Post-Civil-War, Pre-Civil-Rights Louisiana
The lesson before dying is learned between October 1947 and April of 1948 in and around Bayonne, Louisiana. The town is fictional, but the way of life is very real. Almost everything about the setting, from the way that schools, bathrooms, even bars are divided between white and black people, reflects the deep racism that pervades the whole place.
Grant and his family come from the plantation, where they live on what used to be the slave quarters. The people there are no longer slaves, because it has been outlawed since the Civil War, but they still do work on the fields for almost nothing and live in the quarter. This is one way that the setting shows us how hard it is to escape history and tradition.
The nearby town, Bayonne, is just as segregated even if the people there have more modern jobs like shopkeepers or bartenders. Grant describes it:
Bayonne was a small town of about six thousand. Approximately three thousand five hundred whites; approximately two thousand five hundred whites. [. . .] There was a Catholic church uptown for whites; a Catholic church back of town for colored. There was a white movie theater uptown; a colored movie theater back of town. There were two elementary schools uptown, one Catholic, one public, for whites; and the same back of town for colored. (4.10)
It might seem hard to believe, but towns and cities all over the country, especially the south, were divided up this way and it seemed as natural (and as divided) as night and day to many of the people who lived in them. This segregation is felt in almost every action that the characters undertake, from eating dinner to going to the bathroom. When he goes to the courthouse the first time with Miss Emma, Grant describes the restroom situation:
This [outside] toilet was for colored people who came to the courthouse, and it was down in the basement. You entered it from the courthouse parking lot. I had gone in there once or twice myself, but it was always filthy, and like everyone I knew, I tried to avoid going down there. But that was the only place to go. The toilets inside were for whites only. (9.14)
Imagine how humiliating it must be to be forced to use a filthy toilet while other people, simply because of their race, are able to use clean, indoor facilities. Even though laws are abstract things written in books, they are able to affect the most basic (and we mean basic) functions of life.
Grant lives outside of Bayonne, on the old plantation, and it is a setting that feels trapped in time. People do the same work they'd been doing for hundreds of years, and live in the same sorts of conditions.
When Vivian comes to visit Grant for the first time he isn't sure she'll like it. She has to use an outhouse in the cane field because there is no indoor plumbing, and she laughs it off, saying she's a country girl.
Two aspects seem to dominate the plantation: hard work and claustrophobia. When Vivian and Grant go for a walk, you can see the way that both of them show up:
We crossed the railroad tracks and turned right. In front of us were three or four boxcars of sugarcane, waiting to be picked up by a train and taken to the mill. [. . .] Left of the weighing scales and the derrick was the plantation cemetery, where my ancestors had been buried for the past century. [. . .] This was Vivian's first time back here, and I told her that my people had worked these fields ever since slavery, and many of them were buried in the cemetery behind us. (14.67)
The railroad tracks give a sense that there is a way off the plantation, but soon we realize that only the product of the plantation workers' labor has any chance of getting out: the train is there to carry sugarcane, not passengers. Those boxcars of cane are the result of backbreaking work, cutting it by hand, and the juxtaposition of the sugarcane and the cemetery show the real way out for the fieldworkers: death.
The atmosphere of the plantation gives off a feeling of being trapped in time, and also that death is the only thing anyone has to look forward to. Can't really blame Grant for his California dreaming, can we?