The novel, A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines is set in the southern part of the United States somewhere in the 1940's. The two main characters are Grant Wiggins and Jefferson. The story starts off when Jefferson is on trial for the robbery and murder of a convenience store clerk. Jefferson's side of the story was that he was with two men who had just picked him up earlier that day, and he was simply getting a ride with them. When these men went into the store, Jefferson claimed that he had no idea what they were going to do. The two men end up getting in a shootout with the clerk, and in the end both men are dead and so is the clerk. This leaves Jefferson all alone in the store with three dead men around him. He has no witnesses to say that he had no part in the shootout, so he is left with his word against the prosecutors. Being a black man from the south didn't help his case at all, plus the fact that it was an all white jury, and at the end of the trial all he could do was wait for the verdict. The verdict came back and it was Guilty. Jefferson was sentenced to be put to death.

During the trial, Jefferson's lawyer tries to plea to the jury that they shouldn't convict a man and sentence him to death when he is a hog like Jefferson. Obviously this did not help him at all. This remark about Jefferson did make his Godmother Miss Emma get upset. She did not want people thinking that Jefferson was a hog, and sure as hell didn't want him to do a hog. This is when Grant Wiggins comes into the picture. Miss Emma asks him to visit Jefferson at the jail every so often, and teach him how to be a man. Grant is an educated man who teaches at the local school, and whose aunt is good friends with Miss Emma. Grant reluctantly goes ahead and agrees to teach Jefferson, not really knowing what he is getting himself into. .

During the first couple of visits, there is not talking between the Jefferson and his guests.