Discuss the Nature of Prejudice in ‘to Kill a Mockingbird’ by Studying the Way in Which Harper Lee Presents the Black Characters and the Social Stratification of Maycomb Society.
Discuss the nature of prejudice in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by studying the way in which Harper Lee presents the black characters and the social stratification of Maycomb society. ‘…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ’ – American Declaration of Independence, 1776. The American Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal, meaning that all men should be treated as equally as they were created.
Throughout American history, this has been somewhat ignored, Harper Lee highlights this fact throughout her novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was written in 1960s America when the government was tackling segregation. At this time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed prohibiting all kinds of discrimination based on race, colour, religion, or national origin, the law also provided the federal government with the power to enforce desegregation.
The book was written around 100 years after the civil war and thirty years before the Civil Rights Act, possibly with the intention of showing that although the laws continue to state equality on paper, in practise there was still little to no change. The book is set during the 1930s when blacks were regarded as third class citizens. It is also a time where a society like Maycomb County relied on social hierarchy. After the civil war in 1861, all black slaves were freed, this, however, did not change the attitudes of southern whites towards them.
We are shown this lack of ability to change in Maycomb during the case of Tom Robinson. Harper Lee describes Maycomb County as ‘a tired, old town’; this persona given to the town shows the narrow-minded and outdated views of the people within it. To the whites, blacks were still slaves, and their freedom began to threaten the all-important hierarchy. The people most threatened by the newly freed blacks were those known as ‘white trash’. This term refers to all those who owned very little and were extremely poor.
They were despised almost as much as the blacks, their only saving grace being their white skin. An example of ‘white trash’ in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are the Ewell family. Jem notices the social hierarchy of the town for himself, he divides Maycomb into four easily identifiable groups, the white middle class: his own family and neighbours, the poor but honest farmers: the Cunninghams and Little Chuck Little, the poor, uneducated whites: the Ewells, and the blacks: Calpurnia, Tom Robinson and his family.
Harper Lee shows that racists are still real people, with the same human emotions as everyone else, we are shown this when Scout casually starts a conversation with Mr Cunningham outside the county jail, within a lynching mob. This innocence on Scout’s behalf completely undermines the severity of the situation. Scout does not seem to realise how potentially dangerous the situation could be, but talks to Mr Cunningham like an old friend, this stops him in his tracks.
During their brief conversation, we almost see Mr Cunningham deflate from a hotheaded bigot to his usual self, all it took was the innocence of a child to make a man with incredibly strong beliefs stop and re-think his actions and pull the others away. Atticus, being the intelligent man he is notices this right away: ‘”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. ’ It is fairly ironic that the people of Maycomb condemn the actions of Hitler towards the Jews, quite heavily disagreeing with his actions, but at the same time are doing something fairly similar themselves with the blacks, the difference between the two parties is that the townsfolk don’t quite realise what they are doing. This was done intentionally by Harper Lee to show us that racism and prejudice isn’t usually thought about, just acted upon and passed around, especially in a community as tightly knitted as Maycomb.
Within Maycomb, everyone knows everyone, creating the perfect environment for breeding prejudice against anything slightly different from the norm. We are shown this from the treatment of Arthur Radley, nicknamed Boo due to the frightening persona created by the townspeople. ‘Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hand were always blood-stained – if you ate an animal raw, you could never get the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time. Even in this brief description given by Jem we can see how the town has demonised Arthur Radley, making him seem to be something he isn’t, something fairly animal, purely because he isn’t the same as them. People’s opinions are also affected by the way in which they have been brought up, not just because of their environment, we are shown a real contrast in parenting technique between Atticus and Bob Ewell, and even between Atticus and Aunt Alexandra. Atticus shows Jem and Scout love and respect, and in turn they love and respect him. He tries to be rational and generally treat them like adults.
He teaches his children not to judge a person ‘until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. ’ although he is strict with regard to rules and treatment of others, he allows the children to be who they want to be, rather than be who society says they should. Aunt Alexandra has very different views, however. She thinks that Scout should dress and act like a young girl, not to be allowed to wear britches and play in the dirt with her brother. Aunt Alexandra believes that the children should conform to society and accept things how they are; she is a brilliant example of the narrow-mindedness of the town.
Aunt Alexandra also believes that now she is living in the house Cal will no longer be needed. She does not seem to understand that Cal is like a mother to Jem and Scout, whose real mother died when they were young, and that she has brought them up alongside Atticus. However, Cal is black and, to Aunt Alexandra, there should be no emotional attachment between white children and their black nanny. This again shows her lack of openness to black people. Atticus tells his children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.
They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. ’ This statement shows us Atticus’ belief that it is wrong to persecute the innocent; the mockingbird within the novel is Tom Robinson. Harper Lee has purposely chosen this image of the mockingbird so the reader can later on make the connection between it and Tom Robinson. It also shows us Atticus’ great compassion and sense of righteousness that most people in the town lack.
All of the black characters in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are presented in a positive light, which is the opposite view of most people at the time the book was set and written. Harper Lee shows them as good, honest people in comparison to the majority of whites in the story. The greatest examples of this are the differences between Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell. Tom Robinson is poor, but constantly strives to achieve the most for his family. He works every day God sends, despite being a cripple, to support his family, and never asks for a penny more than he is entitled to.
The only thing that got him into trouble was his good nature. Bob Ewell, on the other hand, has never worked a day in his life. Despite having more children than he can count, he spends all of his state money on alcohol, rather than food or anything for his children and could not care less about them. The truant officer cannot keep his children in school because of his lack of support and the poor example he sets them. These two characters are a perfect example of Harper Lee’s intentions with regard to the difference between the black and white characters.
She wanted the reader to feel compassion and empathy towards the blacks to make the trial more hard-hitting than it would have already been. The black characters make the most of what little they have and what they do have, they are proud of. For example, they paid for their own church of which they are very proud, and treat it with the uttermost respect. Also, during the church service, only a select few of the congregation can read so, to enable them to still sing hymns they use a technique called ‘linin’’, where a member of the congregation sings a line of a hymn and the rest sing it back to him.
The whites within Maycomb seem to try their hardest to disrespect the blacks, and use the church in the evening for gambling and drinking, both of which are sins against God. This again, was done intentionally by Harper Lee to show the large divide between the black and white communities, and how little respect was shown to anything that was closely related to the blacks. This lack of respect is also shown in the way in which the missionary circle talks of black men. ‘”We can educate them until we’re blue in the face, we can try till we drop to make Christians out of ‘em, but there’s no lady safe in her bed these nights. ’ This shows how little white women think of them, one black man gets accused of rape and all black men get tarred with the same brush. Harper Lee does not simply take one side of the argument, however. She allows certain white characters, like Atticus’ family, to show that change is possible, not only in regard to racism, but other prejudice too, and it will be the whites, and those who harbour prejudice, that have to take that initial step towards an equal community. Towards the end of the book, for example, when Scout is standing on the Radley porch after seeing Boo’s true identity, she can finally understand life from Boo’s perspective.
This simply proves Atticus’ words, ‘”You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. ”’ Once Scout had seen the world through Arthur Radley’s eyes, she understood that he was not a monster, and really no different from herself. In conclusion, Harper Lee presents the black characters within ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in an almost ideal light. She shows them as people who should be respected and looked up to, rather than despised and frowned upon. She gives us the opposite impression of the time in which she both wrote and set the book.
She also uses the social stratification of Maycomb County to emphasise how prejudice can breed amongst certain social groups against others, or anything different from the social group one belongs to. This especially being the case with regard to Arthur Radley, no one knew a lot about him except that he was different, so they kept away and began rumours to demonise a perfectly kind young man. Harper Lee’s use of Atticus Finch is to show that change is possible and even if it makes you the point of dislike you should fight for what you believe in, in this case justice for a black man, regardless of public opinion.