“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee Literature
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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is set in the mid-1930s in Maycomb, a very prejudiced and inward looking town. Discuss the ways in which Atticus stands up as a man of reason and courage within this very traditional and backward looking environment.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is written by Harper Lee. The novel is set in the 1930s in Maycomb, a ‘tired old town’ in Alabama. Maycomb is said to be traditional. People know their place and their family history dictates what they do. They have a routine way of life. People are pre-judged on their class and race. Class prejudice is based on your wealth and your family background. Black people are thought to be below any other class and therefore they are segregated from the whites. There is one shining light in Maycomb- Atticus Finch. He is a white lawyer and he chooses not to perpetuate the social injustice. He treats his family just like he treats anyone else. He is ‘the same in his house as he is on the public streets’. He has his own belief system; the belief that you should treat people with respect, courtesy and, most importantly, equally.
Maycomb is a very traditional and people’s way of life is dictated by their history. In American history, black people were slaves and were treated with little respect. There is still a similar attitude in Maycomb and the white people put themselves above the blacks. The Finchs have a black maid named Calpurnia. Atticus treats her differently to the way the white people do and he considers her to be ‘a faithful member of the family’. She is like a mother to the family.
Maycomb is a closed, isolated community. It is also a close knit community as ‘Atticus is related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town’. Prejudice still exists in this town because the views of people are left to grow in the same family for generations.
‘There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb’. Through this caste or class system, people are put in their place. Although the Finchs are considered to be near the top of this class system, Atticus chooses not to believe in it, or to live by it. Atticus’s beliefs are in contrast with the rest of the town, who accept the class system and live by it. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, believes in the ‘Finch supremacy’. She believes the Finchs are perfect in every way and she sweeps any family dirt under the carpet like she did with Cousin Joshua, the cousin ‘who was locked up for so long’. She is concerned when she sees Jem and Scout not really following family tradition so she tries to impose on Atticus her views on ‘gentle breeding’. In the end Atticus goes against Aunt Alexandra and tells Scout to be herself and ‘not to worry about anything’.
The major issue that dominates the book is racism. It is shocking how little the attitudes of the white people in Maycomb has changed since all Americans were given equal rights. After Tom Robinson’s trial, Atticus gets angry with the white people’s snobbery and says, ‘don’t fool yourselves- its all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it’.
The town is totally opposed with the ‘mixing of race’. Mr Dolphus Raymond is a white man and he is married to a black woman and has mixed children. He is no longer accepted in society and is treated with disdain by the white community.
Tom Robinson’s trial highlights the town’s problem with racism. Tom is referred to as a ‘nigger’ and in such terms that he is thought of as an animal, not a human being. Tom was found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell when the case against him clearly lacked any proof that he had done it. This case should never of come to trial and the only reason he was found guilty was because he was black. Atticus agrees with this as he says ‘this case is a simple as black and white’. When speaking in his address to the jury, Atticus says ‘She (Mayella) was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man’.
He appealed to the jury that they should not judge Tom Robinson under the assumption ‘that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women’.
Atticus chose to defend Tom even when he knew that he was going to lose. He defended Tom because he thought it was his moral duty and if he didn’t ‘he couldn’t hold his head up in town again’.
Through all of Maycomb’s traditional ways, Atticus Finch stands out as a shining light, a symbol of hope. He lives by his own code; a code that says everyone is equal and everyone should be treated with respect, regardless of their race or class. When Scout asks Atticus if he is a ‘nigger-lover’, Atticus replies by saying ‘I like to think I love everybody’. He disagrees with the town’s traditional beliefs and he doesn’t want his children to grow up with similar views. One of the main things he teaches to his children is that, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’.
He disagrees with violence and tells Scout to ‘try fighting with your head for a change’.
He shows courage by shooting the mad dog but Atticus believes this a not real courage. He makes Jem go and read to Mrs Dubose for a month after school. Mrs Dubose is a morphine addict who wanted to get off the drugs before she died. He made Jem do this as he wanted to show him ‘what real courage is, instead of getting the idea the courage is a man with a gun in his hand’.
He also shows courage by defending Tom Robinson. By doing this he shows great character and strength especially when he knew that the town would rather persecute him. He is also standing up for his beliefs and says ‘I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t defend that man’. He knew he wasn’t going to win the case but he wanted people to take ‘baby steps’ towards enlightenment.
He is a highly respected gentleman who has equal respect for others. Miss Maudie has a lot of respect for Atticus. She says ‘Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets’.
He believes that ‘there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal’- in a court. He believes in justice but to his disgust he discovers that tradition is not always broken, as Tom got a guilty verdict. Atticus could do nothing to stop Tom going to prison, and this is his ‘profound distaste for the practice of criminal law’.
Atticus Finch stands out as a shining light in a backward looking town. He shows great strength and courage by standing up for his beliefs in a town were prejudice has existed for generations. He has helped the town take ‘baby-steps’ towards a better society in which everyone is equal. He is a respected gentleman who tries to fight Maycomb’s racist views using peaceful means. He stands up as a man of reason in a town were people are pre-judged on their wealth, class and race. He is a man of reason, courage and dignity and he is a great example to us all.