Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Grant often criticizes his society. He bitterly resents the racism of whites, and he cannot stand to think of Jefferson’s unjust conviction and imprisonment. For most of the novel, however, he does nothing to better his lot. He sarcastically claims that he teaches children to be strong men and women despite their surroundings, but he is a difficult, angry schoolmaster. Grant longs to run away and escape the society he feels will never change. Like Professor Antoine, he believes no one can change society without being destroyed in the process.
Jefferson’s trial reinforces Grant’s pessimistic attitude. Grant sees the wickedness of a system designed to uphold the superiority of one race over another. He sees a man struck down to the level of a hog by a few words from an attorney. He sees a judge blind to justice and a jury deaf to truth. These injustices are particularly infuriating because no one stands up to defy them. The entire town accepts Jefferson’s conviction with a solemn silence. Even Grant stays silent, resisting his aunt and Miss Emma, who implore him to teach Jefferson how to regain his humanity.
During the course of the novel, however, Grant comes to realize that cynicism like his is akin to lying down and dying, and that even small victories can accumulate and produce change. Rather than looking at Jefferson as a hopeless stranger, or ridiculing him as someone who tries to make Grant feel guilty, Grant accepts Jefferson’s plight as his own and begins to fight for Jefferson’s salvation. He accepts his duty to the society he inhabits, thereby taking the first step toward improving that society.
With its consistent references to Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, this novel insists that a man’s death can be a meaningful event that bolsters a community. Jefferson has led a quiet life, working as a common laborer for years and never speaking a word out of turn. When convicted for a crime he did not commit, Jefferson is initially angry and recalcitrant, acting like the animal the whites think him. Eventually, however, his death sentence liberates him, and he finds spiritual rejuvenation.
By the end of the novel, Jefferson understands that by dying like a man, he will defy the society that wrongfully accused him and convicted him not just of murder, but of being black-skinned. He knows that by refusing to bow down in his final moments, he will make his community proud. For these reasons, he walks to his execution calmly, and onlookers say he is the strongest man in the room.
Both Grant and Vivian are haunted by their pasts. White people treated Grant as their inferior as he was growing up. Grant deliberately severs himself from his past because thinking of it discomfits him. Vivian, however, recognizes the sway her past has over her, and she deals with it. She cannot completely embrace her relationship with Grant, in part because her husband still threatens to take her children away from her. She also realizes that their history in Bayonne means that she and Grant cannot run away from their town. Unlike Grant, she recognizes that the problems of the past will not disappear by changing geographic location. Moreover, she recognizes that Grant’s wish to ignore his past is symptomatic of his inability to love his community, or to love her for that matter. Gaines suggests that only confronting racism will change it.