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To Kill a Mockingbird Theme

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In the opening scene of the Academy Award winning film “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye, an orthodox Russian Jew, shimmies and bellows about tradition as he lays out the familial roles of every person in the town of Anatevka. Tevye embraces these defined roles, content to adhere to the status quo, until his daughters grow up and feel the pull of modernism. At this point, torn between his family and his customs, Tevye decides to let his children do what they believe is right, not what everybody else does. Tradition and the norm are two powerful forces that have shaped decisions throughout time. These issues are explored further in other works of contemporary culture, such as Harper Lee’s coming-of-age story about a young girl dealing with the trial and repercussions of a black man her father is defending. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee illustrates the importance of maintaining the status quo and keeping traditions until one’s morals are threatened.

In the Alabama county of Maycomb, fitting in is almost instinctive. Each family has a label and each member is expected to conform. Aunt Alexandra describes it as, “Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak: a Drinking Streak, a Gambling Streak, a Mean Streak, a Funny Streak” (Lee 172). Scout finds this absurd, not only because Atticus does, but because she believes that, “...there’s only one kind of folks. Folks” (Lee 304). Still, on Scout’s first day of school, when she is reprimanded by her new teacher, Atticus tells Scout she is an ordinary person, not someone like an uneducated Ewell, and therefore must return to school every day. Later, when defending Atticus in the schoolyard, Scout is instructed not to fight, again in an effort for Scout to fit in among her peers and receive a normal education. Sticking to traditions is a huge part of fitting in in Maycomb County. All people, even those unwilling or hesitant, are subject to the rules and requirements of tradition. Some traditions are more urban legend than fact, such as how Boo Radley never comes out of his house; but others are very real, such as “It was customary for every circle hostess to invite her neighbors in for refreshments, be they Baptists or Presbyterian, which accounted for the presence of Miss Rachel (sober as a judge), Miss Maudie, and Miss Stephanie Crawford” (Lee 306). Because they are supposed to grow up to be a proper Southern lady and gentleman, Scout and Jem are to be raised by a combination of Atticus’ words of wisdom, Calpurnia’s common sense and cooking, and Aunt Alexandra’s passion for conformity. They must not cause shame or embarrassment, because punishment -- such as reading to a vicious old woman who won’t hear a word -- will be swift and severe. Flying under the radar in Maycomb is considered desirable. Making headlines, however positive they might be, is drawing negative attention onto the existence of a family. Only those shameless enough to crave this sort of infamy, such as the Ewells, are willing to go to extreme measures to pull themselves out of the comfortable lull that Maycomb has made for them.

Until their morals were threatened, the Finch family fit in among Maycomb citizens. Atticus was well aware of the baggage that came along with the Robinson case: alienation, danger, and hatred, to name a few. Despite this, when he was offered the Robinson case, Atticus took it even though he could only “...hope and pray [Atticus] can get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness, and most of all, without catching Maycomb’s usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something [Atticus doesn’t] pretend to understand...[he] just hopes that Jem and Scout can come to [Atticus] for their answers instead of listening to the town” (Lee 117). Adults and children were able and even encouraged to alienate the Finches through constant verbal abuse. Among them was Francis, a cousin of Scout’s, who tells Scout that, “‘Grandma says it’s bad enough [Uncle Atticus] lets you all run wild, but now he’s turned out a ni✗✗✗✗-lover we’ll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb agin. He’s ruinin’ the family, that’s what he’s doin’” (Lee 110). Scout in particular has a difficult time with the teasing; her way of addressing the teasing is to punch the speaker. When she goes to Atticus to tell him about the names he’s called behind his back, Atticus has to explain again that he “...[does] his best to love everybody...It’s hard put, sometimes--baby, it’s never an insult to be called what someone thinks is a bad name” (Lee 144). Atticus taught his children to treat others equally because that’s how Atticus behaves. As a lawyer, Atticus can see first-hand the hate that exists between people because of pigmentation. Watching Maycomb’s ‘usual disease’ turn normal people into people frothing at the mouth for ‘justice,’ Atticus does some soul-searching and decides that if he chickens out of the Robinson case he, “...couldn’t hold [his] head up in town, [he] couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, [he] couldn’t even tell [Scout] or Jem not to do something anymore....‘Because I could never ask you to mind me again’” (Lee 101). Atticus, a moral man by the strictest definition, believes he couldn’t have any self-respect, much less ask for respect from others, if he were to duck out of the Robinson case. Although Atticus understands that Tom Robinson is going to lose, he takes the case and gives it his entire effort because he thinks that “...simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine...[Scout], you might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down” (Lee 101). Atticus is willing to alienate his entire family, let his name be dragged through the mud, and put his children in physical danger in the name of justice, and in the name of doing what is right. He was willing to stick to traditions, to fit in, until his self-respect and sense of moral duty are put in jeopardy.

At the conclusion of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the entire town of Anatevka was forced to evacuate under an edict from the tsar forbidding Jews in Russia. Tevye did not stand up for what he believed was right when it came to Russian anti-semitism, and he lost his home because of it. Atticus Finch did stand up when the occasion required it. Normally content to blend in and fit in, Atticus finally took a stand when he felt strongly about an issue. To Kill a Mockingbird elucidates the idea of maintaining the status quo until one’s morals are threatened.

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