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Setting is overly important to the theme of A Lesson Before Dying. The story is set in a small town in Louisiana, and this setting lays the foundation for the relationships and mentality in the community. Rumors, gossip, and general information tend to spread quickly by word-of-mouth in a small town, and this happens on several occasions in the novel. After Jefferson is caught in the store, he is immediately blamed for murder although he is innocent of the crime. Accusations fly around town, and hatred for Jefferson builds as the rumors spread. Grant does not go to see Jefferson's trial, but he knows all about it because everyone in town is talking about the details of the situation. Finally, the town is a breeding ground for racist ideology, and racism complicates the ideas of justice and faith that the characters explore in the novel.
The historical setting of the novel is critical to the themes of the novel. Jefferson, having been sentenced to death, struggles to grapple with the indignity of dying due to false accusations while others around him do nothing more than aid him in accepting the truth of his execution. However, the themes of dehumanization and subjugation are predicated upon the historical setting of 1940's Louisiana and the physical setting of a former plantation in the southern United States. Without the historical context we might never understand that Jefferson suffers to accept his death because he has been so truly dehumanized by the whites in society, internalizing the racist ideology of the society that he lives in. This is evidenced when Jefferson continuously calls himself a hog and pretends to eat like one, demonstrating his internalization of the dehumanization that he faced in the court room. Moreover, Grant, as a teacher and an educated man grapples with the predicament faced by Jefferson but only because he experiences great guilt at the hands of his family. It is ironic that Grant should be responsible for teaching the children of the town while he yearns to escape the oppressive setting of small town Louisiana. Both Jefferson and Grant struggle against the historical context in which the novel is set and further exemplify Gaines' ultimate themes about internalized oppression and the dehumanizing impacts of segregation in the South.
What does it mean to be human at any point in history? How does the definition of being human change over time? This is one theme of A Lesson Before Dying. In the place and time of this novel, certain humans, slaves in particular, were seen as less human than whites and therefore had fewer rights. Another theme is that of acceptance of one's humanity as it is defined at that time and transcending past it to a better place.
The story is set in the southern United States during the 1940s when racism and segregation were still very much a part of daily life. An innocent black man is unfairly, quickly charged as guilty and sentenced to death. The family rather than fight this charge, enlist the help of a family relative to assist the condemned black man in learning how to face death with dignity.
Rather than fight the false chargers that he murdered another man, the main character and his family are much more accepting of his fate. They are more concerned that he die with dignity than that he clear his name. This theme of acceptance and transcendence over the circumstance of being sentenced to death, focusing on dying with dignity is only believable to the reader because of the setting of the book.
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