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Discuss the Theme of Outsiders in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

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Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was written in the 1960s, but set in the 1930s. It was set during the height of the Great Depression, and also where racism within communities in Southern USA was part of every day life. This is addressed within the theme of prejudice within a wider context of issues to do with childhood, a sense of good versus evil, and ‘outsiders’ are also dealt with in the novel. The book is written through the eyes and imagination of a young girl, and conveys how a nave mind develops through experiences of a prejudiced lifestyle. Despite the decline of organizations suck as the KKK, racism was still strong in Southern America.

During the story, members of the Maycomb town are pushed out of the community and withdrawn from daily social life, for many different reasons, revealing the prejudices and judgments this small society make.

A first example is Arthur “Boo” Radley. From the beginning of the novel it is clearly established that he is an outsider. Scout, the narrator of the story describes him as a ‘malevolent phantom’ having never seen him in her life. This enhances how Harper Lee has written through the exaggerated imagination of a young girl, playing a role in the theme of childhood. The description also shows fear – and that the children do not see him as a habitual citizen of their town but as a monster. Use of the 1960s archaic word ‘malevolent’ emphasises how he is seen as an evil citizen, despite his considerate actions. For example, Arthur Radley gave Scout a blanket during the fire of a close neighbour. This also leads the reader to feel compassion towards the character, and strengthens how he is misunderstood in the novel is. However it is not just the youth of the town that see Boo Radley as a person to ostracise.

‘People said he went out at night when the moon was high, and peeped in windows.’

The universal attitude of the town is explored through this ghostly, ethereal language: that the majority sees him as a monster-like person. Harper Lee uses pathetic fallacy; the reader associates “Boo” with darkness – a connotation of which is evil. “Boo” coming out at night, an immoral character is portrayed. Mistakes and assumptions can be made and Boo becomes a tale to frighten and control children.

Throughout the story, Arthur Radley is sustained as an outsider. On several occasions, the children use him as a centre of entertainment.

‘Let’s try to make him come out,’ said Dill.

This phrase shows excitement, but also portraying the fear they have for an innocent man. The children are intrigued and feel a rush from confronting their terror,

Another example is when Jem, Dill and Scout acted out the story of Boo Radley, until Atticus ceased this activity. It is ironic that three children playing what appears to be an innocent game, especially in a town, could isolate a character. However, Boo is not only pushed out, but also mocked.

Arthur Radley is unwelcome in the community because the close-knit people of the fictional Maycomb are afraid of him. Part of this is merely due to rumours that have spread over years. However through his considerate and thoughtful actions, like saving Jem and Scout in the woods, it is clear to the reader that he is simply misunderstood, and these people are merely narrow-minded about accepting the unfamiliar.

Another character considered an ‘outsider’ is Tom Robinson. Most of the racism within ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is focused on him, and he is simply looked down upon because of the colour of his skin. This represents the injustice in the whole of Southern USA in the 1930s, and how Harper Lee uses the character to convey the racist lifestyle she grew up in.

“Come here, nigger, and bust up this chiffarobe for me, I gotta nickel for you.” – Mayella.

This shows the superior attitude of white to black people. By calling Tom Robison ‘nigger’ it gives the sense that whites can find themselves superior. Mayella tempts him with money, suggesting that black people are unable to earn a sufficient and live a lower class life. However, it could be interpreted that Mayella is merely being considerate, as Tom was inferior to her and living in poverty. She would then have been offering money as a kind gesture; however, by her words, “There was several niggers around” she also suggests black people are lower class in general, casting Tom Robinson as an outsider.

During the court case, it is clear to the reader that Tom Robinson is an innocent man. However, as he is black, the jury of his trial are naturally biased and treat him as guilty even before hearing his case. This also shows the appalling prejudice black people were frequently subjected to in the 1930s,

It is Mayella’s own isolation that is the result of Tom’s conviction. Mayella was an outsider to her peers and is friendless as the following quote illustrates.

‘”Miss Mayella, a nineteen-year-old girl like you must have friends. Who are your friends?”

The witness frowned as if puzzled. “Friends?”‘

Because Mayella appears “puzzled”, it can be assumed by the reader she is unfamiliar with what would be a huge part of a normal adolescence’s life. At this point, Lee could have been writing so the reader looks down on or feels sympathy for the character, This contributes to her being cast out as she will not gain experiences, or even know how to lead what would be classed as a normal social life. Due to the lack of this she has seduced a black man illustrating her vulnerability and lonely nature – disagreeing with her father’s and the horrific beliefs of the town. This also puts her under the spot of being guilty herself potentially worsening her position as an outsider.

Another main ‘outsider’ in To Kill a Mockingbird is Atticus, the father of Jem and Scout and also the lawyer defending Tom Robinson. Although his calm, considerate and wise personality is respected throughout the town, his reaction and beliefs concerning Tom Robinson’s case are what set him apart from the majority of Maycomb. This shows that at the time it paid to stick with the majority instead of risking being cast out – this links to the tight community.

‘The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow…’ – Atticus

This demonstrates his belief that a defendant in a court case should be judged on the strength of evidence against him, and not with a prejudiced view that a black man’s colour means that he must be guilty, portraying Atticus’ extremely good morals. Consequently, names like ‘nigger lover’ are used against him. This shows the ignorance of the towns’ people, by not realising that he is only doing his job, and that racism is wrong. Condemnation of racist attitudes was gaining a broader acceptance by 1960 when the novel was published Black Americans were campaigning for and end to segregation in the Southern States. However, in the 1930s when the book was set, many white Americans held on to traditional views that blacks were inferior and through the character of Atticus the novel acts as a metaphor for the unfairness of racial prejudice. It thus reflects the time of change in historical terms and the challenge to racism.

The ‘Cunninghams’ are a family that have been cast aside for a number of generations. They are poor, possibly the reason they are ‘outsiders’ and do not take what is not possible to pay back.

‘”Ah – Miss Caroline.”

“What is it Jean Louise?”

“Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.”‘

This isolates the family as a group, distinguishing him from the rest of the class, again casting him as an outsider, showing that one does not have to be alone to be isolated. However, Scout is not prejudiced towards him, again showing the innocence and instinctive justice of the child.

In the Novel of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ a number of the characters are pushed out of the community, through prejudice actions or merely they are ‘different’. And so ‘outsiders’ become a key theme, as the community’s attitude towards them differs, and in some cases also matures. We can also learn a lot from the book, about the effects of racism and other forms of prejudice. It is important to remember that at the time “To Kill a Mockingbird” was set, the population was not as diverse and many people were ignorant to other races. Harper Lee manipulates the reader’s affections is his portrayal of the prejudice each of the isolated characters have faced. Lee’s use of racist insults such as “nigger”, although more common today, may have shocked a 1960s audience. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is an effective portrayal of life in 1930s South America and the issues arising at the time.

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