College of Education and Human Development wordmark.

Common book: 2009-2010

A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying book jacket

A Lesson Before Dying struggles with essential human questions including:

How to choose to live in the face of death?

Set in 1940s Louisiana, the novel opens with the conviction of Jefferson, an uneducated black man accused of killing a white storekeeper. He is doomed to be executed, but schoolteacher Grant Wiggins is prodded to help him find his dignity in the situation. Wiggins, who had left and earned his college degree feels as trapped in his hometown as Jefferson is physically in his jail cell. Though Jefferson’s death is inevitable, Gaines ends on a hopeful note.

A Lesson Before Dying was published in 1993 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was adapted for television in 1999, in a production starring Don Cheadle, Mehki Feiffer, and Cicely Tyson.

A Lesson Before Dying Historical Context

Question everything. Every stripe, every star, every word spoken. Everything.

— Ernest Gaines

About the author

Photo of Ernest Gaines - Photo credit Jason Miccolo Johnson
Photo credit Jason Miccolo Johnson

Ernest J. Gaines was born in Oscar, Louisiana in 1933, where he spent his early years attending a plantation church school and picking pecans. He began writing and staging plays at the local church in his early teens.

He discovered his love of reading in California, where he joined his mother in 1949, after she had found work. He scoured the library for books about agrarian communities and the south. He attended junior college before spending a tour in Guam, with the Army. After returning to college in California, he was accepted into writer Wallace Stegner's creative writing program at Stanford. He soon won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for a novel in progress.

Gaines published his first novel, Catherine Carmier, in 1964 and was awarded a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts two years later. His novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, published in 1972, brought him more mainstream attention and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The television adaptation, starring Cicely Tyson, won five Emmy awards. Gaines continued to write and publish regularly for the next two decades, culminating in A Lesson Before Dying (1993), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Foundation Grant.

Though he had spent much of his adult life in California, Gaines has said that his soul and his writing voice remained in Louisiana. In 1981, he became a professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where he was later named writer-in-residence. He retired from the university in 2005 and continues to live in Louisiana.

From National Endowment for the Arts. Reader’s Guide: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.