The prominent theme of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird is the portrait of prejudice, in a small southern American town called Maycomb in the 1930’s.
Maycomb is believed to be a replica, of the town Monroeville where the author Harper Lee grew up. Her knowledge of the society in Monroeville (Maycomb) enables her to hit the reader with more impact; she can portray her views on prejudice and discrimination with stronger force and focus. She gives a realistic representation of people’s attitudes in the Deep South in the 1930’s.
Slavery had been abolished in America after the civil war of 1861-5 this gave black people equal rights. But their freedom made life harder for black people initially, white people (especially in the south), found it hard to accept them as an equal in their society, so they remained segregated.
This is shown in the novel, the black community has its own part of the town, on the outskirts, near the town dump. Also they have their own church, First Purchase African M.E. Church paid for from the first earnings from freed slaves. ‘Negroes worshipped in it on Sundays and white men gambled in it on weekdays’, this shows blatant disrespect for the black community. This segregation is also evident in the courthouse, white people sit in the courtroom, where as the coloured people had to sit in the coloured balcony, they were only allowed to enter the courtroom, when every white person had gone in and taken their seats.
Being in the midst of the economic depression of 1929, poverty swept the country, the white community saw black people as competitors for jobs, they also believed they desired everything they possessed even their women.
The Ewells are considered ‘white trash’, by the Maycomb community, they are very poor, uneducated and like the black community live next to the town dump. Since slavery had been abolished there wasn’t a great difference in how people see the lower class white people and black people. Mayella Ewell accuses Tom Robinson a local black man of raping her, the white people automatically deem Tom ‘guilty’, simply because of his colour. Even though the Robinsons, regularly attend church and it is said ‘they’re clean-living folks’. Tom is found guilty even before he is tried. This is all in keeping with the attitudes of people in the Deep South in the 1930’s where the black community were still victims of prejudice. Atticus Finch Maycomb’s lawyer and conscience, takes on Tom’s case and embarks on the unenviable task, of ensuring he gets a fair trial.
Atticus is the main character in the novel; he is a man of great integrity, he shows great courage, tolerance and he believes you never really understand a person ‘until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’. Harper Lee uses his character to express her moral philosophy. Atticus also becomes a target of prejudice for defending a black man; he is called a ‘nigger lover’.
He also bravely stands up to the lynch mob, who turn up at the jailhouse for Tom Robinson, Atticus refuses to step aside and let them take him, the men get very agitated and begin to threaten Atticus, it takes an eight year old girl (Scout) to calm the angry mob, she sees Mr Cunningham, in the crowd and begins to talk about his entailment Atticus is helping him with, also Walter his son and how he came to dinner one day. This seems to stop the men in their tracks and they all leave. The next day Scout questions Atticus ‘I thought Mr Cunningham was a friend of ours’. Atticus explains that he still is, ‘Mr Cunningham’s basically a good man’, but last night he was part of a mob, but he was still a man.
The trial begins, the evidence overwhelmingly proves Toms innocence, and the case should never have come to trial. Atticus appeals to the jury ‘This case is as simple as black and white’. Even though he knew he wasn’t going to win his case he wanted people to take ‘baby steps’ to enlightenment. One of the jurors a Cunningham has misgivings in finding Tom guilty. This shows a glimmer of hope that people can learn to temporarily stand in some one else’s shoes and see their viewpoint. Tom is found guilty, which is consistent with the white people’s prejudice and fear of racial disturbance and insecurity during the 1930’s
This part of the story although fictional, is obviously inspired by the Scottsboro trials of 1931 where nine black men were accused of raping two white girls in Scottsboro, Alabama. They faced a vicious lynch mob.
All but one of the men was given death sentences by an all white jury, but after several retrials only some were actually sentenced to death. Years later they all were discovered to be innocent.
The novel explores many types of prejudice; most is directed at the black community, but also women and any new and different ideas or any individuals who are not seen to conform. This is small town mentality. Maycomb is an inward town that follows its own traditions and has its own caste system.
To kill a Mockingbird is told in the first-person narrative by Atticus’s five-year-old daughter nicknamed Scout; all events are seen through her innocent eyes. She is not yet aware of the prejudice that surrounds her, which is apparent when Jem is informing Scout, that he thinks ‘there’s four kinds of folks in the world’.
1. The Finches and their neighbours (middle class white)
2. The Cunninghams (who represented the poor farming communities)
3. The Ewells (lowest class white people)
4. The black community
Scout relies ‘naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.’
This innocent viewpoint is quite effective, enabling the reader to see things through her eyes, therefore we can realise how people are blinded by prejudice and that this can lead to injustice.
Aunt Alexandra comes to stay she wants to teach Scout to become a real Southern belle, which, Scout opposes, she doesn’t approve of Atticus’s child rearing and the way he handles his servant Calpurnia, Atticus considers her to be a ‘faithful member of the family’. She is obsessed with heredity and believes in the Finches supremacy, she was of the opinion ‘that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was’. Aunt Alexandra tries to instil her values on the children and instructs Atticus to teach the children that they are not from ‘run-of-the-mill people’.
She refuses to let Scout bring home Walter Cunningham, as his family is poor and says that they ‘have no business mixing with those people’.
In the first half of the book, we are introduced to Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, who due to a childhood misdemeanour, had chosen to lead a reclusive lifestyle and had not left his house in fifteen years.
The people of Maycomb feared anyone or anything that differed from their idea of what was ‘normal’. People knew very little about him but he becomes the victim of local gossip and ridicule. Boo is given an almost mythical status, this is shown when Jem gives Scout and Dill a description of Boo saying he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.
This arouses the children’s curiosity, they become merciless in their attempts to get Boo to come out of his house.
As the story progresses, Boo displays acts of kindness towards the children, leaving them presents in a tree, putting a blanket around Scout, when she is out in the cold watching Miss Maudie’s house burn down. Finally he shows true courage, when he rescues Jem from Robert Ewell.
The children realise that Boo is a real person kind and compassionate and prejudice against him eventually dies.
This part of the story shows how, in a small town like Maycomb if you are not considered ‘normal’ you could become a victim of prejudice born from fear of the unknown, how easily prejudicial views were formed against Boo, which were unfounded and completely unjust.
Another victim of the towns prejudice is Miss Maudie, she is frowned upon for her unconventional views on religion, she does not attend church and therefore is considered lesser by the ‘foot washing Baptists’, even though she shows Christian values and is kind and considerate. Many of the people who did attend church like Miss Stephanie, were automatically regarded as ‘good’ in spite of their un-Christian like behaviour.
The people of Maycomb also victimize Mrs Dubose, she is known in the neighbourhood as the ‘meanest old woman who ever lived’. Jem and Scout hated her; they often were the victims of vicious outbursts from her. When she dies, Atticus informs the children the reasons for her bad behaviour, she was fighting a morphine addiction and that he considered her to be a ‘great lady’.
It was unfair of people to judge her, without attempting to find out the reasons for her bad behaviour.
Women in general were idealised in the era the novel is set but they were expected to behave appropriately and dress accordingly (Southern Belles). Aunt Alexandra is constantly trying to get Scout, to act like a lady. The men are expected to be chivalrous as women were to be worshipped and protected, which is why the alleged rape is treated with such severity in Maycomb. But they were still regarded as unequal to men.
This is shown when Atticus tells Jem ‘Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she’s a woman’.
To Kill a Mockingbird, clearly portrays Maycomb as a town that is riddled with prejudice, there is almost nobody that isn’t affected by it in some way. The town fears the unknown and they constantly try to keep hold of their traditions, but they don’t leave any room for people to better themselves, once you are categorised that’s how you are looked on. People know their place and their family history dictates what they do. If your black your not to be trusted, if you’re a farmer you are considered poor and a lower class of people. If you live your life differently in any way you are looked on as a lesser person.
Harper Lee tries to show the reader, we can all learn to combat prejudice if we follow Atticus’s maxim. That if you attempt to stand in another’s shoes or skin, you can learn to understand them, which will lead to tolerance and hopefully no prejudice.
The title To Kill a Mockingbird sends a powerful message that is echoed throughout the book that ‘it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’, which is a symbol of innocence.