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A Lesson before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

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Do the themes in A Lesson before Dying reflect the lessons taught?

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The themes in this sobering novel are not the same as the lessons being taught. The lesson referred to in the title is the lesson that Jefferson needs to learn before he dies, which is the lesson of his own worth, dignity, and humanity.

The themes which prevail in this novel, on the other hand, are racism, capital punishment, and the unfair course of justice.

In a nutshell, this book tells the story of an impoverished black man named Jefferson, who—despite being innocent—is accused of murdering a white liquor-store owner. The novel is set in the American South in the 1940s, and a racist jury is quick to find him guilty and condemn him to death.

The theme of racism is based on the fact that the novel is set in a time and place in which black people could barely hope to be recognized as human beings, let alone hope for fairness and equality in the courts.

The capital-punishment theme comes into play when Jefferson is sentenced to death rather than to a harsh prison sentence.

The theme of the unfair course of justice prevails throughout the novel. Regardless of the color of his skin, Jefferson is an innocent, but because he is black, and therefore defenseless, finding him guilty was a quick way for the court to "solve" this crime.

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