‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of the most influential pieces of literature concerning such sensitive issues as racism and class prejudice. The novel, written by Harper Lee, was published in the 1960s, but was set in 1930s America. The novel was set during the time of the depression, and at a time of extreme racism in the US. The publishing of the novel coincided with the 60s Civil Rights Movement, which brought back some of the issues in history, some of which are mentioned in the novel.
This novel is written in the first person, through the young and innocent eyes of Scout, growing up in Maycomb town in the 30s, and as it is written from the point of view of a young child, it helps the reader to crack through the facade of the town to see the true poverty and detriment. Throughout the novel, we learn not just about a young girl’s personality and problems as she grows up in a troubled time, but also about the social strata of Maycomb, how rumours and superstitions are spread and accepted so easily, and, most importantly, we learn about the prejudice, seen in many forms, that is embedded in society.
Maycomb is set in the south of America, which influences the attitudes of people in the town deeply. Though slavery had been abolished 70 years before the setting of the novel, white people in the south still harboured their feelings about black people. The black people were not enslaved by the white people anymore, but they were still treated with disrespect by the white people, being referred to often as “trash”. They were segregated into the lowest class, and could not move up the social ladder because of the colour of their skin.
They lived separately from the white people, and were forced to have laborious and menial jobs – jobs that the white people did not want. Their living conditions were sordid, they could not vote and could hardly ever go to school. America’s opinion of slavery divided it into half – the north treated every black person like it would a white person, whereas in the south, where Maycomb is, black people were the lowest kind of society. Because of this division, black people often moved northwards, where they could get a good job, good education, and be treated with respect.
An example of this is when Mr Dolphus Raymond sends two of his ‘mixed’ children up to the northern half of America because of the disrespect that they receive in Maycomb: ‘… he’s shipped two of his up north. They don’t mind ’em up north… ‘ This shows that, even though they have a different skin colour, they still get respected in the north, in contrast to the south. Lee helps us to picture Maycomb by her vivid descriptions throughout the novel, and we learn quite a lot about life and attitudes in Alabama from Scout. She tells us about how Maycomb is “… a tired old town… ” where “People moved slowly… “.
Lee uses personification when describing the town of Maycomb to bring it to life. Scout views Maycomb as a boring town: “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. ” – Scout The repetition of ‘no’ and ‘nothing’ emphasises how little the town has. We can also see in this quotation that Maycomb has been made poor by the effects of the depression, something not uncommon among small towns like hers in 30s America. We see the town as superstitious, especially against black people and the Radleys (Boo Radley in particular).
We see from this quotation: “… but the nuts lay untouched by the children [of the Maycomb school]: Radley pecans would kill you. ” that the superstition is drummed into the heads of even young children in the town. Scout relays to us how racist Maycomb can be at times. When the sheriff decides the fate of Boo Radley after he stabbed his father in the leg, he says that: “The sheriff hadn’t the heart to put him [Boo Radley] in jail alongside Negroes… ” which shows us the separation of blacks and whites that people had to abide to during this time.
Another example of the division between black and white people is shown when the children go to First Purchase, the church of the black people, with their black maid Calpurnia and encounter Lula May: “‘… why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church… [the white people] got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal? ‘” – Lula May This shows that the racism in the town was not one-sided, and it was not just white people that were hateful and had their feelings about the other race – black people were sometimes prejudiced against white people, too.
Lee includes this to balance the hatred between the two sides. By writing through the eyes of young Scout, Lee helps us see clearly the prejudice, rumours and the various strata of society within the town. By the end of the novel, Scout sees through all of the prejudice to the real human inside every Maycomb Town citizen, whatever race, class or gender. She believes in the morals her father brings her up with: that it is what is inside someone that makes them a good person; the way you look or the place you come from should not determine what sort of person you are: “Jem, I think that there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. ”
Jem, being the older Finch child, is more mature and has lived in Maycomb for longer that Scout has, and so understands why people are so prejudiced against each other. He helps Scout to understand why this is because he felt the same when he was her age: he realizes her child innocence is very idealistic in comparison to what life in the town is actually like – quite the opposite: “If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? ” Growing up in Maycomb helps Jem’s perspective on attitudes, character and behaviour to widen.
He realises how divided the society of Maycomb actually is, and how people are grouped into certain classes according to how they look, where they come from, or how they do things. Though Maycomb boasts about how tightly-knit their community is, it is in fact segregated into several different classes. Depending on their status, a person would live by the unofficial laws of their class: “There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s ordinary kind like us and the neighbours, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes. The order in which Jem lists the divisions and classes shows the order of each division’s importance in Maycomb: white people are the highest class in the town, down to the black people, who are the lowest class. This shows how people in the higher classes are more authoritive, treated with more respect and less prejudice than people of a lower class because of their skin colour, where they live or their different customs or way of life. Very few people can accept people of a different class, and so go out of their way just to be prejudiced against them.
These social divisions in Maycomb fuel the reasons for the community to be prejudiced and racist against people of other classes, something not very uncommon in southern America during the 30s. The racism even influences children, like Scout and other children of her age. Though she does not consciously act racist, the racism deep inside her sometimes shows through. Even though she is brought up under the morals of her almost perfect father, and taught about how evil racism is, she sometimes say racist comments without actually being aware of it. She subconsciously says ‘nigger’ and asks her father regularly if he does “‘defend niggers… “. The black community is often treated with disrespect and words such as ‘nigger’ are also widely used, even by children as young as Scout.
The Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia, is probably the only black person in the whole novel treated with respect. She acts as a motherly figure, and as a ‘substitute’ mother to the Finch children. The day that old Tim Johnson, the rabid dog, comes down the street toward the Radley house, everyone is concerned about his or her safety, especially Calpurnia. She rushes to the Radley front door to warn them of the dog coming their way: We watched Calpurnia running towards the Radley place… She went up to the front steps and banged on the door… ‘She’s supposed to go round the back. ‘” During this time in 1930s deep south America, the front door of the houses of white people was only to be used by white people; black people were not important enough to use the front door, so they were forced to only use the back door. Scout questions Calpurnia’s use of the front door, even in the severe situation that they are in. Rumours usually do spread quickly in small towns like Maycomb, but in Maycomb they spread like wildfire.
Hardly any rumour is doubted, and rumours about black people are never doubted. The divisions between the white and the black communities are one of the most important themes throughout the novel. If a crime is committed in Maycomb and one of the suspects present is black, the one who is black is always the guilty one, whether he actually committed the crime or not. As well as racism, another theme running through the course of the novel is sexism. One of the main sexist attitudes is when Aunt Alexandra demands that Scout wear dresses instead of trousers: [Aunt Alexandra said] I could not possibly hope to 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. ” This opinion is very stereotypical of girls and women at that time. Aunt Alexandra wants Scout to dress like a girl and not do activities that needed trousers because she wants Scout to be trim and proper – something very conventional at the time. The argument over Scout and her tomboy ways arise again later in the novel when Aunt Alexandra moves into the Finch household.
Her reason for moving in is because Scout needs, as she puts it, “… some feminine influence,” adding that: “‘It won’t be many years, Jean Louise, before you become interested in clothes and boys. ‘” This shows how she thinks that Scout is growing up and becoming a young woman, showing the typical assumption that every young woman is interested in clothes and boys. Another sexist remark in the novel is when the religious white ‘foot-washer’ community of Maycomb tell Miss Maudie “… women are a sin by definition. ” They say this to show how women are often ill-treated because the Bible doesn’t say that women are decent.
Everyone living in Maycomb always wonder about the local shut-in who has stayed in his house on order of his father and never left it since he was a teenager – especially Scout and her older brother Jem. The Finch children, teaming up with their newly acquired friend Dill, try in every way possible to encounter the man that they nickname ‘Boo’. After hearing a gunshot from the Radley garden, they run away from their property. Within a few minutes, the whole community of Maycomb Town is awake, and rumours are flying around about who or what that broke in to the Radley back garden and made Nathan Radley fire this gunshot.
Miss Stephanie Crawford, the town’s gossip queen, suggests the first idea of the culprit, something almost everyone was thinking about: “Shot in the air. Scared him pale, though. Says if anybody sees a white nigger around, that’s the one. ” This quotation shows prejudice against the black people in the society. Three white children, curious about a town rumour, would be the last group of people on the list of culprits – and a black person would probably be top of the list. Black people were made to be scapegoats and were associated with crime in Maycomb.
According to Miss Stephanie, Mr Nathan Radley saw someone with white coloured skin lurking around in his garden, but instead of guessing it was a white person (the obvious answer), Miss Stephanie jumps to the conclusion that the person must have been a black person scared pale. A similar incidence is when Miss Tutti and Miss Frutti accuse a group of black people they saw in town earlier in the day of stealing their furniture, when really the real culprits were a group of white children – but the thought of a group of white people moving around their furniture as a prank never passed through their minds.
Not only is the black community prejudiced against, but also anyone who is different in any way: by race, background, way of life, or where they live: “Miss Caroline printed her name on the blackboard and said ‘… I am from North Alabama from Winston County. ‘ The class murmured apprehensively should she prove to harbour her share of peculiarities indigenous to that region. ” Though the new teacher is white, she is an alien of Maycomb County, and consequently rumours about her and what she is like start to fly as soon as she says this to the class.
Even though she is from deep south Alabama, she is still prejudiced against because she is not from the tightly ‘exclusive’ county of Maycomb. This theme of prejudice against anything or anyone different in any way runs throughout the whole novel. Another example of this is the way everyone starts to treat Boo Radley and his property. Though hardly any of them have ever met the man, rumours and stories have been passed through families and friends for so long that it has become virtually impossible to make a distinction between what is truth and what are lies.
Even mature adults begin to believe in the rumours. The young children nickname him ‘Boo’ after they refer to him as a “malevolent phantom”. He is the character alleged to have terrorised the community, and is responsible for the crimes of the town by causing trouble at night, such as wilting prized flowers and killing chickens – but no one look realistically for rational reasons, such as that maybe frost killed the flowers, and foxes killed the chickens. Maycomb is proud of itself and its ways but refuses to see the rumours and problems right under their nose in their own community.
The Missionary Tea Societies are hosted for groups of women to gather and attempt to solve problems of other communities and give aid to those people in need of their help. They are openly willing to talk about the problems about tribes in Africa, such as the Mrunas, but refuse to talk about the problems right on their doorstep within their own town. Maycomb is full of hypocrites – they can point out anything wrong with another group of people, but never admit their own faults: “‘… born hypocrites,’ Mrs Merriweather was saying. ‘At least we don’t have that sin on our shoulders down here…
At least we don’t have the deceit to say to ’em yes you’re as good as we are but stay away from us. Down here we just say you live you way and we’ll live ours. … ‘” Mrs Merriweather, like many others in Maycomb, believes that a black person is always evil, no matter what they are actually like, and that they have absolutely no morals. They will willingly help out the Mruna people and others like them in Africa; they will openly raise money for them and believe that the work of the missionaries will change their ways, but will not welcome nor offer help and assistance to the black people in their own community.
‘Not a white person’ll go near ’em [the Mruna people]… [they live in] poverty… the darkness… the immorality… ” This is very hypocritical of Mrs Merriweather, as the black community in Maycomb also live poverty – just like the people of the Mruna tribe in Africa – but the missionary society does not recognise this and does not help the black community in their own town. The children of the community are ‘brainwashed’ to be prejudiced against some people via the school system. They are told that the persecution of the Jewish is wrong, but for all the wrong reasons.
Walter Cunningham questions this on the grounds that even the Jewish people are white. The persecution of white people is a crime against humanity, but no one jumps up to suggest that the persecution of the black community is wrong. Very few people would, as most of the County practise poor treatment towards the black community anyway. One of the main plots in the novel is when Atticus, Scout and Jem’s father, has a court case defending the black man Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell. It is also a peak of racism and illustrates Maycomb in its true prejudiced ways.
The Ewell family is one of the lowest classes – but not as low as the black people, so even they could look down at the black community the way that most of Maycomb did. Atticus summarises the tension between the white community and the black community in the case in a simple statement: “The case is as simple as black and white. ” This statement shows the court that the decision that Tom Robinson is innocent should be a simple and easy choice – but in doing this it would be choosing black over white – something unthinkable in this time in Maycomb (and generally the whole of the south of America).
This is representative not only of Alabama at the time, but of the racial hatred continuing through generations from centuries before. Even before the trial has started, Tom has to be kept in high security, for fear of racial unrest occurring. In the eyes of every white person in town, Tom is guilty ever since Bob Ewell accused him of raping his daughter. Atticus fights hard for the case, and though all the evidence points towards Tom’s innocence, he was still proven guilty – but not because of the case.
He was guilty of being black. This shows that the setting of the novel, both in place and time, is vital to exemplify the deep line of hatred, prejudice and racism running through what appears at first glance to be an innocent, safe community. Through the eyes of Scout growing up in a deeply divided society, the reader can see through the proud exterior to the real sin and evil, disguised in the forms of prejudice and racism that changed the world.