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September 15, 2009
Day laborers picking cotton near Clarksdale Mississippi. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, courtesy of Library of Congress.
Ernest Gaines's novel A Lesson Before Dying is the story of an unlikely, and reluctant, friendship that grows between Jefferson, a death row inmate, and Grant, a schoolteacher. In this excerpt from an interview with the NEA, Gaines explained why the novel never clearly confirms if Jefferson is guilty or innocent of the crime for which he has been convicted.
Well, I don't know whether [Jefferson is] innocent or guilty. That is not the point of the story in the beginning, you know. The point of the story is how two men would grow to become real men. Jefferson, with a few months to live, and Grant, with another 40 years or more to live---what will they do with that time? Neither one is going anywhere in life. Grant hates the South. He hates what he's doing and just is wanting to get away. Jefferson is just there, and he does whatever people want him to do. Say dig a ditch, he'll dig a ditch. Or sweep the floor, he'll sweep the floor. [He] will never argue, never question, never anything. And that's what I wanted the story to be about. Now, whether innocent or guilty doesn't matter to me much, and if you don't get the meaning of the story, and that two men by the end of the novel have grown, then I think you've missed what I was trying to say in the story.