A Lesson Before Dying is a deceptively simple novel that explores numerous complex themes. Like Albert Camus' The Stranger, which also explores a prison experience, albeit from the prisoner's point of view, its stark simplicity and spare language belie a complex and profound book. Gaines uses harsh (or austere) language to reflect the spiritual and personal alienation of humans in the twentieth century. Through Grant Wiggins' emotionally detached account of Jefferson's trial at the beginning of the book, we recognize that something about the main character is out of the ordinary. The novel chronicles Grant's role in Jefferson's mental and spiritual transformation from a person beaten down by the system, exhibiting apathy and anger, to a man with a sense of passion and purpose, exhibiting dignity and strength. By helping Jefferson triumph over his dehumanized existence, Grant is also transformed. As a result, Grant regains his hope in humanity and his faith in his own ability to make a difference, with the promise of a future as a better teacher who can pass his hard-won lesson on to his students and more positively influence their lives.
On the surface, the novel is the story of one man's struggle to accept death with dignity while another man struggles with his own identity and responsibility to his community. But on a deeper level, it explores the process of an oppressed, dehumanized people's attempt to gain recognition of their human dignity, acknowledgment of their human rights, and freedom to pursue their dreams. Gaines' manipulation of time, focusing on the day-by-day struggles of ordinary people, is a definitive structural element in the novel.
Unlike many black American writers, Gaines focuses on a cultural perspective of time that views history from an Eastern (Afrocentric) view, as opposed to a Western (Eurocentric) view. The primary difference between these two perspectives is the definition of time as it impacts our view of the past, present, and future. Viewed from the Eurocentric perspective, history is a series of "significant events" that document the accomplishments of "heroes." Time is a commodity that, like money, can be spent, saved, lost, and managed. Time consists of the past, present, and future, each separated by distinct barriers; death is the end of life. Viewed from the Afrocentric perspective, however, history is a series of individual and collective stories that document the accomplishments of everyday people. According to this view, time is a continuum. Like an endless river, it cannot be controlled, contained, or manipulated. Time consists of the past and present; events that have not yet occurred exist in a separate realm of "no time." All elements of time are interconnected; death is part of life. In this context, Jefferson's death with dignity becomes even more of a validation of his life and the lives of his community, despite the indignities suffered while living.
Some black historians point out that white male historians have too long defined history as a series of significant events (occurrences that are meaningful or symbolic for a person, group, or culture).
This point of view implies that the events selected for inclusion by members of the dominant culture are significant to all people. Consequently, black history has been virtually excluded from U.S. history texts because white male writers and historians did not consider the accomplishments of blacks significant.
In Lesson, Jefferson's execution is a significant event in the black community. His impending death has a profound impact on the people in the quarter — from the students at Grant's school, to the members of Rev. Ambrose's church, to the patrons of the Rainbow Club. By focusing on the Afrocentric view of history, Gaines emphasizes the worth and dignity of everyday heroes like Jefferson, an uneducated black field worker, and Grant Wiggins, an educated black man whose education makes no difference to the white community, which treats him the same way that it treats uneducated blacks. Grant's education, however, makes him more aware of the disrespect toward blacks by the white community; thus, it is difficult for him to see how the education that he offers his students can have a positive impact on their lives. It is this realization that causes Grant to question his own life and fantasize a better future away from his home community rather than seek to counteract the influences that have worn it down.