Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “A Lesson Before Dying” as Want to Read:
A Lesson Before Dying
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

A Lesson Before Dying

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  48,085 ratings  ·  3,038 reviews
From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published September 29th 1997 by Alfred A. Knopf (first published December 1st 1993)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about A Lesson Before Dying, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Joann Carol I think Jefferson was not ready to fight against the insult until his godmother was incensed and enlisted Grant's help. Jefferson had abandoned all…moreI think Jefferson was not ready to fight against the insult until his godmother was incensed and enlisted Grant's help. Jefferson had abandoned all hope and "accepted" his fate as meted out by white society.(less)
Bridget Yes, it was about rising up and being your best in the most difficult situation. Everyone in the town learned something from him. It was a stepping…moreYes, it was about rising up and being your best in the most difficult situation. Everyone in the town learned something from him. It was a stepping stone towards humanity and a lesson on human spirit. It was a very powerful read with lots of emotion. (less)
This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.95  · 
Rating details
 ·  48,085 ratings  ·  3,038 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Aug 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Sue by: Mike Sullivan
How did I feel at the end of this book....uplifted and beaten down, both. All the love and all the hate and all the even more stultifying indifference. All the indignity and indignation. So many very heavy feelings spread through this sad story, but there are moments of redemption if you watch carefully for them.

Many already know of the story...the teenaged boy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up sentenced to death. His family wants him to die as a man...and wants
Diane S ☔
Jul 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
With raw, unflinching honesty and a brilliant depiction of time and place, this is the story of a young, black man sentenced to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A white man was shot to death, the other two perpetrators dead, someone must be held accountable.

A young school teacher, returned to the quarters to teach the black school children, and now enlisted by his aunt and the condemned man's nana to help the man go to his death as a man, not as an inhuman man, n
Bill Kerwin

This account of a school teacher's attempt to bring dignity to the last days of a condemned man in 1940's Louisiana is moving but still somehow disappointing. Shortened, it would have made a fine novella.
I dare you to read this and not be moved.

Jefferson, a poor, uneducated twenty-one-year-old Black was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time--in a small-town liquor store outside of Bayonne, Louisiana. It is the 1940s. Three men are killed. He is the only survivor. He is “tried”, convicted and sentenced to the electric chair.

His “nannan” has one request. She asks that Grant Wiggins, a teacher at the church school, be allowed to speak to him. Let him die not as a “hog” but as
Dec 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“But let us say he was (guilty). Let us for a moment say he was (guilty). What justice would there be to take his life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.” - Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying.

Jefferson, an African-American man living in Louisiana in the late 1940s, is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. His lawyer uses the “hog” defence to get him off; however, this is unsuccessful and Jefferson is sentenced to death. Jefferson’s godmo
Diane Barnes
Jul 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The third Ernest Gaines novel I've read gets another 5 stars from me. Just as in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and "In My Father's House", I was not quite the same person as I turned the last page that I was when I began. There was a tiny seismic shift inside me that I recognized as another piece of understanding in this complicated dance of racial relations between black and white.

A simple story on the surface: Young Jefferson, a black man, is in the wrong place at the wr
Feb 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A lesson Before Dying is a very MOVING book. By reading most of the other reviews I'm sure everyone understands what this novel is about. I'm not positive if I would have appreciated this book in High School had I read it 10 years ago. I would like to thank Mr. Gaines for his lessons!! I've typed out a few powerful passages that moved me...There were more but these are just some I made sure I highlighted!

A hero is someone who something for other people. He does something that other men don't an
Sep 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
I still think about this book, even after reading it months ago. It’s a very simple story about two African-American men in 1940s Louisiana; one is a teacher and the other is a uneducated man waiting to be executed for a murder he witnessed, but didn’t commit. Both of them have given up hope for their lives, and for humanity in general. They live by the rules of the white majority, and both face a bleak future that’s beyond their ability to change. They are forced to spend time together, and eve ...more
A tale of Jefferson, a poor black man in Louisiana in the late 40's, sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit, and the teacher, Grant Wiggins, who is asked to help him somehow to become more of a man before he dies. Grant has little faith in his value as a teacher to elementary kids facing an unjust and impoverished life or belief in any afterlife. But he comes to identify with Jefferson and his need to achieve a sense of his own self-dignity, and this task becomes part of his own quest. ...more
An incredibly powerful novel that peels back the curtain of injustice, laying bare human pride and prejudice, rooted in fear, and how one person can be the fertile ground for positive change. And each of us are potentially the "one." This novel, though centered around a man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he most likely didn't commit, it is more of a story about executing the sin of pride which causes all humans to stumble.
Aug 13, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Ernest J. Gaines' 'A Lesson Before Dying' is a tedious read that has a good story, but ultimately falls flat mainly because of shallow characters and flat writing.

However, if you are looking for a short, quick-read novel about African-Americans and whites during racial segregation in the style of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', this might be your cup of tea. But ultimately, there is nothing enlightening, heart-wrenching, or poignant about this novel. Many of the issues lay within the main c
Another wonderful read by Gaines. This is heavy on the heart. The question comes to mind, "who was the teacher?" Lots of role reversals in this one. Gaines is an author to be trusted, he knows exactly how to handle his reading audience. He sure can stir the emotions but he also stirs the mind.
Connie G
Jefferson, a simple black laborer, found himself in a liquor store during an armed robbery. The innocent man was in the wrong place when the owner was murdered, and he was convicted of the crime in the late 1940s. The public defender had tried to convince the jury that Jefferson was not intelligent enough to plan the crime. The teacher Grant Wiggins described the trial: "He said it would be like tying a hog down into that chair and executing him--an animal that didn't know what any of it was all ...more
Steven Walle
Aug 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of the best books I have ever read.
The book takes place in Louisianna. A black man who was a slave on the cotton farms was wrongly accused of murder and was sentenced to death by the electric chair. The book is about the last few weeks the man has on earth. A black teacher was sent to him each week to convinced him that he was worth something and that he was a man. He convinced him to believe in God and ask for forgivness of his sins. He did so to please his aunt. He walked to the
A black man is wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, and a schoolteacher is given the task of helping him face his punishment like a man. The facts seem simple, but there is so much more to this little book. Through Grant Wiggins, the articulate yet conflicted narrator, Ernest J. Gaines presents the plight of downtrodden African Americans in the South. Yet he also makes the reader confront what it means to be truly human, and to face one's destiny with true courage.
Gumble's Yard
A young, poorly educated black man – Jefferson - is sentenced to death despite being innocently present in a failed robbery when two black robbers and one white shopkeeper killed each other. The defending attorney tries to prevent the death sentence by saying it would be more like executing a hog than a civilised human being. As a result Jefferson’s elderly churchgoing grandmother and her friend, the narrator Grant’s Aunt, decide that the narrator – a teacher in the local school – have to teach ...more
Mar 05, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This may be the most heart breaking book it has ever been my sad pleasure to read. A young man is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and due to his poor decision making on this one ill fated occasion, ends up wrongfully accused of murder and condemned to death row. Set during a time when race relations were strained and tilted heavily in favor of privileged whites at the expense of struggling blacks who were looked down upon (in other words, a time much worse and yet insufficiently different ...more
Kirk Smith
Aug 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
What a powerful story. This goes to my classics shelf immediately. This is the kind of great book that makes you wonder how you could have passed it over for so long. Instant respect for Ernest Gaines.
Feb 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I did not want the month of February to go by without reading at least one book by a black author. Wow, am I grateful that my library had this title on display. A book I've meant to read for a long time and now I know why. What an emotional wallop.

From the opening pages where a public defender "defends" a black man by comparing him to no more than a hog, to the powerful closing pages of Jefferson's jailhouse diary, I was caught in 1940's Louisiana and the injustice of a racist societ
Moses Kilolo
Feb 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Someday I will die. That I am sure of. But I do not think about it, at least, not consciously. I wouldn't want to think that a time will come when light, breath, and little breezes are things I will not experience. And never again see that little, oh, so beautiful smile in her eyes. But it will come, all the same. When? Tomorrow? Next year? Fifty, a hundred... well maybe say seventy years at the most.

That was a passing thought. Sad it was caught on record.

Well, think of a man who knows that he
Ann G.
Mar 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I reread this book recently after many years and was surprised by nearly everything - but not how good it is. I had forgotten most details of the plot, the narrative structure, the characters, so it was almost like reading it for the first time; and the shock and power of the book hit me anew. This book, about a young black man condemned to die for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the pre-Civil Rights era South and the young black teacher who is asked to teach him to die like a man, ...more
Jan 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
"I was crying"

I finished this novel a few minutes ago. I haven't uttered a word yet. Can't. This is as close as I can come to tears. Tears shedded for beauty, tears shedded for sadness, and tears for hope.... I think I will linger in silence a little while longer....
Jul 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The older and, one hopes, wiser I grow, the more I admire and respect simplicity. Simplicity is not simple. Simplicity means clean lines, all that is unnecessary pared away. Simplicity means choosing that one golden word where ten would only confuse the issue. And, that one word can be clear and true.

Ernest J. Gaines is a master of simplicity. A Lesson Before Dying is clean and clear writing, descriptions that say just enough to evoke an entire scene with all senses engaged, all heart and mind prese
Danielle Franco-Malone
This book was okay.

I felt like the author could have done a better job of making interesting characters with multiple dimensions. The only two characters that were even attempted to be portrayed as interesting, evolving people were the two main characters. Everyone else was essentially static representations of a particular caricature (i.e. the girlfriend who represents everything good, the grandma who represents piety, the sheriff who represents bigotry, etc, etc). And even the two characters
Mar 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the best books I have ever read. I especially liked the development of Grant. I like the fact that he questions the problems and situations around him. He's not content to stay where he is in life and within himself.
Jan 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Jefferson is a young man who finds himself in a situation which wrongly leads to his criminal conviction and ultimately his execution. Grant is a school teacher who is having an internal struggle with whether to stay or leave the state to pursue more opportunities and a better life. The plot unfolds around Jefferson’s godmother’s request which will require Grant to visit Jefferson regularly in prison.

Grant grapples with the enormity of the request that’s been made of him. His insecur
Elyse (retired from reviewing/semi hiatus) Walters
This is an exceptional book. My Gosh....I might consider reading it again myself. (I had just noticed a GR's friend is currently reading it).
Alissa Patrick
3-3.5 Stars.

A story about race and race relations in the late 1940s. A topic that still resonates in 2015, a notion that I feel makes this novel all the more eye-opening.

Jefferson was in the wrong place at the right time- at a convenient store where his two friends decide to rob and kill the store manager. Both of his friends end up dead as well, so there's no one there to witness Jefferson's innocence. He was an innocent bystander. Unfortunately, it is 1940, the store ma
A very difficult book to rate. I didn't enjoy reading it; I didn't feel particularly connected to or drawn in by the characters, I found the writing somewhat flat. And yet, like many other reviewers, I found myself in tears at the last chapter. And now I find myself wanting to read more of Gaines' work.

Don't tell me to believe. Don't tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don't tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men/>
Mary Alice
Jul 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, favorites
Absolutely incredible book. I was on my couch sobbing during parts of it. And it takes a lot to make me shed tears. Great writing. Brings you right into the moment.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Best Way to Play: A Little Bill Book
  • What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (Idlewild, #1)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7)
  • Mother of Pearl
  • The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography
  • River, Cross My Heart
  • Ellen Foster
  • Breath, Eyes, Memory
  • The Wake of the Wind
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Stars' Fault
  • Paradise
  • The Handmaid's Tale
  • White Oleander
  • Songs in Ordinary Time
  • Stop & Frisk
  • Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography
  • Quiver
See similar books…
Born to a sharecropping family, Ernest Gaines was picking cotton in the fields by age nine and only attended school five or six months a year. When he was fifteen, he moved to California to join his mother who had relocated during World War II, and began writing. He attended San Francisco State University, served in the army, and won a writing fellowship to Stanford University. Gaines has been a M ...more
“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.” 101 likes
“I have no more to say except this: We must live with our own conscience.” 53 likes
More quotes…