A Lesson Before Dying is a work of fiction loosely based on the life of Willie Francis, who was twice sentenced to death by electrocution. It takes place in a fictional Bayonne, Louisiana, and is told from several perspectives, including Grant’s. Throughout the novel, there is a theme of injustice, and Gaines uses specific incidents to illustrate that the injustices of the world are often not done fairly. For example, Jefferson is sentenced to death because of his own lack of understanding.
A Lesson Before Dying is a story about the struggles of a poor and oppressed community, and its members as they try to gain dignity and pride in a hostile environment. It begins with Jefferson’s trial, moves backward to recreate the murder of Alcee Grope, and then continues to the execution of Jefferson. Along the way, we see the segregated community of Bayonne, Louisiana, and how life goes on. A Lesson Before Dying deals with racism, degradation, and prejudice, as well as love and redemption. It also explores issues of community values, the nature of religious belief, and the death penalty.
The book encourages students to consider their own lives and reflect on their own behaviors. As Jefferson dies, his relationship with God becomes more strained. This causes him to feel resentment and guilt. His aunt Lou and Tante Lou, however, believe that he can learn to die with dignity and self-worth by letting Wiggins tell him his deepest thoughts.