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Literature: To Kill a Mockingbird

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Harper Lee’s novel ‘To kill a Mocking bird’ revolves around Maycomb a
typical rural town of the American South. The story is set in the 1930s a period
when racism and prejudice are commonly encountered in everyday life. The novel
follows the conviction of an apparently innocent Black man sentenced almost
entirely due to his race. It is through this man’s trail we see how harsh
Maycomb society is on minorities. During the trial scenes we learn a lot about
people’s views and beliefs on other people and the strict codes by which
people have to live. We learn the most about Maycomb Society through the trial.
Town trials were big social events in the 1930s. The trial is described as a
‘Gala occasion’ and many people acted as if they were attending a
‘Carnival’, rather than to see a man on trial for his life. The town’s
reaction to what is happening tells us a lot about people’s ideology and the
general time frame. We learn more about the mutual hatred between African
Americans and ‘whites’ in a legal sense. Groups like the ‘Idler’s
club’ and the Mennonites enjoyed seeing a Black man’s freedom taken away
from him. Tom Robinson was found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell, in the face of
very strong evidence that his accusers were lying. One reason why he was
convicted was because it was a white man’s word against a black man’s one.
Tom, who is black, would be denied justice because of this. Atticus reinforces
this idea when he tells Jem ‘in our courts, when it’s a white man’s word
against a black man’s, the white man always wins.’ Generally this was the
mentality of most Americans at the time. In Maycomb a white man’s word was
always taken without any regard as to how trustworthy he was. Another reason why
he was convicted was because Tom Robinson went against the accepted position of
a Negro by daring to feel sorry for a White person. All these prejudices are a
result of people holding onto performed ideas of a certain set of people. It is
not just racial prejudice, which is present in Maycomb but the narrow, rigid,
intolerant codes of behaviour, which the townspeople wish to impose on others.
These prejudice all show the inability of the people to, as Atticus puts it
‘consider things from his point of view’ and the lack of understanding
between them. The courthouse reflects the social division seen in Maycomb. The
courthouse itself is very old fashioned in the way that it is built and its
laws. The segregation between Blacks and Whites is emphasised by the way the
Blacks file in last and are seated in the balcony. Their kindly politeness to
Jem, Dill and Scout is again shown when the children come to sit in the
‘coloured balcony’. Four Blacks give up their seats for them. This also
implies that White children have precedence over Black adults. We also can see
that the children’s admission to the balcony underlies their lack of
prejudice. A prime example of prejudice within the book is shown when the
Idler’s club find out that Atticus will defend Tom ‘properly’. They are
disgraced at this. Atticus is an example of someone who is an anchor of reason
within Maycomb. He is chosen to defend Tom at trial because Judge Taylor knows
that Atticus would give a fair defence. Atticus would fight his hardest to win
the case even though he is bound to lose, because this is what Atticus views as
the meaning of true courage – ‘Simply because we are licked a hundred years
before we started is no reason for us to try to win’. By saying this Atticus
believes that even if this is the hardest case he will use his courage to try
his best, since it is morally wrong not to take the case just because there is
no chance of winning. Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson when no other
lawyer would. He was one of the few respectable people not blinded by the racial
injustice Tom Robinson faced. Not only did Atticus defend Tom in the courthouse,
but he defended him at jail on one occasion too. Atticus’ beliefs are spoken
in his speech on the code of the society. In this speech he spoke of the strict
laws, old traditions and ways of thinking that are still prevalent in Maycomb.
Whites were not to communicate or get involved with Blacks. This was a code
Mayella Ewell broke by tempting a black man – ‘She was white and she tempted
a Negro she did something that in our society is unspeakable.’ The Jury
hearing the case is all white this is because of their superiority in society.
Atticus hopes that by this justice will not be mocked as it has in the past.
Mayella is viewed as an outsider. Although she is the prosecution in the case,
Mayella never set out to intentionally hurt Tom. She was lonely and only wanted
affection from Tom, this being thought of as a crime at the time. Mayella did
not commit a crime, but in fact broke a moral code of society. Mayella
considering tempting a Black man showed that her view on the Negroes was not
entirely the same as the rest of Maycomb. However Mayella had been convinced one
way or the other that by convicting Tom was the only way to restore the
family’s lost pride after she broke the moral codes of society. Dolphus
Raymond is also viewed, as an outsider who is rejected by Maycomb society;
because he is a White man yet prefers to live with Negroes. He has a reputation
of being a drunkard, but this is just a pretence. Mr. Raymond is actually a very
sensitive man who loathes society and hates the ‘hell white people give
coloured folks, without even stopping to thing that they’re people to’.
Dolphus, unlike Atticus does not have the courage to admit his preference of
Negroes. So, he presents himself as a drinker so people might think he is drunk
and excuse him from his action. In Atticus’ basic summing up he talks about
how for once people should look at Tom Robinson as a human rather than as a
‘Negro’ or a ‘coloured man’. They would say that a man was immoral only
because the colour of his skin happened to be a little darker than their own.
Atticus openly defies traditional thinking even while under scrutiny of the
entire town, particularly in his final courtroom speech. Maycomb citizens
believe that Tom Robinson is not, and should not be part of their lives or of
their community Atticus, on the other hand finds faults with the towns’
traditional views. Thinking reasonably and intelligently, he knows he does not
want his children to grow up with similar views. He attacks old southern
tradition by using the law. He lives by a traditional code in which justice is
highly valued. Atticus strongly believes that ‘in our courts all men are
created equal’. Atticus knows that if there is one place in which the time-honoured
codes of southern society can be broken, it is in a court of law. He discovers,
however, that tradition is not easily broken and laws are not easily changed.
Nearly everyone in the town has a basic trust for Atticus that he will do what
is right, despite the fact they despise his independent thinking. Although the
verdict is inevitable it has taken the jury time to reach. By the trial the
jury’s ways of doing things have been changed. Miss. Maudie Atkinson points
out that usually with this kind of case the verdict would be reached in a
minute. But this time it took a long time. As well as this he points out that
Judge Taylor appointed Tom the best possible lawyer – instead of using an
un-experienced Maxwell Green. Miss. Maudie uses these two things to defend the
town and its people in showing a sign of change. She feels that they have made a
‘baby step’ in the right direction. Maycomb has changed a little bit, but
there is still a long way to go before black and white can be equal. Although
disappointed and frustrated by the verdict, Jem and Scout both learn valuable
lessons. Atticus succeeds in conveying his simple message that when a white man
cheats a black man, ‘no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family
he comes from, that white man is trash.’ After the trial, Jem and Scout
don’t care what people say about their ‘nigger-loving’ father. It does not
matter because he has bestowed upon them a new tradition of thinking. Jem and
Scout do not think in terms of class and race. Scout does not have to think hard
to know that she would ‘let Tom Robinson go so quick the Missionary Society
wouldn’t have time to catch its breath’ if it was up to her and if Jem had
been on the jury ‘Tom would be a free man’. Atticus is pleased by his
children’s views. Atticus has one wish entering into the trial and that is
that Jem and Scout get through it 'without catching Maycomb’s usual
disease’. One of the major themes that this novel presents is the loss of
innocence that children were beginning to encounter at a younger age. During Tom
Robinson’s trial, Reverend Sykes says ‘this ain’t fit for Miss. Jean
Louise or you boys either’, thinking that the description of sexual harassment
was a subject too mature for their age. The children’s innocence allows them
to see through the artificial barrier of colour and to accept and individual for
what they are. Harper Lee uses Atticus and his relationship with his children to
integrate the themes of growing up and the law. Atticus raises his children
according to his principles. His teachings to his children come back to reward
him. For example he explains to his daughter Scout how the Cunningham family is
poor but proud enough that they do not accept charity. This stimulates enough
questions in her young mind that when the she is at the jail when the Lynch Mob
arrives she effectively saves Tom Robinson’s life by unnerving the mob with
innocent questions about Walter Cunningham. In her innocent gesture, Scout makes
Mr. Cunningham realise that he is a father, not just part of a mob, and, in a
sense, he ‘walks around in Atticus’ skin’ for a moment. Atticus
demonstrates great bravery in defending Tom Robinson. Much of the White
community turns against him and even take out their rage on his children.
Children like Cecil Jacobs and Francis both tease Scout about her father being a
‘nigger lover’. Aunt Alexandra feels that Atticus was bringing the family
name down. Despite this Atticus does not compromise his morals or allow his
children to do so. The children in Maycomb are influenced very much by their
relations. This leads to many children picking up what comes from their parents
–‘ My folks said your daddy was a disgrace an’ that Nigger oughta hang
from the watertank!’ Absurd actions often interfere with young ones making
them act in the same manner. Bob and Mayella Ewell portray the ‘white trash’
of Maycomb. Knowing the low esteem associated with the name ‘Ewell’ they
strive to control people and maintain the status of untouchables. The Ewell’s
do not go to school, do not accept charity, and do not recognise
African-Americans as real human beings. To accentuate his status Bob Ewell
dehumanises the African-American, calling them ‘niggers’ and treating them
like animals. The trial becomes a stage for another one of the Ewell’s games,
a game for the whole town to witness. The actions of this lead to dyer
consequences. The Ewells answer to no one and remain immune to the results of
such actions. A different type of prejudice shown in the novel is class
prejudice. It is unconsciously shown by Scout as well as a few of her
compatriots on her first day at school. They attributed certain qualities to
each family in Maycomb and expected these traits to be hereditary. For example
the reason which Scout gave as to why Walter refused the quarter which Miss.
Fisher offered was because ‘he is a Cunningham’ and the reason why Burris
was so dirty and impudent was, as far as the children were concerned, was
because ‘he is one of the Ewell’s’. This shows the complacent way in which
class prejudice is treated within Maycomb, in Maycomb it is just taken for
granted, no questions asked. In fact the children, in stating these
characteristics of the Cunninghams and the Ewells did not even realise that they
were being prejudiced, they had just been brought up that way. Later, when Jem
invited Walter to teal Scout criticised his table manners. Calpurnia and Atticus
were angry with Scout by saying that Walter was ‘company’ and could eat
whatever he wanted. When Scout retaliated by saying that Walter wad not
‘company’ that he was just a ‘Cunningham’, Calpurnia did not let that
serve as an excuse for humiliating him. In this way Calpurnia tried to stop
Scout gaining the class prejudice of Maycomb and to treat all people equally.
When Scout innocently wanted to befriend Walter Cunningham, a farmer’s boy,
Aunt Alexandra responded saying ‘Finch women aren’t interested in that sort
of people’. Scout vainly protested this bias and could not understand why two
people could not be friends, regardless of monetary or scholarly status. Aunt
Alexandra is part of the Ladies Missionary Circle, which is a group, which
spreads the Christian faith in the community, but in this case they turn out to
be the small town gossips. The ladies of the missionary circle speak with
compassion for the neglected tribes of Africa while insulting and demeaning the
Negroes who work in their homes. The Missionary tea ladies’ comments about the
Blacks is more than evident within the trial, they were part of a large group of
people who overlooked all the evidence in favour of Tom Robinson at the trial,
just because he was Black. This is very typical of such a group as it is all a
group of white people. Another aspect of Maycomb society is shown through they
hypocritical prejudice shown at school. During school, where the teacher is
explaining the difference between democracy and dictatorship, the teacher uses
the United States as an example, Scout wonders how they can call themselves a
democracy when they are still prejudice against Negroes. The irony of Miss.
Gate’s lecture on democracy compared to her comments at the trial is evident.
The irony is that US will be changing to make it fair between Black and White in
order to become a true democracy. Scout’s teacher plays a game of being a
sympathetic southern school teacher. She appears to be the perfect gentle woman,
set in tradition and very sympathetic to the less fortunate, such as the Jews in
Germany who suffer persecution. She says ‘Persecution comes from those who are
prejudiced’. Miss. Gates’ part also includes the confidence in her higher
stature, though she sensibly plays the part down. Many other towns-women also
model themselves after; they become role models. They set distinctions that
result in the traditions of the town. The Black church in Maycomb, which was a
place of worship on Sunday, is described as a gambling house for white men on
week days. This again highlights that segregation was not only evident in public
buildings but places of worship too. When Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to her
church the Black members of the congregation take their hats of to them in
respect. However Lula has great antagonism towards them. Lula felt that because
all the white churches in town were segregated, why should white people be
allowed in Black churches. This shows that the hatred between the two races
works both ways. Scout finds the church service to be similar to her own except
fro a few differences. One of them which shock Jem and Scout greatly is the fact
that Helen Robinson, Tom’s wife is collecting money, and not letting anyone go
until enough money has been collected The reason why she is collecting money
when she has the ability to work and earn her own money is because as her
husband was being charged for a crime like that, no one would employ Helen. Even
Atticus the character intended to have exceptional principles and morals
reflects the influences of being raised in the midst of southern traditions.
When Calpurnia rides with him to tell of Tom Robinson’s death, she rides in
the back seat. This she probably does by choice, as she is well aware of the
controversy she may create if she was to ride in the front seat with Atticus.
Few whites in Maycomb were actually willing to suffer the shame and
discrimination by other whites bought by treating a black as an equal. The first
sign of prejudice in the novel is shown by the Finch children regarding Boo
Radley. They see him as a type of monster or a ‘malevolent phantom’ as Scout
so aptly put it. People were misunderstood because they were never really given
a chance to become known. Boo Radley is a perfect example of one who was
misunderstood, as shown by how Jem, Scout and Dill thought ‘he’ll kill us
each and everyone’. Boo too, was an outsider he was a man who kept away from
society, as he seemed to fear it. Boo was a man who was misunderstood and
because of this he suffered injustice. Boo did not handle the injustice because
he did not know about it. Harper Lees novel portrays themes which are as
relevant today as they were at the time of its setting. Some children are
influenced by society, but the innocence of some children prove vital in areas
of the novel. An awful lot about Maycomb Society is learnt through the trial,
and experience, which the whole community seems to share. The traits, which the
trial reveals about Maycomb Society, are generally evident elsewhere in the
book. For example these include racism, prejudice, gender bias, class system,
narrow and strict codes of behaviour and gossip. Throughout the story ‘To kill
a Mockingbird, people were placed in symbolic and actual prisons. The important
thing is that these people conquered and broke-free from their own imprisonment.
The same challenges and follies that were present in the novel are also present
in our communities; by reading ‘To kill a mocking bird’ we can learn from
the characters lives and possibly gain insight to our own.
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