Essay Questions On A Lesson Before Dying



A Lesson Before Dying



There is an option for an AUDIO VERSION of the novel, but it's very unprofessional. There is a young man who sits and reads the book (to the best of his ability) on You Tube. The videos are broken down by chapters. The first chapter can be found HERE.




Introduction to the Novel:


This novel has been a student favorite for years, perhaps becausse of how it deals realistically with important issues such as racism, family relations, romantic relations, unfair imprisonment, and even the death penalty. It does not provide easy answers (or in some cases any answers at all) to these difficult issues.  Instead, it merely presents an intriguing story in a true-to-life fashion, offering insights when possible, letting events speak for themselves when necessary.


About the Author:


Ernest J. Gaines is a highly respected author who has been creating novels for almost exactly 50 years.   Gaines has had a long and distinguished career as an author.  Here is a short biography of his accomplishments, thanks to Oprah.




You can access an image-based copy of the text HERE









The A Lesson Before DyingEssay




DIRECTIONS:  Respond to one of the following prompts in an essay of 500 to 700 words. Essays must be created on Google Docs, shared to Google Classroom, posted to Turn it in .com, and also handed in as a paper copy. Be sure to include at least two important quotations from the novel. Include "Personal Writing Issues" if you are interested in receiving additional feedback on your writing. Follow the requirements of the “English 12R Essay.” Essay is due at the beginning of class, Friday, January 5th.




A.  Follow the evolution of Grant Wiggins. Observe what he is like at the beginning of the book, and consider how people and events influence him. Then explain what he is like by the end of the novel due to the influences on him. Provide specific examples from the text to support your ideas.


B. Follow the evolution of Jefferson from the beginning of the book to the end. Examine how he changes and what causes those changes in him. Provide specific examples from the text to support your ideas.


C. Analyze one of the leading female characters in the book. Choose either Tante Lou, Vivian Baptiste, or Miss Emma. Investigate what "makes her tick." What is important to her? How well do her words and actions help or hinder her in the pursuit of her goals? Overall, how would you characterize her? Provide specific examples from the text to support your ideas.


D. Explore the role of the Southern black church as illustrated by Reverend Ambrose and others.  Is it a positive or negative force for the black community in the novel?  If you feel it is both, you  must choose which influence is the stronger but may also acknowledge the opposite view. Be sure to cite specific examples of how the church influences characters in the book to support your position.


E. What role does racial segregation play in determining the actions of the characters in this book?  Since the book is set during the Jim Crow era, racism is a major factor in determining people's roles and actions. How does racism affect the characters on an obvious and also on a more subtle basis? As always, provide specific examples from the text to support your ideas.












Study Questions - A Lesson Before Dying




ALBD Chapter 1


  1. Who are the two women that are in the courtroom?       

   2. Name the two men who give Jefferson a ride.     

   3. For what is Jefferson on trial?    

   4. To what does the defense lawyer compare Jefferson?  

   5. Describe the jury.       

   6. What is the verdict?     

   7. What is the sentence?      

8. What does Jefferson say in his own defense?


ALBD Chapters 2 & 3


1. Who is the narrator?     

2. What is his occupation?      

3. What does Jefferson call his godmother?      

4. What does Jefferson's godmother want Grant to do?      

5. How does the narrator feel about his job?             

6. What race is Mr. Henri?

7. How does Grant make Tante Lou and Miss Emma physically uncomfortable on the way to Mr. Henri's?

8. What does Grant object to about the way he has to enter Mr. Henri's house?

9. Who is Inez?       

10. What does Miss Emma want Mr. Henri to arrange?

11. What does Mr. Henri seem to resent about Grant?

12. Whom does Mr. Henri need to speak with regarding Miss Emma's request?



ALBD Chapters 4 - 6


1. Who is Joe Claiborne?

2. How do Grant and Vivian's friends in Baton Rouge help them?

3. Why is Grant's school only in session five and a half months a year?   

4. What is wrong with the sentence the girl wrote on the board?

5. Why is Estelle crying?

6. Why won't Vivian leave town with Grant that very night?

7. Where does Grant wait for his meeting with Henri Pichot?

8. What does Grant answer when Sam Guidry asks him if he's been waiting long?


ALBD Chapters 7 & 8


1. Who is Dr. Joseph?

2. What does Dr. Joseph do that Grant says is reminiscent of what slave owners did?

3. Who is Higgins?

4. How does Doctor Joseph suggest that the children get toothbrushes?

5. What arrives at the school at the beginning of Chapter 8?

6. What had Matthew Antoine predicted about most of Grant's schoolmates?

7. To whom does Antoine say he is superior?

8. What advice does Antoine give to Grant (two possible answers)?

9. What does Grant mean when he says of Dr. Joseph, "I appreciated his humanitarianism"?


ALBD Chapters 9 - 11


1. Name a food that Miss Emma brings to Jefferson.

2. What happens to the food Jefferson doesn't eat?

3. What does Grant give the other prisoners?

4. What was really wrong with Miss Emma that Grant had to go to the jail alone? (requires careful reading)

5. Why does Jefferson ask for corn?

6. How does Jefferson finally eat something for Grant?


ALBD Chapters 12 - 14


1. What is it that Grant says he can't tell Miss Emma about?

2. Who were the old men in the bar talking about? (hint: it's a sports figure)

3. What athletic competition does Grant remember everyone gathering around the

    radio to listen to when he was seventeen?

4. What nationality was the visitor to Grant's college?

5. Why does Vivian say she won't spend the night with Grant?

6. Why does Vivian say Grant doesn't leave Bayonne?

7. What did Grant tell Tante Lou when he returned from the university?

8. What is the third Sunday of each month called?

9. Who was in the kitchen with Miss Emma and Tante Lou last Friday when Grant

    returned home?

10. What didn't Grant get around to talking about with Jefferson?

11. When Grant and Vivian go for a walk, what does Grant offer her to eat?

12. Who are Paul and Molly (from a talk between Grant and Vivian)?



ALBD Chapters 15 - 17


1. What kind of programs do Grant and  Vivian start preparing at school?

2. What religion is Vivian?

3. What does Tante Lou tell Vivian not to give up?

4. What did Emma have to do to Jefferson during her visit without Grant?

5. Jefferson looked at the Reverend with what emotion?

6. Whatís the name of the deputy that takes Grant to Jefferson?

7. Who helps directly to convince the sheriff to agree to letting them meet in the day room?

8. What's the condition upon which the sheriff allows Jefferson to go to the dayroom?


ALBD Chapters 18 - 20


1. What must Jefferson wear while he is in the dayroom?

2. What two holidays does Jefferson ask Grant to distinguish between?

3. What was the weather like before Christmas?

4. What did Bok, Miss Lawrence’s big grandson, have a passion for?

5. Name one of the two gifts the children place under the tree for Jefferson.

6. What does Irene say about Grant at the Christmas play?

7. What is the date that’s set for Jefferson’s execution?

8. Why is that date chosen for the execution?


ALBD Chapters 21 & 22


1. What do we learn Vivian whispered to Miss Emma?

2. At the beginning of chapter 22, who, besides Jefferson, do we find out is actually a nice guy ?

3. What does Jefferson request for his final meal?

4. What does Grant get the idea  to bring to Jefferson?

5. Name one of the people from whom Grant borrows money to buy the  item referred to in question four.

6. Who shows jealousy toward whom in Chapter 21?



ALBD Chapters 23 - 26


1. What did the children send to Jefferson and how does he react?

2. What does Grant suggest bringing to Jefferson (not the radio)?

3. What does Grant say Jefferson could be that he himself never could?

4. What does Grant describe as "an old lie that people believe in"?

5. With whom does Grant fight in the Rainbow Cub?

6. What new condition has Vivian’s husband demanded before he’ll agree to a divorce?


ALBD Chapters 27-31


1. Does Grant believe in God or in heaven?

2. What will Grant answer if Jefferson asks him if there's a heaven?

3. What does the reverend say he does at wakes, at funerals, and at weddings?

        ----- Ch. 29 Jefferson's Diary -----

4. What things does Jefferson speculate the  door in his dreams might mean? (p.228)

5. What does Mr. Pichot let Jefferson borrow for "a few days"?

6. What does Jefferson have for his last meal instead of a gallon of ice cream?

7. What nature sound does Jefferson hear at the end of chapter 29?

8. What was in the black truck?

"9. Who" is Gruesome Gerty?

10. Who is there with Jefferson when he dies?

11. What does Grant see lit on a hill of bull grass?

12. Who brings the word of Jefferson's death to Grant?

13. What does the last sentence in the book tell us Grant is doing?










Maps of Louisiana














  • 1

    Does the behavior of Reverend Ambrose reflect well or poorly on Christianity as a whole? Explain your reasoning.

    Like the other characters in the novel, Reverend Ambrose sometimes makes mistakes and behaves immaturely. However, he ultimately possesses a kind of strength that Grant lacks, and is a demonstration of how religion can help people survive adverse circumstances. Ambrose's vindictive condemnations of Grant's agnosticism make him seem immature at times, an impression that is compounded by his jealousy of Grant's early success with Jefferson. However, he is able to do the right thing when Grant is not, bringing news of Jefferson's execution date to Miss Emma, and witnessing the execution while Grant teaches school. As Grant says at the end of the novel, religion can give strength to people in need even if one disagrees with its tenets.

  • 2

    Discuss the style of Jefferson's diary. Why does Gaines make Jefferson's writing style so different from Grant's?

    Jefferson's writing style, rife with misspellings and grammatical errors, reveals his lack of education and also his emotional stress. Unlike Grant, who understands most of what he sees, Jefferson often does not grasp the meaning of what is going on around him. This emphasizes Jefferson's innocence and the injustice of his cruel treatment.

  • 3

    How are mulattos portrayed in the novel? Why does Grant take the time to explain the prejudices mulattos have against full African-Americans?

    Mulatto men, such as Matthew Antoine and the bricklayers with whom Grant brawls, are portrayed as bitter and prejudiced against full-blooded blacks. However, Vivian is also mulatto and she is kind, beautiful, and well-liked by people of every race. Their portrayal in the novel suggests that anyone can be racist, even those who are victims of racism itself, and there are good and bad people of ethnicity.

  • 4

    Is Grant a good teacher? How do his teaching strategies reflect his character development?

    At the beginning of the novel, Grant is a very apathetic teacher who believes that he cannot make any difference in his students' miserable lives. He often leaves his classroom in the care of older students or Irene Cole, the student teacher. Vivian, who is also a teacher, encourages Grant to become more active in his students' lives, and he holds a Christmas pageant for them and becomes outraged at their lack of textbooks. At the end of the novel, he is much more dedicated to his job, overcoming the emotional moment of Jefferson's death to try to help the next generation avoid the same fate.

  • 5

    Discuss the role of food in A Lesson Before Dying.

    Many detailed descriptions of Cajun cuisine appear in the novel. Gaines describes the meals Miss Emma makes for Jefferson in great detail, and Grant frequently dines with Vivian at the Rainbow Club. Food, then, is a symbol of love and friendship, and it reflects the essential role that these play in the lives of the characters. Food also serves as an indicator of Jefferson's maturity, when he changes his mind and requests Miss Emma's cooking instead of a gallon of ice cream for his last meal. The descriptions of food also showcase the local culture, something Grant worries will be lost due to prejudice and black people abandoning their regional mannerisms.

  • 6

    How does Grant's self-image change over the course of the novel?

    At the beginning of the novel, Grant holds himself aloof from the people in the quarter because he is more educated than they are, and longs to move to the North with Vivian. However, Jefferson teaches him that dignity is intrinsic and not tied to education. After teaching Jefferson, Grant knows that his job as a schoolteacher is vital and important, and his self-esteem is based on that rather than his college degree.

  • 7

    What is the significance of Jefferson's attorney's statement that Jefferson is a "hog" and too stupid to plan a murder?

    Although Jefferson's lawyer believes that this argument will acquit him, it does not save him from execution, and it destroys his dignity. In prison, Jefferson constantly repeats that he is a hog and behaves like one. In order to impart strength and dignity to Jefferson, Grant must convince him first that he is a human, which he does by teaching him empathy.

  • 8

    What is the significance of the digression about the Joyce short story, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"?

    Although Grant does not initially understand the relevance of the story to African-Americans, he later interprets it to be about how much people value their heroes. The inclusion of the Joyce story adds a literary dimension to Grant's discussion of the sports heroes Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. The story helps Grant come to the conclusion that a true hero must show empathy and consideration for others, and this is the lesson he imparts to Jefferson.

  • 9

    How does Gaines complicate Henri Pichot's character? How does he develop over the course of the novel?

    Initially, the wealthy plantation owner Henri Pichot seems like more of a caricature than Gaines's other characters. However, it becomes clear that despite his coldness and heavy drinking, he usually does the right thing when Miss Emma asks him for help with Jefferson. At the end of the novel, it is apparent that even his brief interaction with Jefferson has left him a changed man; he is kind to Jefferson at the end of the novel and gives him his pocket knife as a gift.

  • 10

    Why does Grant believe the women in the quarter are so possessive? Does Gaines seem to endorse this view, or does the novel undercut it?

    Grant believes that the women from the quarter are possessive because Southern black men have only two options: to lose their dignity at the hands of white men, or to flee the region and live in the North. According to Grant, women are waiting for a black man who can retain his dignity while also being a good husband and father in the South. He seems to believe that men bear the brunt of racism's effects, while women escape the worst suffering and still expect men to provide for them. However, Gaines undercuts this worldview with numerous examples of strong, self-sufficient women, such as Tante Lou, who works hard so Grant can attend college, and Vivian, who has her own job and lives independently of her husband and family.

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