A Lesson Before Dying


Ernest Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying Themes

Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Theme Icon
Heroism and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Women and Femininity Theme Icon
Roots, Connections, and Morality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Lesson Before Dying, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.


From its first page, A Lesson Before Dying portrays a racist society in 1940s Louisiana. Bayonne, Louisiana is a plantation community in which the descendants of slaves work on the same plantations where their ancestors worked; while they are paid for their labor, they’re paid far less than white workers. The legal system is similar. While it’s true that a black person in the era of slavery would never have received a trial at all…

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Grant Wiggins, the narrator of A Lesson Before Dying, is a teacher. And education plays a key thematic role in the novel. Yet the novel’s portrayal of education is not the simple “education is good” that you might hear from a politician. In fact, in the beginning of the novel, there seems to be no evidence that education, as traditionally understood, yields any long-term results whatsoever.

Grant runs a schoolhouse, filled by poor…

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Religion, Cynicism, and Hope

Throughout A Lesson Before Dying, Grant, a Catholic living in a largely Catholic community, grapples with questions of religion. Although nearly all of his peers and family members are Catholic, Grant distrusts organized religion, at least as the people around him practice it. In large part, this is because Grant distrusts the concept of Heaven: the notion that all misery and suffering is strictly short-term, because good people will receive an eternal reward…

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Heroism and Sacrifice

During one of Grant’s visits to Jefferson near the end of the novel, he gives Jefferson his definition of a hero: “A hero is someone who does something for other people.” The broader implication of Grant’s definition is that heroes sacrifice their own interests for the interests of other human beings. Grant insists that he himself is not a hero—in fact, he says that he’s only looking out for his own interests as an…

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Women and Femininity

Dozens of times in A Lesson Before Dying, we hear Emma and Tante Lou say that Grant must teach Jefferson to die “like a man, not a hog.” This suggests that A Lesson Before Dying is about how a man should die, and more importantly, what a man should be. This raises the question: what’s Gaines’s idea of what a woman should be? More to the point, how should a woman live?

Especially in…

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Roots, Connections, and Morality

Many times in A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson and Grant are told that they should help other people, or that they owe other people their respect and service. These “other people” include family, members of the plantation community, and even strangers. In the novel, Gaines explores the way that interpersonal connections compel people to behave morally to one another.

For Gaines, the interpersonal connection begins with the family. Both Grant and Jefferson are impacted…

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