Although Gaines uses first-person narration (the story is told from Grant's perspective), readers are not limited to Grant's point of view. Gaines has said that using a narrator who reports events as others reveal them (note Grant's oft-repeated remark, "I learned later . . .") is one of the narrative devices he uses to get inside his characters' heads without resorting to omniscient (third-person) narration. Much of the action in the novel occurs on a psychological rather than a physical level. Although we "hear" Grant's voice, the novel is ultimately Jefferson's story.
While the story of Lesson focuses on Jefferson's trial and execution, the plot focuses on the struggles of poor, oppressed people to gain a measure of pride and dignity within a hostile, racist environment. The novel begins with Jefferson's trial, moves briefly back into the immediate past to reconstruct the events surrounding Alcee Gropé's murder, and then moves relentlessly forward, culminating in Jefferson's execution. Along the way, we witness life in the black, segregated community of Bayonne, which, although it appears to go on without interruption, is deeply affected by Jefferson's impending death. Consequently, we realize that Jefferson's execution, which is generally perceived as a distasteful but necessary task by the majority of the white community, is an occasion for much sorrow and grief for the black community.
Setting — both physical and psychological — plays a key role in Lesson. The novel is set in the fictional community of Bayonne, Louisiana, in the pre-Civil Rights South. Much of the beauty and power of Gaines' writing derives from his ability to re-create a sense of place and to transport his readers back to life on a Louisiana sugar cane plantation during the pre-Civil Rights era. Although Gaines rejects all efforts to label him as primarily a black writer, a Southern writer, a California writer, and so forth, he seems comfortable with the title of regional writer. As he points out in an interview, "All the great writers are regionalists. Faulkner wrote about Mississippi, Homer about Greece, Balzac about Paris, Shakespeare about a kind of England. But that doesn't mean they're not universal. People write about what they know best, and readers respond to that wherever they happen to live."
Gaines works his magic in several ways: through his meticulous attention to detail, his focus on "local color" (such as regional language, culture, and foods), and his faithful rendition of conversations. He has said about himself that he is not a storyteller; he simply records conversations.