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To kill a Mockingbird

By chelseykneen Jan 22, 2014 1589 Words
The novel “To kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is set at a time when prejudice was rampant in society. Prejudice can be defined as preconceived opinions that are not based on reason or actual experience. People had preconceived ideas about everything. Atticus Finch considered prejudice to be “Maycomb’s usual disease” as it had always been there, and had infected so many people. The book is set in the 1930s, a time when the legal system of segregation of black and white people was in effect and any African- American (negro) who challenged the system of segregation was in serious danger of being lynched or killed. Segregation was taken for granted. The novel presents the terrible effects that prejudice has on certain characters in the novel, such as Tom Robinson, Arthur Radley and the Finch family.

The setting of “To kill a Mockingbird” is Maycomb, a small town in the American South, similar to the one in which Harper Lee grew up. In Lee’s childhood in 1931, nine black men were accused of raping two white women near her town. Even though there was medical evidence that proved the women hadn’t been raped, the all- white jury sentenced most of the men to death, and the men were also nearly lynched before the trial. Many prominent lawyers believed their sentence was motivated by racial prejudices, and most people suspected that the women who accused the men were lying. Lee was inspired to write “To kill a Mockingbird” perhaps to expose the evil brought about by prejudice.

The 1930s was the time of the Great Depression. People became polarised according to their race and social status. Prejudice was especially rife. Maycomb was a rural town and was especially effected by the Great Depression. Rural areas were poor and undeveloped, and black people worked for very low wages in the fields for white farmers.

The novel is a Bildungsroman and is told in first person narrative from Scout Finch’s point of view. She is an adult when she tells the story but it is from the point of view of Scout as a child. Writing the novel from the point of view of a child allows Lee to create an innocent perspective as the reader sees prejudice through the eyes of a child who doesn’t understand it, which helps to make the message about how wrong prejudice is and makes it more accessible to the reader.

Our initial introduction to this inherent prejudice is through the demonising by the children of Arthur (Boo) Radley. Jem, Scout and Dill’s attitudes to “Boo” are based on the superstitions of the people of Maycomb. The children come to see him as a “malevolent phantom”, evil and to be feared. He is seen as a monster to the children, dining on “raw squirrels” and having a “long jagged scar”, despite never having seen him before. It is a very childish description, but one of the reasons for this is because of Stephanie Crawford, who filled the children’s heads with numerous, false tales. The children’s minds are soiled with the idea that Boo looked like a horrible monster. The prejudice against Boo is so strong that he even gets the blamed for all unexplained happenings. For example, Boo is blamed for terrorising the “town by a series of nocturnal events” and when it was discovered that the culprit was Crazy Addie, people were “unwilling to discard their initial suspicions”. This shows how deep the prejudice against Boo was, and that it is based on ignorance. Throughout the story there are gradual hints that the prejudice against Boo is wrong. He gives presents to the children in the tree, sews Jem’s trousers and gives Scout a blanket on the night of the fire. This shows a more caring and thoughtful side to him. Boo has been watching the children, which is why he could protect them. When the true personality of Boo is brought to light in Chapter 31, Scout learns that she has been wrong about him. She comes to care for him and learns her feelings towards him are prejudiced. The true personality of Boo is shown to be scared about leaving his house because he is afraid and uncertain of society, instead of being seen as a monster. This is shown as “he almost whispered it, in the voice of a child afraid of the dark”. It is clear that the people of Maycomb have misjudged him. The prejudice against Boo Radley is a reflection of prejudice in society. Harper Lee is suggesting that if the people of Maycomb were wrong to judge Boo Radley, then they are wrong to discriminate against black people. Boo foreshadows the greater prejudice of racism, and compared to this the prejudice of Boo is silly and childish.

In Maycomb, there are other types of prejudice. Prior to the feminist movement of the 1960s, women had to follow strict gender roles. Scout is a prime example of a female child struggling to fit these roles placed upon her not only by males in society, but women too. The moment Aunt Alexandra enters Maycomb, she placed it upon herself to mould Scout into her societal role. Scout suffers a great deal of criticism and pressure from her Aunt to be the stereotypical girl, “We decided that it would be best for you to have some feminine influence. It won’t be many years, Jean Louise, before you become interested in clothes and boys”. Aunt Alexandra’s comment directed to Scout reflects the common values of Maycomb Country and of that era. Jem, as he starts to grow up also wishes that Scout “started bein’ a girl”. Miss Stephanie also informs her that she won’t become a lady until she “wears more dresses”. This also stresses the importance of becoming a “lady”. To be a lady in the South obviously means more than simply being a female, one has to look and act the part according to the people of that time.

Gossip is very important in the town. The families of the town have certain reputations, which really categorises people. Scout says that the families in the town have lived together for so long, they have become “utterly predictable”, which shows they are expected to behave in a certain way. For example, everybody knows Stephanie Crawford has a gossiping “streak”. These streaks can pass on from generation to generation, for example Burris Ewell is filthy and rude, so when the reader is introduced to the rest of the family they’re no different. The fact that children grow up like their parents suggests that their prejudice will be passed on.

Dolphus Raymond faced the wrath of much of Maycomb's white population, but not because he was black. A wealthy white man, Raymond lived with his Negro mistress--a sin almost as serious as the accusations against Tom. Mixing of the races was considered a cardinal sin in the Deep South, and Raymond was castigated by most of white Maycomb. Because of this personal decision, many people also considered him mentally unstable, and many of Raymond's actions (specifically weaving down the sidewalks with a bottle in a paper bag) seemed to support this conclusion. The only person who doesn’t welcome Scout and Jem into the First Purchase Church is Lula. She says to Calpurnia “You ain’t got no business bringing white chillun here- they got their church, we got our’n”. Lula illustrates that prejudice and stereotyping is not something that is confined to one particular group, but it is everywhere. As a member of a racial group which has been discriminated against by white society, Lula gives the same unfair treatment back to the innocent individuals of Scout and Jem, solely because of their racial identity. Even though the way Lula reacts is perhaps understandable because of the way blacks have been treated, it shows that prejudice works both ways. Atticus is different from the rest of Maycomb’s men. At the start of the book Jem and Scout don’t appreciate their father because they think he’s “feeble” because “he was nearly fifty”. But Atticus isn’t afraid to be different, he’s academic, doesn’t drink and spends his evenings reading with his family. In Maycomb, people are judged for being different, but because the town respects Atticus they accept the way he is. He is described as being “the same in his house as he is on the public streets”. This shows that Atticus treats people equally and fairly, whether they are young, old, black or white, unlike the majority of people in Maycomb. Many people are prejudiced against Atticus, including Francis, Cecil Jacobs and Mrs Dubose.

Harper Lee presents mockingbirds to symbolise innocent creatures that need to be protected from evil. Miss Maudie described mockingbirds as creatures that “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”. This makes Tom and Boo the novel’s most obvious mockingbirds because they are both victims of prejudice, are locked up, innocent and compassionate. Tom’s death is compared to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds” and Scout thinks blaming Boo for Bob Ewell’s death would be like “shootin’ a mockingbird”. Perhaps it is significant that Atticus’ surname is Finch, and perhaps he is a mockingbird as well because he becomes a victim of prejudice due to his valiancy to help an innocent black man.

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