”To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee – is it an optimistic or pessimistic novel?
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When searching for optimism or pessimism in a novel, one of the first things taken into account is the title. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, is one of those books where the title gives nothing away, and is not understood until you have read the story. This book, first published in 1960, is in fact neither an optimistic, nor pessimistic novel. However, it shows detailed examples of each, shown in different parts of the storyline.
One of the first optimistic points that can be found in this novel is found in Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus Finch. There are many times throughout the novel in which Atticus represents the good in the American society at the time the book was published. Mr Finch was not a racist man. He held equal views of both races, which is why he had no problem with accepting the Tom Robinson case. The moral and ethical lessons taught to Scout and Jem by Atticus throughout the novel, were not meant to only assist in telling the story, but to help teach those reading the novel valuable lessons in life about equality and people’s rights. One of the most important lessons taught by Atticus, was to “shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This is a valuable lesson for people of all ages to learn, and is conveyed in many contexts throughout the book. Harper Lee expressed optimism in this quote, as she believed that she could teach the people some good, and that they might learn from her novel. Through Atticus, Harper Lee showed the good in the world, and the good that the world could achieve.
Another optimistic point found in the novel, is when the “mob” has come for Atticus outside the jail, and Scout comes to the rescue. When Scout talks to Mr Cunningham about William, she teaches him that Atticus is a father too, no matter what he does for a living, he is still a father, just like Mr Cunningham is. As quoted by Atticus, “So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses… That proves something – that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children.” The fact that the angry mob were stopped by Scout shows another form of optimism, a belief that the next generation of Americans would be the ones to perhaps turn the world around, and make it a better place.
The main point of optimism in the novel comes towards the end of the trial of Tom Robinson. Although the outcome was negative, the fact that the jury took their time to come to a decision shows hope for the future.
The trial also highlights the main pessimistic points in the novel. Atticus’ testimony about Mayella and Tom clearly stated the truth, and the whole town left the courtroom knowing what had really happened, yet the jury still declared Tom guilty. It was people like Bob and Mayella Ewell who were eliminating all the hope that there was for the world to become a fairer place. Mayella made a mistake, but instead of admitting it, she incriminated an innocent man, and sent him to jail and eventually to his death for something he did not do. “…in an effort to get rid of her own guilt. Now I say guilt, gentlemen, because it was guilt that motivated her. She has committed no crime; she has merely broken a rigid and time-honored code of our society. A code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. She must destroy the evidence of her offense.
But what was the evidence of her offense? Tom Robinson – a human being. She must put Tom Robinson away from her. (He gestures, pushing away with his hands.) Tom Robinson was for her, a daily reminder of what she did. Now what did she do? She tempted a Negro. She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable. She kissed a black man. Not an old uncle, but a strong, young Negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards.” If such a code had not existed in society, then Tom Robinson would not have been sent to jail. The pessimistic themes of the novel are truly expressed during that time.
When “To Kill a Mockingbird” was first published, in 1960, it painted a true picture of Southern America during that time. Harper Lee expressed both the optimistic and pessimistic sides of society throughout the book. In the words of Scout Finch, “There’s only one kind of folks. Folks.”