Major Themes

The major theme speaks to the destructive nature of fatalism versus the liberating ideals of individualism. It involves the belief that we can control our lives instead of being controlled by external forces. Grant and Jefferson learn there is a simple heroism in resisting the expected. Jefferson defies those who consider him a beast of burden by walking straight and tall to the electric chair. Grant recognizes that he does not have to either stay and be broken down or run away from the South.

Minor Themes

The novel suggests that freedom is a state of mind. Jefferson is incarcerated while Grant is free. Yet once Jefferson realizes that the white man can no longer punish him for standing tall and proud, he is freer than Grant, who must still seek the approval of white society in order to maintain his position as schoolteacher. The story also addresses religion and education. The entire quarter is united each Sunday to worship God while Grant, the only educated one, isolates himself by refusing to attend. In addition, Grant’s university degree does not provide any of the answer’s he’s looking for - such as how a man should live. He remains in a state of ignorance because he does not know himself, nor does he understand his people.


As might be expected in a story about a death-row inmate, a somber mood prevails throughout the book. The two main characters, Jefferson and Grant, spend most of the novel wallowing in the mire of self-pity and trying to pull others down with them. In addition, the characters are dealing with sobering issues, racism, poverty, illiteracy, social injustice, etc. Most of all, the entire community struggles with a bleak world view - that none of this will ever change, because our environment dictates our life’s course. As this perspective gives way to the belief that individuals can change their station in life, the mood lightens considerably and the novel ends on a hopeful, yet tragic note.

Ernest J. Gaines - BIOGRAPHY

Ernest Gaines bases many of his stories on his memories of childhood. He was born on a Louisiana plantation during the Great Depression. Like the schoolchildren in Lesson Before Dying, he worked in the fields digging potatoes. He was raised by his Augustine Jefferson, whom he considers one of the most courageous people he ever knew. This may explain why he gives the hero the name ‘Jefferson’.

Earnest J. Gaines was born in 1933 in Louisiana. The Gaines family moved to Vallejo California when he was fifteen years old. While in Vallejo he discovered the public library and took and interest in reading. In the 1940’s novels about African-Americans were hard to find, so Ernest decided to write some of his own. His first novel, Catherine Cormier, was published in 1964. In 1971 he published one of his most famous novels, The Biography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was a critical and financial success. The work follows the life of a fictional Jane Pittman and encapsulates the black experience in America. Mr. Gaines has written many other novels about rural black communities of Louisiana, including his most successful work to date, A Lesson Before Dying, published in 1993. He now lives in San Francisco, California.


Readers of A Lesson Before Dying should understand the series of laws that created the segregated society described in the novel. After the American Civil War, Southern state legislatures enacted the Jim Crow laws, a series of codes that legalized separation of blacks and whites. The Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy versus Ferguson (1896) decided that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional. This led to the exclusion of blacks from white restaurants, hotels, bathrooms, theaters, rest stops, drinking fountains, and schools. Blacks had their own institutions, which were usually of inferior quality. By WWI, even places of employment were segregated, and it wasn’t until after WWII that blacks made any progress toward equality. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown versus Board of Education that racially segregated school facilities was unconstitutional. Following this, Blacks used a variety of protest methods, including sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and legal suits to hasten the demise of discrimination, which eventually resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Cite this page:

Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on A Long Way Gone".