Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Deals with Societal Issues
In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, many of the characters are used as an array of both symbols and themes which deals with numerous issues such as; racism, innocence, maturity, and morality through characterization and conflict. This important novel focuses on a small southern family living in Maycomb, a conservative little town, in the 1930s that deal with issues that still resonate today in American society. Throughout the novel, Harper Lee uses the childhood innocence of the main characters named Jem and Jean Louise Finch (Scout). Jem and Scout mature as they learn to grow from misjudgments to overcome their own beliefs and preconceptions about the town that they reside in. The effective use of symbolism in this novel help portrays the most important theme of the coexistence of good and evil that refers to the problems of racism in the south.
Through Jem and Scout’s perspectives, they are able to mature and get a better understanding of human morality in Maycomb because of the different events that they go through that allows them to grow. For example, at the opening of the novel, Jem and Scout are quite young, Scout is a mature five and Jem is nine years old. When we first encounter them, they are indulging in childish curiosity about their secluded neighbor Boo Radley who is their source of childhood superstitions. Since no one has seen Boo in many years, Jem and Scout imagine all sorts of terrible things about him. Jem believes that he is “about six-and-a-half feet tall; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch… what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time” (Lee 13). Jem and Scout’s childhood friend Dill devise plans to get Boo out of his house because he is fascinated with the stories that the Finch children told him. After two failed attempts to get Boo out of his house, Jem and Dill suggest if they want to send a message to Boo, they should “put the note on the end of a fishing pole and stick it through the shutters” (Lee 46). However, Atticus catches the children trying to deliver the note with the message attached to Boo’s house and tells them to “stop tormenting that man” (Lee 49). As the novel progresses, the Finch children realize that Boo is actually kind hearted human being and not what they previously thought of him as. The Finch children learn of his true personality when they are attacked by Mr. Ewell and he saves their lives. After escorting him home Scout makes a point about growing up when she says that “one never knows a man unless he stands in his shoes and walks around in them” (Schuster 511). As the children mature at the end of the novel, they begin to understand that Boo is a symbol of good.
Jem and Scout learn a valuable lesson concerning race from their father that the world is not fair. They discover that their father, Atticus Finch is going to represent a black man in court named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping and beating a white woman. When they see how Tom Robinson is treated unfairly during his court case, they both begin to understand the racism and judgment in Maycomb. Between innocence and experience, they both struggle with childhood belief that fails to realize that race triumphs justice. During the courthouse session, Atticus shows that Bob Ewell was left-handed, and that Tom Robinson could have not possibly beat his daughter because the bruise “was on her right eye” (Lee 168). After hearing that Tom is indeed innocent, Jem whispers “We’ve got him” as he believes that the jury would see that it was solid evidence that Bob Ewell is the one who hit his own daughter, Mayella. Based on Jem’s experience he believed that the “justice given in the courtroom will always favor the truth” (Murray 81). Furthermore, after Tom Robinson is not acquitted because he is black, Scout learns that there is “suspicion of a dark underside of the community” (Johnson 133). This changes Scout’s perception of black people living in Maycomb. After the trial, Jem and Scout learn that Maycomb is extremely prejudiced when they see that not only their peers but adult, they have known their whole lives disagree with Atticus representing a black man in court. This example along with other experiences surrounding the trial teach Jem and Scout the nature of Maycomb.
During the 1930s women were expected to be polite and wear dresses, however, Scout is the complete opposite and struggling to come to terms with the expectations her society has for women. By acting like a tomboy Scout “suffers criticism for her physical exuberance and lack of feminine attire” (Jay 512). Throughout the novel, Scout has many male characteristics such as being a tomboy. A significant trait involves her psychical altercation with the other classmates. ‘Catching Walter Cunningham in the schoolyard gave me [Scout] some pleasure, but when I was rubbing his nose in the dirt Jem came by and told me to stop. ‘You’re bigger’n he is,’ he said’ (Lee 22). Traditionally young girls are not supposed to participate in fights but instead play with dolls. However, Scout participates in many fights with her classmates because she finds “pleasure” in beating them up. Furthermore, Scout punches her cousin Francis because he calls Atticus a “Nigger-lover” for defending Tom in court which will supposedly ruin the Finch reputation. Showing her courage and ultimately acting like a man, Scout explains how she punched Francis, “This time, I split my knuckle to the bone on his front teeth. My left impaired, I sailed in with my right, but not for long. Uncle Jack pinned my arms to my sides and said, “Stand still!” (Lee, 84). By acting different than expected from southern societies, Scout defies the boundaries of being a woman.
The question of civil rights not only plays out through Tom Robinson’s trial also reflects the Civil Rights Movement era that was happening when the world was still black vs. white. While Tom’s case holds many similarities to the Scottsboro trial of 1931, it is also remotely similar to the Emmett Till trial of 1955. In 1931 nine black boys in Alabama ranging from 13 to 20 are falsely accused of raping two white women on a train because of “easy virtue” (Johnson 130). A few years after the Scottsboro trial happens the trial 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 begins in Mississippi. Emmett Till was murdered by two white men who accused him of “whistling at a white woman in a store” (Chura 2). Moreover, in the novel, Tom is also a young black male who is charged with raping a white woman “who had made sexual advances toward him” (Johnson 130). In both the Scottsboro trial and Tom’s trial there were similar circumstances that were overlooked. Heath issues that two of the Scottsboro boys had would have made it very difficult to rape the women as one has syphilis and one was nearly blind. However, in Tom’s case, his left arm is handicapped because it got “caught in a cotton gin” and it would have been impossible for him to rape and attack Mayella. In Emmett’s case, he had “polio when he was three and he couldn’t talk plain. You could hardly understand him” (Chura 7). The whistling that the two white men heard was “a defect in his speech as a result of a polio attack” (Chura 7). All of the parties in Emmett’s case except for one used his speech defect as an extenuating factor” (Chura 7). The jurors in both the Scottsboro trial and Emmett Till’s trial were composed of white men and the jurors in Tom’s trial were “sunburned [and] lanky…farmers” (Lee 164). Due to racism Tom Robinson and Emmett Till are killed. As a result, Lee reflects Tom Robinson’s trial to real life trials to demonstrate the racial injustice in the south that “resonated with current events” (Jay 491).
The dominant symbol of ‘mockingbird’ has a connection to the plot of the novel, but it also carries a symbolic meaning. Throughout the novel “mockingbirds are mentioned in several places…often in key places” (Schuster 507). Mockingbirds as a symbol in this novel represent the idea of innocence destroyed by evil. They first appear when Atticus gives Jem and Scout air rifles, however, Atticus will not teach them how to shoot but he does explain to them one golden rule ‘I’d rather you shoot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird (Lee 90). Atticus tells the children that killing a mockingbird destroys innocence. Miss Maudie also describes to Scout that “mockingbirds don’t do one thing but… sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (Lee 90). Throughout the novel, there are two characters that can be identified as mockingbirds such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. They are both mockingbirds because they “represent those who are unjustly marginalized, excluded, and imprisoned” (Murray 87). For example, Tom is a mockingbird because he does not cause anyone any harm and tries to provide pleasure to the people he meets. However, his acts of kindness are what gets him in trouble with Mayella. Tom was helping Mayella do some chores when her father Bob Ewell comes home and finds Tom in their house. Failing to realize that Tom was innocently helping Mayella, Bob accuses him of raping his daughter in an attempt to ruin his life. As a result, the white citizens of Maycomb kill Tom with their conviction when they assume that he is guilty before he even has a fair trial. Boo Radley is considered a mockingbird because he is misjudged by Jem and Scout based on rumors. He stays to himself and has no evil intentions against anyone. In reality, Boo is not evil because he saves Jem and Scout’s life when Bob Ewell attacks them. Boo ends up killing Bob in his effort to protect the children from Bob’s vicious attack. Both Tom and Boo are misjudged based on evil rumors. The mockingbird symbol that represents both Tom Robinson and Boo Radley communicate with the theme of protecting the innocent. Finally, central symbols and themes in To Kill a Mockingbird are just as relevant in American society. Through symbols and themes, Harper Lee explores the moral nature of people especially the struggle with human soul between what is good and what is bad.
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