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Theme in A Lesson Before Dying Essay


With a story as emotionally consumed as A Lesson Before Dying, there is bound to be many different themes and concepts that make novel flow. Although it is difficult to choose just one, the most outstanding theme is redemption in death. Throughout the story all anyone wants Jefferson to do is to somehow redeem not only himself but his family and the entire black community through his execution. This is evident because of the towns interest and support in Jeffersons struggle, the references to Jesus and his crucifixion, and how Jeffersons development affects those closely connected to him. The eventual outcome of the story is predictable from the beginning, so it is the underlying symbolism that makes A Lesson Before Dying a worthwhile novel.

After Jefferson is convicted of the murders and sentenced to death the whole ordeal becomes a matter of pride for the black community of Bayonne. This is never more obvious than at the annual Christmas program the school puts on when Grant ponders the turn out for the event. I had told the students that this program should be dedicated to Jefferson and they had taken the message home, and many people who had never attended a Christmas or graduation program came to the church that night.(p143) Not only had that, but the little amount of money the kids raised gone to buying clothes for Jefferson. As Jeffersons death approaches the town becomes more and more involved with his progression as a man. The black residents of Bayonne escaped slavery some time ago but have not gotten past the racism and stereotypes that the white people in the town still cling too. In this situation, the execution is so important because Jeffersons acts of manliness directly show the progression of Bayonne's entire black population.

In the bible, Jesus Christs sacrifice for the improvement of mankind is the best example of redemption in death. Like mentioned before, Jefferson is also sacrificing himself to advance the lives of many. It may be these similarities that lead the author to put many references to Jesus Christ in the novel. Deep in you, you think he know, he done grasped the significance of what its all about?(p100) This quote shows how Reverend Ambrose has associated the execution with Christianity and the death of Jesus. The Reverend feels the need to put Christianity in Jeffersons manhood curriculum so that Jefferson can make the connection of the journey of Jesus to his own. Jeffersons understanding of this metaphor solidifies his manhood near the end of the novel.

It is undeniable that Jefferson did quite a bit of changing in the time that passed between his conviction and execution. Even more notable though were the changes that occurred in the people that were close to Grant. Like the people of Bayonne it was a matter of pride to Reverend Ambrose, Tante Lou, Miss Emma, and Grant to see Jefferson go down in glory. The pressure put on these individuals to transform Jefferson in such a limited amount of time builds character in them throughout the story. The change is more noticeable in the person who invests more of his life into Jefferson than any other person in the book, Grant. Although not truly apparent until the very end of the novel Grants life has taken a complete turn since the beginning when he refused to help Jefferson. Grant starts out denying the requests of Miss Emma and Tante Lou, he finally is forced into it and is unsuccessful, and then he begins to develop a bond with Jefferson and gets serious about changing his life. Finally, he gets through to Jefferson and is brought to tears the day of the execution. Irene Cole told the class to rise, with their shoulders back. I went up to the desk and turned to face them. I was crying.(p255)

The small act of Jefferson to walk calmly to his death spoke an enormous amount about the progress made by Grant. Something so simple could not have meant any more to the people of Bayonne. It made a statement to the whites like no other event since slavery had been abolished. In the case of Grant and Paul no friendship like that had ever been forged. Redemption in death was by far the most powerful theme in this novel. It takes something as serious as life and death to provoke this kind of emotion and change.

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