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Race and Identity Issues in A Lesson Before Dying: Book Review

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In A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J Gaines, addresses a few of the major race and identity issues that plagued the United States past and in some ways still linger into the present. The character which the memoir takes place in the 1940s and revolves around a character which goes by the name of Jefferson. He is a man who is mentally slow, somewhat literate and becomes the innocent bystander to a shootout with two black robbers and a white store owner. Jefferson is falsely convicted of murder and given the death penalty. Later on, in the trial, his attorney attempts to get him out of death row by saying that killing Jefferson would be like putting down a hog; comparing the two by intellect. His grandmother, who is greatly displeased and offended by this claim seeks out the help of a local white teacher who goes by the name of Grant Wiggins, begging him to gain access to her jailed grandson and educate him so that he may face his death with dignity.

Personally, Grant has mixed feelings towards the people of the poor community he was raised so close to. After some time the two men who have both been shaped by the racism which has been present around them for their entire lives, create a relationship that in the end, changes them both. Though the outcome is inevitable Jefferson still ends up being put to death by electrocution, but the message and lesson conveyed by the two’s relationship, emotions, and experience of the trial show that the ever-present racism and prejudice must and can be changed. Gaines effectively conveys this message not only with the use of an outstanding story but also with the astounding use of detail and in-depth explanation of carcter personal thought. The main use of detail was during key scenes and events in the memoir’s timeline.

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The first of which being in the first few pages of the book where the reader is almost completely transported into the courtroom itself. Gains takes extra care in explaining not only the inanimate portions of the scene, but the expressions on people’s faces as well. The descriptive language used throughout the book instills a realistic feeling of tension and sympathy for the characters and situations that are described. The explanation of characters’ thoughts and or thought processes are mainly reserved for the two main characters, but is extremely well exercised when describing Jefferson’s thoughts towards the end of the memoir by the use of diary entries. A full chapter (29) is used to display some of Jefferson’s entries especialy more towards the day of his execution. The way in which this section is written includes many misspellings and gramaticaly errors to further show and make more realistic to the reader, his lack of a full education. His thoughts also portray the changes that he has undergone mainly in a mental format thanks to Grants’ influence. The main overall message of Jeffersons’ entries shows how he has mentally changed from the point in the trial at which he is labeled as a hog by his own lawyer, to the point to which Grants has gotten him too.

The memoirs’ major use of description and character personal thought gives the reader a gateway into experiencing the prejudice and racism of the time in which it takes place, and some aspects which still linger in our society to this very day. This gateway shows how these prejudice and racist ways can be changed by interaction and the willingness and desire to and for change.

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Race and Identity Issues in A Lesson Before Dying: Book Review. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Race and Identity Issues in A Lesson Before Dying: Book Review.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
Race and Identity Issues in A Lesson Before Dying: Book Review. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2023].
Race and Identity Issues in A Lesson Before Dying: Book Review [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 17 [cited 2023 Sept 24]. Available from:
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