How is The Theme of Prejudice Explored in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”?
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Prejudice is the most prominent theme in ‘To kill a mockingbrid’, and it occurs in many different forms throughout the novel. In this essay, I am going to disscuss how the theme of prejudice is explored in the novel, what forms this prejudice takes, and how the prejudice is related through the eyes of Scout.
When reading ‘To kill a mockingbord’ it is important to realize that, although the story is fictional, the vicious racial prejudice in the novel is inspired by actual events that occured in the southern states of America, during the 1930’s. In fact, the trial of Tom Robinson was based on the ‘Scottsboro trials’ of 1931, where nine black males were charged with raping two white girls. Much like the fictional trial of Tom Robinson, hordes of white villagers gathered to watch the fate of the boys, who, all except one, were given death sentences by the all white jury. All the boys eventually escaped state execution, but the event was typical of its time.
This discrimination stems from the American civil war of 1861, which itself was brought about by the more civilised Northern states objection to the Southern states use of black people as slaves. This difference of opinion resulted in the Southern states attempting to leave the union of United States. This caused the civil war, in which, the Northern states(the union) defeated the Southern states(the confederacy) and slavery was abolished.
However, this did not stop the Southern states viewing black people as ‘second class citizens’, and the Southern black population was continually persecuted. This was done by enacting laws favouring white people, denying blacks the right to vote, and even lynching them. The great economic depression of the 1930’s didn’t help matters, as poor whites, like Bob Ewell in the novel, feared the extra competition for work that black men were likely to give. The whites also feared the blacks desired all the whites had, including their women.
This is the setting for Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and, although racial prejudice plays a big part in the novel, it is not the only kind of prejudice that people experience in the novel. The first half of the novel is mainly dedicated to the story of Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, a recluse, who hasn’t left his house since his father promised a judge, who was prosecuting a young Boo, that he would make sure Boo didn’t get into any more trouble. This deviation from what Maycomb society considers ‘normal’, causes Boo to achieve mythical status among the locals. This is demonstrated when Jem gives Scout and Dill what they think is a ‘reasonable description’ of Boo, and says that he ‘dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch’, and ‘his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time’. Outlandish rumours that circulate about Boo arouse curiosity amongst the children, who are relentless in their attmepts to get Boo to come out of his house. Only towards the end of the novel does Scout realise that what they did must have been torment to Boo. The Boo Radley story demonstrates how, in a small town like Maycomb, anyone who differs from the expected patterns of behaviour is likely to become the victim of prejudice.
Another type of prejudice that is prominent throughout the novel is social prejudice. Maycomb is divided into clearly defined groups which characterise position and status in society. One of the main reasons Tom Robinson is found guilty is because he ‘had the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman’ as Atticus accurately observes. This shocked the court as, in Maycombs social hiearchy, the blacks are slightly below the Ewells, and the white communities’ fear of racial disturbance ,and insecurity about their own position in society, was one of the reasons that they found Tom Robinson guilty. Another example of social prejudice occurs when Scout asks Aunt Alexandra if she can bring Walter Cunningham home to play. Because Walter is from the proud but poor farming community, and therefore a step down from the Finches on the social hiearchy, Aunt Alexandra denies Scouts request, telling her ‘they’re good folks, but they’re not our kind of folks’. Jem recognises this class structure when he tells Scout that there are ‘four kinds of folks in the world’. These are:
– The Finches and their neighbours (the white middle class)
-The Cunnighams (the farming community)
-The Ewells (the lowest class of white)
-The Blacks (automatically the lowest group in society)
While they are not persecuted as heavily as the lower groups in the social hiearchy of Maycomb, women were still viewed as unequal to men at the time the novel is set. Scout learns about women’s position in society from many different sources throughout the novel, such as Miss Maudie when she explains to Scout that foot-washing Baptists ‘think women are a sin by definition’, Atticus when he explains to Scout that, in Alabama, women are not allowed to sit on juries, and Aunt Alexandra’s constant pressure on Scout to become more like a ‘Southern belle’ (which is Maycomb’s idealistic view of how a woman should be), a point Scout eventually begins to concede. Because of this idealised view of women, the men of Maycomb were supposed to show chivalry and respect to women, which is why rape is treated with such severity in Maycomb. This chivalry is also one of the reasons why Mayella Ewells’ story was believed over Tom’s.
However, the main reason for Tom’s downfall is the racial prejudice that exists in Maycomb County. Even before Tom Robinson is convicted, there are many examples of racial prejudice in the novel. Examples of this include the Black and White segregation in Maycomb (the Blacks have their own church and settlement), Aunt Alexandra’s reaction when Scout asks to visit Calpurnia, ‘You may not’ she replies sharply, when the mob tries to lynch Tom Robinson, before he even got a court hearing, and the Blacks having to wait until the whites have entered the courtroom until they are allowed to follow, then having to sit separatly from the whites, when they finally do. We also learn that anyone that even associates with the black community is persecuted when we meet Mr Dolphus Raymond, a white man who chooses to live amongst black people, and pretends to be an alcoholic to ‘give people a reason’ for his lifestyle choice. It is clear that, even though ‘people have a reason’, Mr Raymond is the victim of prejudice, because Scout initially refers to him as ‘an evil man’.
Scout is the narrator of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and therefore the events of the novel are related through her often naive and innocent viewpoint. She has yet to be corrupted by the prejudices of the society around her, and doesn’t understand why prejudice exists. This is best depicted in the scene where Jem is informing Scout about the ‘four kinds of people in the world’, and Scout replies ‘there’s just one kind of folks. Folks’. Her innocence is also shown in the lynch mob scene, where Scout recognises Mr Cunningham in the mob, and begins talking to him. Through her innocence, she makes Mr Cunningham realise the injustice of what he is doing and, throughout the book, her narritive has the same effect on the reader. When we see things through her eyes, we realise how people are blinded by prejudice, and how this can lead to injustice. One of the most important lessons Scout learns is when Atticus tells her that, in order to understand a person, you must climb into their shoes (skin), and walk around in them. Towards the end of the novel Scout understands this and applies it to Boo Radley, who the children were fascinated by, and who they plague throughout the novel. Scout’s friend, Miss Maudie Atkinson is another big influence on Scout. Miss Maudie is fair and tolerant of other people, and this influences Scout to be the same.
Miss Maudie also explains to Scout what Atticus means when he tells her ‘it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’. Miss Maudie tells Scout ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing, but make music for us to enjoy, thats why its a sin to kill a mockingbird’. The mockingbird symbol is used throughout the novel to represent the characters that are innocent but victims of prejudice, these being Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. The mockingbird is an appropriate symbol for these characters, because each of them posses mockingbird traits, such as kindness (Tom to Mayella, Boo to the children), innocence (Tom of the crime of rape, Boo of his supposed evil persona), and both are imprisoned (Tom is imprisioned in jail, Boo is imprisoned in his house, to protect him from prejudice). Scout does not make the comparison between Tom, Boo, and a mockingbird until the end of the novel, when she comments that the public exposure of Boo Radley would be ‘sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird’.
In ‘To kill a mockingbird’ Harper Lee challenges prejudice by showing how the central character (Scout) is changed by applying Atticus’ maxim of seeing things from another persons perspective to her own life. When the novel begins, Scout and the children are pestering and mocking Boo Radley, with little regard for Boo’s feelings. At the end of the novel scout begins to understand Boo, and why he lives his life the way he does. Harper Lee also challenges the accepted cultural stereotype of the black people, which was that they are evil or stupid and childlike, by portraying the characters of Tom Robinson and Calpurnia as normal people, with the same depth of emotions as white people. However, Harper Lee does not suggest that there is a quick soulution to prejudice, as Miss Maudie says in the book, ‘baby steps’ must be taken, before you can cure the world of prejudice.