To Kill a Mockingbird

A man of his word: Atticus Finch (by Dr Jennifer Minter, English Works)

“This case is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience. I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

One of the defining lessons for Jem and Scout from the trial is that it is important to adhere to your conscience. Atticus believes that morally, and legally, he must defend Tom Robinson against the charges of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell. He knows that he is likely to fail because it is rare for an African-American, in a racist town like Maycomb, to be accorded legal justice, but this does not deter him. He states, “the one thing that does not abide by majority rule is one’s conscience.”

And again: “If I couldn’t hold up my head in turn, I couldn’t represent this country in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

Why Atticus?

As Heck Tate tells Jem and Scout, “some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father is one of them.” He knows that Atticus has the scruples and dignity to defend Tom and that his stance will directly challenge the prevailing bigoted views relating to the inferior status of negroes – and the fact that negroes are always guilty as charged.

He also anticipates that Atticus may be capable of sowing the seed of doubt in the minds of the jury. The fact that the jury takes a few hours to reach the “guilty” verdict is testimony to Atticus’s legal and moral stature.

Harper Lee exposes the unfair assumption that in court a white man’s word is more credible than a negro’s. The Ewell’s contempt of the negroes is perpetuated in the “evil assumption” “that ALL Negroes lie, ALL Negroes are immoral beings, that ALL Negro men are not to be trusted around our women.” Such prejudice is also legally entrenched: negroes were not allowed to sit on the jury. For all these reasons, “Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella opened her mouth and screamed.”

The trial makes the children aware of the discrimination that confronts the negroes in their daily life. Scout and Jem gain first-hand experience of the prejudice when they visit Calpurnia’s church. Scout is surprised they don’t have prayer books and she learns this is because they cannot read. The hall is sparse; there is no piano or organ. The Reverend has difficulty collecting money for Helen Robinson because the negroes simply have none to give. Scouts learns that the negroes are downtrodden as they don’t have access to schools and lack the same opportunities as the white citizens.

In addition, Lee highlights the hypocrisy of the townspeople, when for example, Miss Maudie draws attention to the “foot-washing Baptists” who are so “busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one”. In other words, they do not practice what they preach. Eventually, Atticus destroys the last shred of Ewell’s credibility, “if he had any to begin with” and Ewell is forced to creep back to his hovel after his vengeful attack on the children.

Lee depicts Tom as an unfortunate scapegoat in order to highlight the degree to which the negroes are victimised. During the court case, Atticus draws attention to the fact that it was impossible for a person with one usable arm to have raped Mayella. Tom Robinson is hindered by the disability of his left hand, which was 12 inches shorter than his right arm. He tells the court that because Mayella’s right eye was damaged the perpetrator would have hit with his left hand thus shifting the blame onto, and humiliating, Bob Ewell. Mayella had marks on her neck redolent of choking. Two hands would have been needed to contribute to such physical assault. Also Ewell did not call a doctor. It seems that Mayella was obviously lying to protect herself from her father.

Lee suggests that Tom’s biggest sin is to pity Mayella. Tom reveals to the jury that he felt “sorry” for Mayella, which is difficult for Judge Gilmer and the audience to comprehend. (p. 217) In this regard, Tom is casting judgement on the Ewells from the perspective of a racially “inferior” person. What an insult!

Atticus becomes an inspiration to his two children and to those citizens who are ashamed of the injustice towards the negroes. Calmly, he relies on common sense to defuse the potentially violent situation at the town jail, where Tom Robinson was awaiting trial. He was confronted by a drunken group of Ewell supporters and exposes their mob-like behaviour.

Ironically, Scout’s discussion with Mr Cunningham about his son shames the men. As Atticus notes, “so it took an eight-year-old child to bring em’ to their senses, didn’t it? That proves something — a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.”

Atticus knows that the children will be ridiculed at school, but he also urges them to show dignity and restraint. He tells his children after Mayella insulted him, “If spitting on my face is going to save Mayella one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take”. Though many people scorn his actions, Atticus stands “with his head held high and his fists down.” He wouldn’t be able to maintain his dignity if he didn’t help a person in need. “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.” After all it is a “sin to kill a mockingbird”. From Tom’s perspective, he is that defenceless creature living in a vicious world, at the mercy of racist attitudes.

Breaking stereotypes

The depiction of Boo Radley and the interweaving subplot of his exclusion from society, shows the stigma attached to people who are mentally unstable or different. This parallel story exposes the same ignorance and intolerance as is evident towards Tom Robinson.

Boo is conceived of as a “malevolent phantom” and a target of suspicion; he “went out at night when the moon was high, and peeped in windows”. “When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them”. (According to Jem’s surmise, “Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained — if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten. His eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time”.)

Initially, Scout and Jem reflect the typical prejudice in the town and ridicule him with their “asinine games” designed to lure Boo out of the house. However, once again Atticus’s tolerance triumphs. He forbids them to treat Boo in this way and the children come to see him as a friend rather than a monster. Bob Ewell stalks them one night with the intent to kill. He would have succeeded if Boo Radley had not intervened to save the children.

Jem and Scout’s personal adventure with Boo Radley helps them to dispel the bigoted views that swirl around those with a disability. Jem discovers that his pants are neatly folded for him and placed on the fence. They try to communicate with Boo who places gifts in the hole of a tree outside their house. He leaves them chewing gum, an old watch, soap carvings and other trinkets. The soap carvings affectionately depict Jem and Scout from a very personal observer: “The boy had on shorts and a shock of soapy hair fell to his eye brows. The girl doll wore bangs.” Jem shows his appreciation towards Boo by placing a thank you letter in the tree. Nathan Radley fills the hole with cement, his excuse being that the tree is dead. Mortified, Jem is upset that Nathan Radley could be so callous.

Both Jem and Scout develop their own views about Boo Radley independently of the prevailing myths. They come to see him as a troubled and persecuted person, who has the capacity for infinite kindness.

Different types of courage

Through his actions, Atticus impresses upon the children that courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. Courage is not about physical strength; it is to courageously defend your principles and withstand the scorn that they often attract.

Jem’s attitude towards his father changes after Atticus kills the dog with rabies. Now he learns that his father is not useless after all, but an excellent marksman. Jem and Scout think this is a heroic act but Atticus refuses to give them the satisfaction of a father who could be known as “one shot Finch.” Miss Maudie reiterates Atticus’ point that “God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things” . For this reason, he scorns the use of a gun until it is really necessary. (109)

Mrs Dubose

In a fit of anger, Jem wrecks Mrs Dubose’s camellias in response to the taunts about Atticus as a “nigger lover”. “Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for.” To make amends, Jem has to read to her for several hours a night. Her death, to Atticus represents “real courage”. Courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Although Mrs Dubose. suffered greatly she was determined to rid herself of her morphine addiction before her death. She achieved this under great pain and suffering.

Like Mrs Dubose, who faces a terminal illness but “kicks her habit” anyway, Atticus knows that he is likely to fail but this does not deter him, either. Mrs Dubose is cantankerous and resentful, but she is determined to die with dignity. To her, this means she must free herself of her morphine addiction.

Several citizens of Maycomb, such as Link Deas, support Atticus. Link Deas professes in court that he has never had any trouble with Tom in the whole time he has employed him. He actively encourages Helen to work and escorts her to his property. At the court he states, “I just want the whole of you to know one thing right now. That boy‘s worked for me eight years an’ ain’t had a speck o’trouble outa him. Not a speck.” Atticus’ heroic actions make a big impression upon Braxton Underwood who saw Atticus’ courage in standing in front of the jailhouse and feels ashamed to be part of the action.

Tom displays courage in helping a white woman even though he could have been punished severely if caught. All he wanted to do was to help others, just like Atticus. “Looks like she didn’t have anybody to help her. I felt sorry for her. She seemed so . . ” But with all his goodwill, Mayella just simply took advantage of him. “Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella opened her mouth and screamed” She did this because she finally came to the hard realization. “She tempted a negro, not just any negro, a young strong innocent negro!” “It’s 10 times worse to lie to a coloured man than it is to a white one…” Despite his conviction, the jury still press charges against Tom. “No jury in this part of the world is going to say “we think you’re guilty, but not very” on a charge like that. It was either a straight acquittal or nothing.” Tom was tragically shot whilst trying to escape from the prison. “If he’d had two good arms he’d have made it, he was moving that fast” “it was a sin to kill a cripple, be standing, sitting or escaping” “It is like killing a mockingbird isn’t it?”

The changing narrator

Scout learns to control her temper and to hold her head high with dignity throughout her family’s ordeal in Maycomb. She is very tempestuous and is prone to hot-headed fights. Proud and defiant, she becomes particularly indignant when she hears her father labelled a “nigger lover”.

The relationship between Scout and Aunt Alexander draws attention to the feminine stereotypes that Lee also challenges. Scout’s difficulty following these stereotypes shows how unjust they are. “Aunt Alexander fitted into the world of Maycomb like a hand into a glove.” Scout refuses to conform to lady-like expectations and wants to develop her own independent and bookish spirit. For this reason Aunt Alexander finds it so difficult to “tame” her.

Women in Maycomb almost always wear dresses and are expected to conform to the stereotype of the “feminine” embodied so perfectly by Aunt Alexandra. The girls were typically dressed up in the afternoon. They were expected to wear dresses, to be neat and clean with their hair curled.

Once again, Atticus is broad-minded and does not discriminate between Jem or Scout; however Scout does many “unladylike” things and she is criticised by many of the women. She never wears a dress – preferring overalls — and shows a lively interest in the social issues that surround her. She is more interested in Jem’s rough and tumble world and intellectual discussions with Atticus than learning to sip tea with her Aunty.  Whilst Aunt Alexander struggles to become a surrogate mother, Calpurnia becomes an alternative positive role model and one that inducts Scout into the world of the persecuted negro.

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The code-breakers in Maycomb and the child’s perspective

Scout  is a product of Maycomb but at the same time, she also hovers around the social margins and questions the distinctions of class, race and gender.  Scout’s voice is fresh, candid and heart-felt, but it often becomes quietly challenging and personally outraged, as she bumps up against many of the town’s social and racial restrictions and taboos.  

Because of the absence of her own mother figure, Harper Lee’s eight-year-old tom boy  challenges the unstated borders of what it is to be a girl in the 1930s. In this regard, Scout does not automatically follow the stereotypical gender roles of behaviour and exposes herself to Aunt Alexandra’s harsh censure.

Scout’s obsession with “overalls” sets her apart from other girls and the Aunt-Alexandra style of the feminine. The “breeches” also become a symbolic marker of her quiet feminine rebellion, or her reluctance to abide by the feminine social code.  Aunt Alexandra who becomes the model of feminine etiquette insists on correct “deportment”, lady-like manners and habits. She seeks to instil in Scout a measure of feminine subservience.

For Scout, the “breeches”  enable her to participate in the rough and tumble world of boys which, in her Aunt’s opinion, ought to be out of bounds. “Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly be a lady if I wore breeches: when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn’t supposed to be doing things that required pants”. As Alexandra points out, such behaviour would be simply impractical and improbable if one wore a “dress”. In other words, the dress becomes a symbolic code of permissible behaviour, such as “playing with the small stove and tea sets”. 

Scout rails against the fact that she does not, as the eight-year-old Francis does, and as her brother Jem does, graduate to the adult table. “Aunty had continued to isolate me long after Jem and Francis graduated to the big table.” (90)  The place at the table symbolises the social exclusion of the feminine and the expectation that they will be subservient. (90)  It enables her to intuitively gain a sense of the type of social exclusion suffered by the negroes who sit in a “far corner of the square” as they await the trial.  So not only does Scout challenge the boundaries of the feminine with her dress code,  but her behaviour as revealed in her scuffle with Francis is “obstreperous, disorderly, and abusive” (94) – so unbefitting of a lady.

The innocent child narrator uncovers, as does the “naked” Atticus in the trial, the racist undertones of Maycomb. When Dill says, “he doesn’t look like trash”  (Dill (177) referring to Dolphus Raymond and when Francis calls Atticus a “nigger lover”   whose defense of  Tom will be the “ruination of the family” , the children are imitating the prejudice that swirls in the country town. (84) 

Harper Lee’s point is that these attitudes are so deeply engrained in the children that they automatically regard the African-negroes as “trash”, who ought to be isolated in the “far corner of the square”. The strength of the racist sentiments are pitted against the grandeur of Atticus’s righteous legal battle and Scout’s courage as she undertakes her own journey. “I committed myself to a policy of cowardice” (99) she says, referring to the fact that weakness and vulnerability are moral strengths. In this regard, Scout takes to heart Atticus’s point about the importance of not succumbing to mob rule.  Each individual in the mob can be reasoned with, but the mob strengthens their “blind spots”.

If Scout bumps against the restrictions of the feminine, she also directly, and indirectly, bumps against other codes that undermine social and racial harmony.  As someone who has suffered the injustice of a beating by Uncle Jack because he was too quick to trust Francis’s defense, so too does the jury too readily believe Bob Ewell’s story against Tom Robinson’s.  Scout’s message to Uncle Jack is that a fair and judicious listener will deal with both sides. As Atticus also shows during the trial of Tom Robinson, there are two sides, two pieces of evidence and no eye-witnesses in this case.  Like the childhood spat between cousins, this trial becomes a matter of “you did I did” and the jury ought to give equal weight to both sides. However, Atticus knows that the “jury couldn’t possibly take a black man’s word against the Ewells” (97)

Scout alludes to the fact that before Atticus delivers his verdict he appears to the children “stark naked” as he rarely unbuttons his vest in public (223)  This is an emotive and symbolic reference to the manner in which Atticus also lays bare the soul of Maycomb. He uncovers the racist elements that lead to the guilty verdict despite the fact that, as Atticus shows, the right-handed Tom Robinson could not possibly have assaulted Mayella’s right eye.  Mayella is so demoralised and humiliated, and laid so terribly bare, that she must “destroy the evidence” of her shameful desire.

Like Scout, Dolphus Raymond is also a code breaker, and it is not surprising that he reveals his story to the quietly amazed Scout and Dill.  Harper Lee suggests that those who break the white-negro colour divide are vulnerable to the social censure that erupts in violence. Scout is amazed that Raymond “deliberately perpetrated fraud against himself” by posing as a drunkard and living with the coloured people. The point is that the pretence protects him from social censure. In this regard, Raymond has broken the unspoken code that the white people are inferior to the negroes and should therefore not cohabit with him. Despite his chequered past (and the violent death of his fiancé), Raymond realises that one can only ‘cry” against the violence that one does to another and  “cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too” (222)   In a much more sinister way, Mayella also breaks the taboo of female desire for a negro. As Atticus suggests, she must “destroy the evidence”.  Atticus points out, “no code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards” (225) Likewise, Tom Robinson breaks this code with his show of sympathy towards the poor and desperate white girl. (222)

Jem and Dill 

After the trial, Lee contrasts the childlike sense of despair that dominates Jem with the capacity to hope encapsulated by Miss Maudie’s irrepressible good nature.

In a very simple, but complicated manner, Lee depicts Jem ‘s sense of disillusionment through the imagery of the “caterpillar in a cocoon”.  Overcome by a  “fatalistic” and “rueful” outlook, Jem expresses his frustration at being thrust from his secure and cozy comfort zone. “It’s like bein’ a caterpillar in a cocoon, that’s what it is”. “Like somein’ asleep wrapped up in a warm place. I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like” (237). He is bothered by the fact that no one seemed to “help Tom Robinson, just who?”.

Miss Maudie seeks to reassure Jem and gives him a sense of hope that social change can occur with a few “baby steps”.  She knows that “Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that.”

Just as Scout stares down Mr Cunningham, it is left to the spontaneously fresh and innocent Dill to suggest that “there ain’t one thing in this world I can do about folks except laugh”.  For this reason, he will be a “new kind of clown”. “I’m gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks”.  (239)

As Lee suggests, it is the children who are more intuitively genuine and sincere. They are able to penetrate the hypocritical and intolerant self-protective facade that isolates so many in the Maycomb community.

The fringes of society

Whilst the squalid and malicious Bob Ewell conforms to the stereotype of a poverty-stricken fringe dweller, both Mayella and Tom defy social expectations. On the one hand, Ewell is an alcoholic, who neglects and abuses his children; he often shoots game out of season to feed his family. ‘No one knows how many children Ewell has, but they typically scapegoat the negroes on account of their own misery. The author insinuates that Ewell abuses Mayella, and is contemptuous of Mayella’s desire for Tom. Whilst frequently humiliated and browbeaten, Mayella seeks to overcome the squalor of her surroundings. She attempts to keep the property clean compared to her dirty father. She grows red roses in the garden which is her only beauty in the world. Mayella’s crime is that she is reaching out for affection and tempts a negro.

Tom subverts normal social (black/white) race relations. He “felt sorry” for Mayella. Tom is perhaps the only person who has ever been nice to Mayella and it is not socially acceptable for a black man to have pity for a white woman. The trial has a very divisive impact on the town. And it brings out the very best and the very worst in people.

Instead of becoming the town’s hero, Ewell is treated with similar contempt as the negroes. The townsfolk eventually conclude, “alright we’ll convict this Nigger, but get back to your dump.” Also the fact that the jury took a few hours to reach the “guilty” verdict, proves it was not a complete whitewash.  To the end, Atticus stands “with his head high and fists down” and through his leadership, Lee exposes why it is a “sin to kill a mockingbird”.

Writing essays:

Be clear about the author’s message as this will help you write topic sentences.

  • We can best expose prejudice by learning to identify with another’s pain and suffering and their (unfair) sense of exclusion. As Atticus says, which is later rephrased by Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. In this regard, Lee suggests that it is important to personally identify with the struggles of the disenfranchised or with the plight of the downtrodden.
  • It is important to defend one’s principles even if they are doomed or unlikely to succeed in a court of law; also the ability to withstand considerable scorn and ridicule becomes a test of one’s integrity as well as the strength of one’s convictions.
  • Courage should not necessarily be equated with brute physical strength.

Also include some symbols, images and literary devices: (Do a list of your favourite devices and quotes)

  • The use of the child narrator; to expose the prejudice and degree to which people become conditioned to follow conservative and traditional views.
  • The symbolism of the mockingbird: “It is a sin to kill a mockingbird”: it is unjust to persecute the innocent and the good; cf Mayella’s red geranium.
  • The comments relating to : “wriggling” in another’s skin.
  • Lee often uses the setting symbolically: the church; the children sit with the negroes in the court room
  • Mother figure parallels: Calpurnia versus Aunt Alexandra

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English Works: Dr Jennifer Minter

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