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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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What human conditions are portrayed in A Lesson Before Dying?

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Human conditions presented in A Lesson Before Dying include conflict and hope. Grant tries to help Jefferson battle the racist justice system and create a dignified future for the Black community.

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One human condition presented in A Lesson Before Dying is conflict. Throughout history, people have been battling one another for countless reasons. In Ernest J. Gaines’s novel, Grant Wiggins, Jefferson, and the other Black characters face the adversity of living in a racist town in the South. Jefferson is found guilty of a murder that he did not commit. He is dehumanized and sentenced to death. Grant is pressured to fight for Jefferson's dignity, and, by doing so, confer humanity on the Black community.

Grant’s goal relates to another aspect of the human condition—hope. Regardless of how bad their respective conditions might be, people can hope that things will get better. The notion of a brighter future arguably propels Grant to not abandon Jefferson. He sticks with Jefferson as he becomes a symbol of strength for Black people. Jefferson winds up receiving community support and respect from a white sheriff's deputy. The events surrounding Jefferson’s death indicate that there is potential for a less racist world.

Another human condition presented in Gaines's novel is action. In The Human Condition, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt posits that a person’s ability to do and perform distinct actions is crucial to the human condition. In A Lesson Before Dying, Gaines presents the actions of Jefferson, the racist justice system, and the increasingly sympathetic Grant as entwined. In a way, each particular action comes together to create and/or change the conditions of the people in Bayonne, Louisiana.

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