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theme speaks to the destructive nature of fatalism versus the liberating ideals
of individualism. It involves the belief that we can control our lives instead
of being controlled by external forces. Grant and Jefferson learn there is a simple
heroism in resisting the expected. Jefferson defies those who consider him a beast
of burden by walking straight and tall to the electric chair. Grant recognizes
that he does not have to either stay and be broken down or run away from the South.
The novel suggests that freedom is a state of mind. Jefferson is incarcerated while Grant is free. Yet once Jefferson realizes that the white man can no longer punish him for standing tall and proud, he is freer than Grant, who must still seek the approval of white society in order to maintain his position as schoolteacher. The story also addresses religion and education. The entire quarter is united each Sunday to worship God while Grant, the only educated one, isolates himself by refusing to attend. In addition, Grant’s university degree does not provide any of the answer’s he’s looking for - such as how a man should live. He remains in a state of ignorance because he does not know himself, nor does he understand his people.
As might be expected in a story about a death-row inmate, a somber mood prevails throughout the book. The two main characters, Jefferson and Grant, spend most of the novel wallowing in the mire of self-pity and trying to pull others down with them. In addition, the characters are dealing with sobering issues, racism, poverty, illiteracy, social injustice, etc. Most of all, the entire community struggles with a bleak world view - that none of this will ever change, because our environment dictates our life’s course. As this perspective gives way to the belief that individuals can change their station in life, the mood lightens considerably and the novel ends on a hopeful, yet tragic note.