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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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What is the main theme of A Lesson Before Dying?

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The moral of the novel is that even a brutal system of racism cannot remove people's humanity. The novel, set in the Jim Crow days before the Civil Rights movement, is about the inhumane treatment of African Americans in Louisiana. Jefferson, a black man who is falsely accused of murder, is compared by his defense attorney to a hog who is not even worth executing, and Jefferson begins to act like a hog rather than a man. Grant Wiggins, an educated black man who is a teacher in the town, is also treated as subhuman because of his race. In the end, Jefferson begins to regain his humanity when he receives a notebook in which he can record his thoughts and a radio which he uses in order to have a connection with the outside world. Even though Jefferson is executed in the end, he is executed as a man with dignity and not as an animal. Grant, for his part, cries after the execution, showing that he is also still tender enough, despite his dispiriting experiences of racism, to cry over the slaughter of a fellow human. 

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One of the major themes of Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying is the concept of justice in the face of racism.  The story is set in a small town in Louisiana, and the residents of the town and surrounding area harbor racist thoughts towards others.  Jefferson is accused of killing a white man because he was in the area at the time, and even though evidence suggests otherwise, Jefferson is found guilty by the jury during his trial.  Further, Jefferson's family receives a difficult time when trying to visit him in jail.  Jefferson has been used as a scapegoat for the community's hatred, and this causes him to wonder whether or not God only loves white people.  While in jail, Jefferson considers his faith, and through Grant's help, he dies having learned the lesson that he was treated unfairly because people are corrupt, not because God does not love him.

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