The narrator, Grant Wiggins, begins his story with a flashback to the trial of Jefferson, an African-American youth, for the murder of Alcee Gropé, a white storekeeper. During the trial, Jefferson tries to explain what happened the day of the murder. He says that he accepted a ride from two older acquaintances, Bear and Brother, who hoped that Jefferson could lend them some money to buy a drink. Jefferson had no money, so they went to Gropé’s store, hoping he would give them some wine on credit. Gropé refused, and Bear, already drunk, attacked the storekeeper. A scuffle ensued, with Brother, Bear, and Gropé dead. Jefferson, unsure what to do, took a bottle of whiskey and some cash from the register and tried to run away, but two white men entering the store caught him and took him to the police.
At the trial, Grant notices that while his Tante Lou pays close attention to the legal arguments, Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, only watches her beloved godson, who is sullen and silent throughout. As everyone expects, the young man is sentenced to death. Although there is no evidence against Jefferson and his court-appointed attorney makes a logical and articulate defense, it is no use because Jefferson is black and Alcee Gropé was white. Although the defense attorney’s argument is otherwise sound, Miss Emma bristles at his suggestion that Jefferson was too stupid to commit the crime, and executing him would do no more good than executing a hog.
It is revealed that Grant teaches at the local elementary school. The day after the verdict is announced, Grant comes home from school to find the distraught Miss Emma in his living room. She has come to request that Grant visit Jefferson in prison. Tante Lou insists that Grant cooperate, which he does, although he is privately reluctant to involve himself in the affairs of the quarter, the poor black neighborhood where most of the novel takes place.
Grant, Miss Emma, and Tante Lou all go to visit Henri Pichot, a wealthy plantation owner who is married to the sheriff’s sister. Miss Emma and Tante Lou both worked as cooks for Henri’s family when they were younger, and they ask him to use his influence with the sheriff so that Grant can visit Jefferson, who is only allowed visits from his priest and his family. Miss Emma explains that she wants Jefferson to die with dignity, and Grant is the only person who can teach Jefferson that he is a man and not a hog, as his attorney called him.
Henri receives Miss Emma coldly, but says he’ll speak to the sheriff, despite his own belief that Jefferson is guilty. When Miss Emma presses him to do it soon, he leaves abruptly to continue drinking with his guest, Louis Rougon. Everyone returns to Tante Lou’s house, and Jefferson leaves angrily, offending Tante Lou by refusing her offer of supper.
He drives to the nearby city of Bayonne to see his girlfriend, Vivian. Much larger than the unnamed “quarter” where most of the novel takes place, Bayonne is mostly Catholic and strictly segregated. He meets her at the Rainbow Club, his favorite bar, and begs her to elope with him, complaining that he is tired of his commitments and has no opportunities as a schoolteacher in a small hamlet. Vivian, however, has two children and has not officially divorced their father, and she cannot leave Bayonne until this matter is resolved. The couple dances together, and Grant confides in Vivian about his obligation to visit Jefferson. Vivian urges him to go through with the visit and do his best to impart some dignity to the condemned man, adding that Grant should do it “for us.” (32)
Grant goes to work the next day. Although he is more educated than most of the people in his village, he is a disengaged teacher, admitting that he rarely pays attention to his students’ work since he already knows who will do well and who won’t. In a foul mood, Grant lectures his students about Jefferson’s predicament, giving them a graphic description of electrocution. He then gives them the rest of the day to study, at which point Farrell Jarreau arrives to tell Grant that Henri Pichot is willing to see him that afternoon.
In the opening section of A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines establishes the environment of extreme segregation and prejudice in which his characters live. He offers a detailed description of Bayonne and its businesses, driving home the extent to which the very geography of the region has been disfigured by racism. In contrast, very little segregation is mentioned in the small community outside Bayonne, where most of the novel takes place. However, despite the fact that “the quarter” seems like a safe haven from the overt prejudice in Bayonne and Baton Rouge, it is still the location of the novel’s most heinous atrocity—the racially motivated arrest and prosecution of Jefferson. Even in a mostly-black community where racism is not as obvious as in the cities, its effects still pervade society.
Alcohol plays an important role for many of the characters, and even early in the novel, its disastrous impact on the black community is apparent. Jefferson is unable to construct a solid defense largely because he was drunk and cannot remember the day of the murder. Less dramatically, Grant Wiggins drinks brandy to distract himself from his problems, and his drunkenness leads him to concoct wild schemes to elope with Vivian, rather than developing a concrete plan to save money and move North like he wants to.
In the first five chapters, Tante Lou and Miss Emma are revealed to be kind, well-meaning characters, and because of this, it is easy to assume that they are right about the murder and Jefferson is innocent. However, Gaines refrains from telling us directly whether Jefferson is guilty or innocent. Instead, he provides the prosecutor’s and the defense attorney’s versions of the story without commentary, and thus allows some doubt, however small, about Jefferson’s innocence. This is compounded by the fact that Jefferson quietly broods during the trial; we never hear his side of the story. This will come later, but it is notable that Gaines prolongs this doubt. Such a choice on his part makes it easier to extrapolate the themes of A Lesson Before Dying to the real world, in which we very rarely know without doubt whether someone is innocent, and instead must rely on evidence.
Henri Pichot casts a long shadow over the community in these chapters. Grant teaches school in the church on Henri’s plantation, and he seems to hold much power over the lives of many of the town’s African-Americans. The fact that he owns a plantation, with its connotations of slavery, is significant; it illustrates how little life has actually changed for African-Americans in the South despite the abolition of slavery.
Nevertheless, there are hints that Henri’s situation has deteriorated in recent years. He seems unable to afford two cooks as could when Miss Emma was young, and the kitchen shows signs that he has fewer servants generally. Many Southern patrician families gradually lost their wealth and social status in the decades following the Civil War, a shift that William Faulkner famously chronicled in The Sound and the Fury, which takes place twenty years before A Lesson Before Dying. This social shift illuminates the origins of Henri’s anger and insecurity, particularly toward Miss Emma and Tante Lou. Unlike in the Pichot family’s glory days, Miss Emma is able to demand reciprocity for her years of faithful service, something that would have been unthinkable only a few decades before. This perhaps explains Henri’s impudence and initial reluctance to help the old women.