanity before he dies. Given Grant’s own pessimistic outlook, however, he also spends a majority of the novel struggling with his own desire to find a source of meaning in his life. These two tensions blend together into one central conflict as both men fight to believe in themselves despite the prejudices they face. 

Gaines establishes the framework for this journey toward self-empowerment and social change by highlighting the harsh realities of life for Black communities in the Deep South, particularly through the inequities of the judicial system. The novel’s first chapter opens with a bleak, defeated tone that reflects how all of the characters feel as Jefferson’s trial gets under way. The fact that Grant, who admits he was not physically present at the trial or the sentencing, is able to narrate the events with such detail speaks to how unsurprised he is by the outcome. With a jury of twelve white men deciding a Black man’s fate, Jefferson’s community senses that a guilty verdict is inevitable. The court’s use of power to maintain the South’s racial hierarchy, however, is not what begins Grant’s quest to help Jefferson. Instead, the use of a single word by Jefferson’s defense attorney, “hog,” is what serves as the novel’s inciting incident. Miss Emma is distraught over the dehumanizing way that the attorney, whose primary responsibility is emphasizing Jefferson’s innocence, speaks about her godson. While she acknowledges that she is powerless to challenge the jury’s verdict itself, she believes that Jefferson is capable of resisting their demeaning view of the Black community by walking to his death like a man. This resolve ultimately brings Grant and Jefferson together and pushes them to consider how they can find meaning in their lives. 

The novel’s rising action is full of hesitation, fear, and frustration as neither Grant nor Jefferson believe that Miss Emma’s request is possible, although both men eventually manage to make progress toward their goals as they get to know each other. Grant resists the idea of helping Jefferson because he feels poorly equipped to do so, admitting to Vivian that he is not sure what being a man truly means. This argument stems from his cynical belief that his work as a teacher has no meaningful effect on his community, and although he fails to see the possible benefits of meeting with Jefferson, Vivian eventually convinces him that he has a moral responsibility to do so. Jefferson responds to Grant and Miss Emma with just as much resistance during their first few visits with him at the jail, and this attitude signals that he has given up on trying to find meaning in a life which the state deemed insignificant. The first, tiny advances that occur in the seemingly hopeless stalemate between Grant and Jefferson occur when they begin speaking privately, although the dialogue focuses primarily on acknowledging the mere existence of Jefferson’s humanity. After the state selects an execution date, an even more impactful breakthrough occurs when Jefferson begins to open up about his fears, and this change leads Grant to bring him a radio. The radio helps Jefferson reconnect with his sense of humanity and empowers him to express himself.

As Jefferson’s execution date looms, both he and Grant begin to realize the broader, political significance of reclaiming a sense of dignity in the face of dehumanization. Grant finds himself increasingly invested in helping Jefferson stand tall, and his ability to believe in the possibility for change rests on his student’s shoulders. Jefferson also continues to become more empowered and, by speaking and asking poignant questions, shows that he finally believes that he is worthy of his community’s support. The climax of this search for purpose occurs in Chapter 24 as Grant gives an impassioned speech to Jefferson about the meaning of friendship, the heroism inherent in defying the odds, and the importance of fighting against the myth of white supremacy. This moment leaves both men in tears, a response which highlights their transformation from cynics to believers in the power of the individual. In the novel’s falling action, Jefferson confirms that he will do the best he can to remain brave and dignified as he goes to his death. Grant, who still hesitates to believe in his own internal strength, does not attend the execution himself but learns afterwards that Jefferson was “the strongest man in that crowded room.” As a result of Jefferson’s ability to resist dehumanization, Grant finally recognizes that he too can have a meaningful impact on his community.