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To Kill a Mockingbird and the Politics of Law

Aug 10, 2008 1157 Words
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a multi-layered narrative, which not only makes social commentary about the law and politics, but also deals with effects of social prejudices. The story itself centers on Scout and her brother Jem and the life lessons they learn from their father as he takes on a racially charged criminal case. These lessons move them from innocent children to socially aware young adults. The climatic scene of the book takes place in a courtroom, and it calls upon the reader's feelings about the law and politics to be integrated into the story. For some, the law and politics are viewed as one, and for others they are viewed separately. Very often the law can seem more concrete then the other. One reason for this is the use of symbols in association with the law. To Kill a Mockingbird is filled with symbols that have a tangible meaning to the young children and most especially to Atticus. Some of the most poignant symbols are seen through the eyes of young Scout as sits in the balcony during the trial. She has a bird's-eye view of the entire courtroom. She points out that " the jury sat to the left under long windows"(182), and that the men in the courtroom all wore "businesses suit[s]" (177). She also views evidences of what she perceived to be truth in association with the law, in the symbolic hand on the bible. Scout sees Mayella raise "her hand and sw[ear] that the evidence she gave would be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help her God" (190). Finally before the verdict was given, she sees "Judge Taylor bang his gavel" (185). Because of these tangible symbols, the law is often seen as immovable and concrete, however it is merely a subunit of politics, and the guilty verdict in the story proves this. Therefore, court scenes in the story, are used as both a means of both law and politics. Law because the town is seemingly adhering to the law of the books, that is that all men are created equal, a man is innocent until proven guilty, and everyone is titled to a fair trial. However, the reality of the situation reflects how the law works in action. That is that African Americans were different than whites and therefore the law of the books did not apply to them, nor to those persecuting them. The division between the law of books and law of action is clearly seen in the guilty verdict of Tom Robinson. Although Atticus has clearly demonstrated his innocence due to his inability to physically commit the crime, he is still guilty because of the color of his skin. Kenneth Mash and Douglas Van Belle contend that in the book "everyone knows that Tom Robison is innocent, [but] the court's ruling sends a chilling message to Maycomb's African American population and it reinforces the racial power relationships of Maycomb's society" (201). All of the people of Maycomb all play a part in the dominating white culture because of their skin color. But the mob that attempts to injure Atticus and murder Tom Robinson are utilizing the politics in order to keep their domination. The mob mentality to go over and beyond the law and they intend to commit murder as a means of collective action. As Mash and Van Belle write, "politics consists of the individual or combined actions of individuals, governments, and groups, with public consequences aimed at accomplishing goals" (198). Therefore the lynch mob is the dominating force of Maycomb enabling politics to work in favor of there own prejudices. However, individually they can be reached. As Atticus explains this to his children, "Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man" and "so it took an eight-year-old child to bring 'em to their senses.... That proves something - that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they're still human" (168). Atticus Finch, is the exact opposite of these men. He chooses to stand alone as a man living in the south and as a sympathizer to the prevailing racism against African Americans. He is a quintessential idealist, who firmly believes in the reality of the law. He sees it as encompassing for all men. He states the following during his closing argument of the Tom Robinson trial: We know that all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunities because they are born with it, some men make more money than others...some people are born gifted beyond the scope of normal men. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal...That institution is a court. (218) According to Kenneth Mash and Douglas Van Belle, "Atticus Finch is a true believer. He believes in justice, he believes in the rules of the law, and he believes that the system should work. He believes that it must be made to work" (198). He believes even after losing the trial that the guilty verdict will be turned over in an appeal to a higher court. He has hopes that beyond the small borders of Maycomb the law will prevail over prejudice. Atticus states, "The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box" (233). Atticus also is believer in natural law. The idea that all people belong to one greater human race rather than small segregated pieces. He calls upon the theory of natural law in order to make Tom Robinson's skin color void in his guilt. In another part of his closing argument he asks the jury to move beyond what they know and to come to understanding about men of all different colors. He states that some black do commit crimes, but points out that some do not. He goes on to say that this is the only "truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. (217). He goes on further to call upon the higher power that governs all men on earth. Atticus states, "In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson" (218). To Kill a Mockingbird is brimming with details about government, politics, and law. Though the narration is only a child she comes to a new understanding about the world around her, through her experience the reader does as well. This new understanding illustrates both the limitations of the law and how it can be used as an ideal.

Works Cited
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1960. Mash, Kenneth and Douglas Van Belle. A Novel Approach to Politics. Washington D.C.:CQ Press, 2007.

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