The Themes, Literature Techniques And Writing Style Of A Lesson Before Dying

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In the novel, A Lesson Before Dying, written by Ernest J. Gaines, a African-American who goes by the name, Jefferson is being convicted for a murder he “committed”. With the day in age Gaines sets his book in, it is easily identified with how the work of his book is going to play out. From beginning to end we a change in both Grant and Jefferson that define this story as it is known today. Sometimes it takes death to know who you really are. “He was was the strongest man in that crowed room…” (Gaines 253). Gaines took a character who faces backlashes for being of African descend in an age where society’s racists is in favor of, it’s hard living up to people’s expectation and sometimes you fall in the trap that is laid out. Gaines creates a novel filled with life morals, race, and having redemption before death through his most effective characters with the use of foreshadowing and flashbacks.

The writing style

Upon coming up with a style used in A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines uses figurative language to help the reader imagine the tone of the time period. When describing scenes the main character, Grant uses very described, and short sentences. Being a teacher the sentences reflects on his character. When doing this it shows the reader that Grant is aware of his surroundings. A teacher is suppose to be the holder of all knowledge, but by being aware of what’s going on around him he is able to teach his students not to make mistakes that he sees. Grant uses his knowledge to teach his students about the cruel outside world. “I could see how painful it was for most of them to hear this, but I did not stop” (Gaines 39).

When describing the flashback scene of what happened in the store Gaines used the character, Jefferson. Gaines use of short sentences with the start of ”he”. With the use of sentences back to back we as the reader act as the narrator during this scene. We get to see the thought process of Jefferson as he tries to tell us how it happened. Another, but not important, character is Louis Rougon, we don’t get to see through his point of view, but with the dialogue we get to know his character. The commas, and character description coming from Grant we see that Louis Rougon is a self-absorbed prat who is full of himself. (Gaines 48) Gaines relied on his character description to help his readers see the themes and overall message of the story.


The book is set in the 1940s in the town of Bayonne, Louisiana. As the tone of black and white is presented throughout the novel, which resulted in being a historical fiction book. The audience can connect the environment to the overall theme of the book. The theme of getting away is presented in the story. “He’ll make you the nigger you were born to be…” (page 65). This conversation that is being made between Gaines and his teacher, Matthew Antione, shows how even generation before them was trying to get away but couldn’t. The people inside the novel worked day in night for the things they need, but they will never stop being the white man property. An example of this is Emma, while inside of her ex-owner house she is still expected to serve him while there. The story that this whole novel is founded on is Jefferson’s. The whole trial is a set up from the start, if the people who wasn’t there knew the outcome of the trial than that should tell you something. Gaines used the issues of discrimination that were a problem in the 40s and still is today to portray how blacks were treated. The defenses proved that, when he was telling the jury Jefferson’s story.

Later in the book we see how one of the white man treats his maid, by showing this part in the book Gaines is trying to show the reader that even with the help you do some people will still treat you like the scum on the bottom of their feet because of your skin color or where you come from. Since the beginning of time we are thought of as animals who serves as slaves. So, when anyone of the black community is in or becomes of higher status we are still looked down upon and poked fun of. An example of this is the main protagonist, when in the face of people who he thinks is his superior he “tries” but fails as an educated black man. The title itself serves this purpose A Lesson Before Dying. By teaching Jefferson how to become a “man” rather than dying the “hog” he was meant to be he defy all social issues that the white man put them out to be. The teacher before Grant basically foreshadow his and the kids in his class future. Even if you work all your life time you will still turn out to die like everyone else. Grant chose to go against his wish and become something greater. An important note inside of the novel is a letter that Jefferson wrote, his letter shows that someone without knowledge still can have the ability to write a letter like that, with so much emotion that overlook his mistakes. Black people are expected to fail in this age or in any age in society.

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The flashback that was mentioned in the story convinces the reader that he didn’t need anything in the store he was just there with Brother and Bear. Because Brother and Bear was intoxicated and couldn’t afford their drink, they started an argument with the owner resulting in all of them dying besides Jefferson. Without the use of flashback in the novel the reader wouldn’t know where Jefferson stood in the situation. The flashback that is given is important enough where Gains creates a story off it, that shows how society treats black people even if they are innocent. The whole story is built on immature uneducated black men not having any money and being intoxicated. Jefferson is the only evidence that can tell us what happened.

Jefferson in the beginning of the story is referred to as a hog. The symbol of the hog represents everything this country is build off of, the history of slavery. By mentioning “hog” throughout the book Gaines creates a novel where black people is subjected to the stereotype of being what is now called the lower class. It is also said in the beginning “A cornered animal…blackest Africa.” (page1) as the defense so mildy called him to try to get his point across. People in Africa tends to hold the stereotype that they are wild creatures who have no home training. And to get his point across the defended tries to use that as Jefferson’s get out of jail free card. Gaines took a simple word and related back to racism and Jim Crow Laws. At the end of the book Gaines show how Jefferson went from a hog to a man. This just shows that Jefferson took the higher road rather than scumming to the horrible name that he was called by (Gaines foreshadows the remaining of the defended speech, with the base his argument being Jefferson’s none intelligence to plan to come up with something as big as a robbery.)


A Lesson Before Dying is structured around Grant. The novel traces his individual growth as he works with Jefferson, and this development gives shape to the work’s overall discussion of fatalism, individualism, heroism, and social injustice. From the start Grant is an angry, bitter, and self-absorbed person. He is angry at a society that, despite his university degree, will only allow him to teach other blacks. He blames his community for burdening him with unreasonable expectations and suffocating him instead of allowing him to leave Louisiana and pursue his own path. Most of all, he loathes himself for playing his role in a segregationist society and his own inability to somehow break free. Grant does not attend Jefferson’s trial for two reasons. First, it does not directly affect him and so he sees no reason for it to interrupt his life. Second, in his fatalistic (or perhaps realistic) mind, he doesn’t need to attend because he already knows the outcome. When Miss Emma first approaches him about visiting Jefferson he wants nothing to do with it. He doesn’t believe his actions, or anyone else’s at this point, can make any difference in Jefferson’s life. Furthermore, he hates being committed to the school and doesn’t want to take on any added responsibilities. Grant wants to live for himself and Vivian, and no one else. But his relationship with Vivian also provides a glimpse into his selfish nature. He views her as an object, someone who makes him happy, but gives little thought to her own needs or his obligations to her. For example, he doesn’t seem at all interested in her children and they are never heard from during the story.

Before he changes himself, Grant plays an important role in Jefferson’s development. In Jefferson, Grant meets a person angrier more self-absorbed than himself. Both Jefferson and Grant have suffered injustice, but Grant struggles to help Jefferson understand that these attitudes are preventing him from achieving something remarkable. He teaches Jefferson the meaning of obligation, trying to convince Jefferson to eat some of Miss Emma’s food and make her happy. He teaches Jefferson about heroism, hoping Jefferson will realize the effect that standing up and walking to the chair like a man will have on people in the quarter. For his own part, Grant isn’t a very good example of duty or heroism, but teaching these values to Jefferson does impress their importance on him. Grant’s own transformation involves the incorporation of values he has been teaching Jefferson into his own life. Just as he has taught Jefferson, Vivian and Reverend Ambrose become his teachers. After pulling him out of the bar fight at the Rainbow Room, Vivian explains that their relationship is doomed if he won’t ever think about anyone but himself. Grant is tempted to run away from the problem, but realizes he had nothing good in his life without Vivian. Next Reverend Ambrose informs him of his Aunt Tante Lou’s sacrifices so that he could go to university. He reminds Grant that he is not educated unless he understands himself and his people. On his next visit to Jefferson’s cell, Grant has undergone a type of conversion. He has new respect for Jefferson’s courage and his willingness to be strong for the sake of others. Yet Grant remains a flawed hero. In spite of everything they’ve been through together, Grant can’t make himself go to Jefferson’s execution.


To sum, Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying is a novel that successfully tells the story of discrimination, lack of education, and poverty. Yet Gaines didn’t do it all by himself, with the help of metaphors, anaphors, and descriptive character he creates a literary merit worthy book that deals with social issues higher in this day of age more than others.

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The Themes, Literature Techniques And Writing Style Of A Lesson Before Dying. (2021, August 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from
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