Study Guide

A Lesson Before Dying Mortality

By Ernest J. Gaines

Mortality

Chapter 1

But he was talking to a dead man. (1.4)

This moment, when Mr. Gropé changes from being a wounded man lying on the floor of the liquor store into a dead man, decides Jefferson's fate. Jefferson is talking to him because he is the only one with authority to defend Jefferson and explain what really happened, but his death takes away any chance of freedom for Jefferson.

Death by electrocution. The governor would set the date. (1.20)

And with that Jefferson's life is magically transformed into a ticking time bomb. He doesn't know when, but he knows with certainty that he will be put to death and will spend his time up to that moment in prison. In a way, his life ends in the courtroom with this sentence, not in the electric chair.

Chapter 4
Grant Wiggins

"Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?" (4.107)

Grant is wrestling with himself here, wondering whether it's worthwhile at all to help someone when you know they're going to die anyway. However, isn't that the case of all of us? We may not be sitting on death row, but we are all mortals (except for you X-Men in the back row. We see you.).

"Do I know how a man who is supposed to die? [. . .] Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?" (4.105)

This question shows that, even if Grant doesn't know what it is, there is a proper way to meet your death and face your mortality. The problem is that death is the end of a life, and he doesn't consider that Jefferson has really had much of a life at all.

Chapter 5

"They're going to sit him in a chair, they're going to tie him down in with straps, they're going to connect wires to his head, to his wrists, to his legs, and they're going to shoot electricity through the wires into his body until he's dead." (5.47)

This graphic description of the way that Jefferson's life will end is not fit for all audiences. That doesn't stop him from blurting it out to his elementary students, terrifying them with the truth about what their fate could be if they don't make something of themselves.

Chapter 11
Jefferson

"Just a old hog they fattening up to kill for Christmas." (11.55)

Jefferson has identified himself with the hog that the defender compared him to during the trial. In the same way that you don't get too attached to a hog you're going to kill and eat, Jefferson won't let himself feel anything because it will hurt to lose himself in the end.

Chapter 20

How do people come up with a date and time to take life from another man? Who made them God? (20.61)

Who has the right to determine whether another person should live or die? For Grant, according to this quote, only God has that right. But this means that, in this society, the State, or the law, or the government—whatever you want to call it—has taken over for God.

Chapter 26
Vivian Baptiste

"One day I'll bring flowers to the graveyard," she said. (26.113)

Vivian is angry with Grant for getting into a stupid fight and not walking away. She fears the consequences such reckless behavior will have for him if he continues to act like a wild maniac, because she loves him and will lose him if he isn't careful.

Chapter 29

they got a moon out ther an I can see the leves on the tree but I aint gon see no mo leves after tomoro (29.27)

Here we get an inside look at exactly what Grant is thinking about his own mortality. He knows with certainty that he will be put to death the next day, so he has a perspective on nature and the world that most people don't have.

Chapter 31
Deputy Paul Bonin

"I don't know what you're going to say when you go back in there. But tell them he was the bravest man in that room today." (31.90)

Paul is talking about the fact that most of the men in the room where Jefferson was executed were frightened, but that Jefferson stayed brave. Fear is a pretty understandable reaction to the prospect of death (brrrr), and so Jefferson's lack of fear is super commendable.