Look Closely at Scout’s Early Experiences at School (pages 22-38)
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In this section of the novel, we are made very aware of the racism and prejudice and also the concept of ‘outsiders’, which occurs within Maycomb. This is done through characters whom we have already been introduced to, such as Scout and Bob Ewell, and others, such as Miss Caroline Fisher, whom we are introduced to for the first time. This section also begins to describe the extent of the poverty in Maycomb which we are not really made aware of previously. The ‘classroom scene’ is when these aspects and their significance to the rest of the novel start to become very apparent. We learn more about the characters in the novel and they are used by Harper Lee to convey different ideas of Maycomb, and other characters in the novel, to the reader.
We also learn more about the background of various characters in the novel, such as the poverty that Walter Cunningham and the Ewells live in. It also starts to give us an idea of why these characters are included in the novel and how they function to show a reader various aspects, such as the prejudice in Maycomb, from different points of view. We especially learn more about the character of Scout and although slightly less, the characters of Atticus and Jem as well. The ‘classroom scene’ also gives Lee an opportunity to prepare a reader for what is coming later in the novel – not just the racism and prejudice but also for other characters who are introduced at a later stage, such as Bob Ewell. The section also highlights the importance of other characters in the novel, like Calpurnia and her significance to the Finch’s and to the novel as a whole.
The main reason that the ‘classroom scene’ is in the novel is so that we can be made aware of the division within the classroom which acts as a very powerful microcosm of Maycomb.
Although we are never actually told, we are implicitly made aware that it is a whites only school which emphasises the segregation in Maycomb. The segregation extends to education which clearly prejudices the black community and denies the black children the privileges of education. This prejudice restricts and limits the possibilities of the black children. Because of this segregation in schools and education, many blacks wouldn’t have gone to school and so would have been illiterate. This fact is made clear when Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to church later on in the novel. We are told that there are no hymn-books, “Cal, where are the hymn-books?” “We don’t have any.” and that the hymns are dictated by a literate man who reads out each hymn line by line which the segregation then sings back. This shows to what extent the prejudices against the black community exist, as if they cannot even read hymns in church, then they are not going to be able to get well paid jobs as these would require being able to read and write.
Another reason why the ‘classroom scene’ is in the novel is to ‘warn’ a reader of what is coming later in the novel, in the way of both characters and the racism and prejudice which occur with Maycomb. Burris Ewell is an example of this as he is similar to his father in both attitude and his potential violence: “The boy’s condescension flashed to violence.” Burris is introduced early on in the novel so that a reader is subconsciously aware of what his father, Bob Ewell is going to be like later in the novel.
The next aspect of Maycomb which is interesting and significant in the wider context of the novel, is the poverty in Maycomb which we are made aware of through Miss Caroline Fisher. Being an ‘outsider’, she provokes confrontations through her naï¿½vity on the ways of Maycomb. Some aspects of the poverty are made very clear to us, e.g. Walter Cunningham’s “absence of shoes” but other like the fact that Walter has no lunch, are made aware to us through Miss Caroline. These confrontations are a way for Lee to show a reader to what extent the poverty exists within Maycomb. We are also shown that it is not only the Cunningham’s who are poor, but this poverty can be found in the whole of the community in Maycomb. Scout asks “Are we poor Atticus?” “We are indeed.”
The poverty and prejudice in Maycomb are apparent all the way through the novel, but this section is where a reader begins to realise how much this is the case in Maycomb. In the classroom, where Scout is trying to explain to Miss Caroline why Walter has no lunch with him, she simply says, “Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.” This shows how nave Miss Caroline is to the ways of Maycomb when she doesn’t understand what Scout means, although “It was clear to the rest of us.” This emphasises the fact that Miss Caroline is very different to everyone else in the classroom and how much there is to learn about Maycomb. The prejudice against people who are different – “outsiders” – becomes quite apparent in this section of the novel. Miss Caroline tells the class she comes from Winston County in North Alabama when she introduces herself to them.
“The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbour her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region” shows that the children are prejudiced against the stereotypes of people rather than against the people themselves. Another example of this prejudice is against Mrs. Dubose earlier and later in the novel “Mrs. Dubose was plain hell” although later we learn that she has a morphine addiction and her unpleasantness is caused by withdrawal symptoms. Even later in the novel, we see the same kind of prejudice against Dolphus Raymond, “the evil man.” All these examples show how superficial Maycomb is, judging people by what they have heard about them, not on who the person actually is. In the ‘classroom scene’, Burris is described as “The filthiest human I had ever seen.” The fact that only Miss Caroline – the outsider – is scared of the cooties in Burris’ hair, shows the poverty in Maycomb in comparison to where Miss Caroline comes from.
This prejudice is mostly coming from the adults in Maycomb, from people like Miss Stephanie Crawford, “a neighbourhood scold.” However, in this section of the novel it becomes apparent that it is not only the adults in the novel who are racist and prejudiced, but the children are too. Later in the novel, Cecil Jacobs says “My folks said your daddy was a disgrace (for defending a Negro)”. This shows that in some ways the children are susceptible to their parents’ prejudices. When Walter Cunningham goes to the Finch’s for lunch, when she’s in the kitchen, Scout says “He ain’t company Cal, he’s a Cunningham” which proves that although it is probably subconsciously, the children are prejudiced too. Because Scout doesn’t realise she is being prejudiced, it shows that there must be a lot of prejudice in Maycomb for Scout to be saying things like that as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. Another example of the prejudice in Maycomb is in the classroom after Miss Caroline tried to send Burris home. After Burris has said that “You ain’t sending me home missus. I was on the verge of leaving -“, one of the members of the class says “He’s one of the Ewells, ma’am” which is an example of how the children are prejudiced against the same people their parents/neighbours/friends are.
It is not only the poverty itself which is interesting and significant at this stage of the novel, but in fact what the confrontations caused by this poverty reveal about the white community in Maycomb, i.e. the segregation and poverty that exist within it.
This section of the novel also gives a clear picture of the segregation between the black and the white communities in Maycomb. This is first shown in the ‘classroom scene’ by the fact that there are no blacks in the class. It also shows the segregation’s within a community. The Ewells are outsiders of the white community and later on in the novel we are told that they live in between the black and white settlements, just behind the dump. This shows that they don’t really belong anywhere – they are like pieces of rubbish, trash who have no real principle of how to act, “them ain’t Maycomb’s ways,” which shows that as well as physical segregation in the white community, there is a moral segregation too between those who know what’s right and wrong, and those who don’t. In a way, it also shows how Burris is resented because of, not only his attitude, but also because of the way he lives. It’s ironic that although there is all this segregation, in different forms, within the white community in Maycomb, they come together for the trial of Tom Robinson in order to suppress the black minority.
Confrontations caused by this poverty also highlight the segregation in Maycomb. The fact that Burris had “Been comin’ to the first day o’ first grade fer three year now” shows again the differences between the Ewells and the rest of the white community. The Ewells are further distanced from the rest of the white community due to the fact that “the Ewells are members of and exclusive society made up of Ewells.”
Although poverty is a unifying factor, we can see that the community is divided into people who make the best of the situation, and those who resent the poverty and use it as an excuse for the things they do which aren’t seen as acceptable in Maycomb’s society e.g. Little Chuck Little deals with the situation very well – he’s a “born gentleman” although he “doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from,” and the Cunninghams who “don’t have much, but they get along with it.” However, the Ewells don’t deal with it very well and instead of trying to deal with the crash, Bob Ewell makes the situation worse by “hunting and trapping out of season” and “spending his relief cheques on green whisky.” They take advantage of the fact that they are “allowed certain privileges by the simple method of the ‘common folk’ becoming blind to some of the Ewells’ activities.”
There is a lot of prejudice in Maycomb, both against the black community, and also against some members of the white community, but despite this, there is also a certain degree of tolerance in Maycomb, for instance, when Atticus tells Scout about how Bob Ewell is “permitted to hunt and trap out of season” because “his children have a way of crying from hunger pains” and “there isn’t any landowner around here who begrudges those children of any game their father can hit” shows that the people in Maycomb don’t resent the children because of their father and they will tolerate his behaviour for the sake of his children “are you going to take out your disapproval on his children?” Ironically, later in the novel, people who disapprove of Atticus taking up the Tom Robinson case take it out on his children.
In this section of the novel, we start to get a more detailed idea of what Scout’s character is like. We can see that Scout has a very confrontational attitude, for example, she is always getting into fights. The ‘classroom scene’ highlights her leadership qualities, for example, when it has to be explained to Miss Caroline why Walter Cunningham has no lunch, someone says “Go on and tell her Scout,” which shows that although it is only the first day of school, even the more elderly members of the class look to her for an explanation. This fact shows that she is quite independent for her age. In this section we see that she will stick up for herself and her family by getting into fights. The fact that she does this quite often could show that Scout’s way of handling the prejudice is to retaliate with violence. This is also the way Maycomb retaliates to the prejudice within it e.g. the Ewells.
Scout’s prejudice against people like the Cunninghams also becomes apparent in this section. When Walter comes to lunch she says to Calpurnia “He ain’t company Cal, he’s a Cunningham,” which is emphasising the effect of the prejudice in Maycomb on the children so, although Scout’s character is in some ways strong and independent, she is still very susceptible to the prejudice around her.
In this section we also get to know that Scout is in some ways different to the other children in Maycomb. This is mostly due to her upbringing – Atticus’ approach to raising his children is much more liberal and he treats his children as his equals. Scout is also different because she is reluctant to go back to school after lunch. This shows that she is probably finding it quite difficult to adapt and settle into a school routine after the freedom of her childhood. Going back to the idea of the classroom being a microcosm of Maycomb, this indirectly shows that Scout could find it quite hard to fir into Maycomb as a whole.
It can also be seen how naï¿½ve Scout is. For example at the school when Miss Caroline accuses Atticus of teaching Scout to read, Scout says “He hasn’t taught me anything, Miss Caroline.” It shows that she doesn’t realise the importance of Atticus in her life and how much he has in fact taught her. Scout doesn’t respect Atticus consciously but she remembers everything he tells her and always obeys him. He helps her to be more tolerant of people who are different and tells her to “climb into his skin and walk about in it.” He also helps her to understand that she can’t always have her own way, and how she can make good of the situation in better ways than fighting: “do you know what a compromise is?” Although everyone in Maycomb learns from each other, Atticus doesn’t want Jem and Scout to learn from the rest of the community and catch “Maycomb’s usual disease” but rather that they learn from him.
In this section we also start to learn about Scout’s relationship with her father and his influence on her. We also see the influence of other parental figures throughout the novel such as Calpurnia, Miss Maudie and in some ways, Boo Radley as well.
Atticus is someone who Scout has not yet learnt to appreciate fully. She takes him for granted, not realising how much he teaches her about the ways of Maycomb, but as well as teaching us more about Scout, and in some way Maycomb as a whole as well, this section shows us the importance of Atticus as a character and is importance throughout the novel, not just to Jem and Scout. When Walter Cunningham comes to the Finch’s for lunch he “had forgotten he was a Cunningham” which shows that although at school everyone has a ‘place in ranks’, at Atticus’ house, everyone is equal. At dinner “he and Atticus talked like two men” which shows how Atticus is patient, understanding and treats everyone as equals. It also shows how mature Walter is for his age and how because of the poverty he is exposed to, he has been forced to grow up very quickly. It also shows that although he is poor, Walter is not dumb. The fact that he is very knowledgeable on what from his point of view is most important – farming – shows that he is intelligent, even if he is not everyone’s idea of intelligent. The fact that Walter and Atticus can talk “man to man” about issues such as farming, shows how grown up Walter is.
Miss Caroline is an outsider who doesn’t understand Maycomb and its people. She is used as a ‘vehicle’ by Harper Lee to provoke confrontations so that we can learn more about the poverty, prejudice and also in some ways the racism within Maycomb. Lee used an outsider for this role, possibly to give a reader a clearer image of Maycomb from the point of view of someone who is not exposed to the poverty, prejudice and racism on a daily basis. Miss Caroline is introduced so early in the novel so that the reader can build up and image of Maycomb early on so that they would have a better idea of what has caused other events later in the novel e.g. the racism which is seen in this section is what causes the Tom Robinson case – if Tom hadn’t been Negro, the trial would never have happened.
This section of the novel also gives us an opportunity to see a lot of characteristics which are present in the children are present in their parents as well. The Ewells are an example of this. In the classroom, Burris’ character is preparing us for the violence of Bob Ewell later in the novel. A lot of things are said which could indicate this, for instance, Burris is introduced by the ‘cooties’ in his hair. This is not a very pleasant way to introduce a character to the novel – Burris is not a very pleasant person. In the classroom scene we learn a lot about Burris’ character. We can see he is contemptuous and potentially violent. A description of him says that “He peered at Miss Caroline from a fist-sized clean space on his face.” The words “fist-sized” are threatening – they suggest the violence of his character. These characteristics can all be found in Bob Ewell as well. He displays them in several parts of the novel, for example, when he attacks Scout and Jem. Another characteristic that can be found in both father and son is cowardice – as soon as anyone stands up to them, they back down, for instance in the classroom scene, “Burris seemed afraid of a child half his height”, but will act tough once they are “safely out of range” and only then will they dare to retaliate “snot-nosed slut of a school teacher”.
Finally, this section emphasises Calpurnia’s importance to the Finch’s. She acts as a mother figure to the children and will discipline them without hesitation “Calpurnia sent me through the door to the dining room with a stinging smack.” This shows how much a member of the family she really is and how important she is to helping the household run smoothly. This shows again how naï¿½ve Scout is as she doesn’t realise that the family “couldn’t operate a single day without Cal.”
This section is relatively close to the beginning of the novel therefore a lot of it concentrates only on starting to create a sense of character and beginning to develop some of the broader themes throughout the novel. When reading it, this section does not appear important to the contribution of building up of character, developing themes or highlighting certain aspects of Maycomb but when analyzed and linked to section later in the novel, its significance becomes evident.
If this section was not in the novel, a lot of the prejudice, poverty and racism within Maycomb would not be apparent very early on in the novel so instances later in the novel would not be as effective as conveying the prejudice, poverty and racism as a reader would not be as aware of it.