How important is setting to the central theme of the story? Explain using at least three different examples from the novel to support your thesis.
‘A Lesson Before Dying’ demonstrates that life for the black man in a small and nondescript Deep South town is fraught with danger and lacks opportunity. The setting in the story is very important as it assists us to feel the situation as if we are part of the settings and the actual surroundings. Blacks are kept ‘in their place’ in this town according to Gaine’s evocative descriptions especially the manner in which Jefferson is arbitrarily condemned to death in a speedy trial for the murder of a white man. There does not seem to be any justice for the black man as it is obvious that the jury is predisposed towards condemning him to death with evidence being of totally secondary importance here. The colour line prevails everywhere, in places of worship where churches are separate, in schools where the facilities for the black children are markedly inferior and also in places of entertainment such as the cinemas.
A typical example of the inferior conditions in which blacks are continually kept is the town’s jail. The cell where Jefferson is kept and which is avidly described by Gaines, shows you that this is quite retrograde in every sense of the word. There is a toilet without a toilet seat and the army blanket which is provided is dirty and grimy. The general setting is one of decadence and poverty emphasising the fact that blacks are inferior in their own country. The white prisoner, although not exactly superior is in far better condition and this is also reflected in the way which the black prisoners plead for cigarettes and other basic things from visitors. Another issue which shows the difference between both races is the town cinema where there are actually two, one for whites and the other for blacks. The basic understanding of this situation is that the blacks have the shorter end of the stick all the time in this town.
The way Gaines describes the old plantation is also very instructive. We get to see it as a manner of repression from the cotton gin to the silent field where black workers had to pick cotton in a back breaking stance for decades or more than a hundred years. Here the setting is again very important as it shows how the black man had to undergo trials and tribulations without having the opportunity to better his lot. Gaines’ description of the segregated schools is also instructive as it demonstrates how these schools were kept backward and segregated, obviously to the advantage of the white man. This continues to reinforce the setting in which the black man lived, a setting of daily humiliation without much hope of betterment. It also reinforces the way in which Jefferson found himself and how he did not have any hope of escaping the death sentence.
Gaines’ description of the courtroom and the arbitrary way in which Jefferson was condemned to death is also important for a better understanding of the plot. The courtroom reminds one of the setting in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ where lawyer Atticus Finch makes an impassioned defence of Tom, all to no avail. Jefferson has no hope against a system which is completely weighted in the white man’s favour and the sole prerogative here is that some black man is to be found guilty for the murder of a white man. There isn’t anything Jefferson can do to protest his innocence since nobody would take any notice of his qualms. It is an indicting statement of the brutal yet subtle racism which permeated the Deep South at the time.
“I probably would not have noticed it at all had not a butterfly, a yellow butterfly with dark spots like ink dots on its wings, not lit there. What had brought it there? I watched it fly over the ditch and down into the quarter, I watched it until I could not see it anymore. Yes, I told myself. It is finally over.”
Gaines E; A Lesson Before Dying; Knopf, 1993, Print