Harper Lee used literature to examine the society around her. Her famed work, To Kill a Mockingbird, remains one of the most important books ever written for examining the reality of prejudice in the American South. The story is set during the Great Depression Period (1933-350) in a made-up town called Maycomb. The protagonist is Jean Louise Finch, also called Scout. Scout lives with her brother Jem and their father, Atticus (Lee 18). Atticus is a widower and lawyer by profession. Atticus gets assigned to a case that involves defending a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell (a young white woman) (Lee 64). Despite a solid presentation that Atticus puts in proving the innocence of his client, the judge rules against the evidence. Tom Robison is sentenced to life imprisonment. Later, he tries to escape from the prison and is shot dead. In almost all her works, Harper Lee exposes various societal troubles, especially the many prejudices that exist in the society. Among the forms of prejudice covered in her works include racial discrimination, gender discrimination, age prejudices, and social class prejudices. In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee demonstrates the pernicious effect of racial prejudice, gender prejudice, and class or economic prejudice.
The interaction of characters in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird reveals a rooted form of racial prejudice. The exchange between the characters in the fictitious court case of Tom Robinson is full of racist views. According to Smykowski, Bob Ewell uses an explicit language where he states that: “I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!” (Smykowski 53). Smykowski explains that the use of the word “ruttin” compares Tom Robinson and the black people to animals. The term further gives them a non-human and foul quality. Bob Ewell openly shows utter disrespect to Tom Robinson. The statement from Bob reinforces the deep-rooted hatred of the white man towards the black folk. Bob used the term ‘black’ to symbolize the distinctive unclean nature of the black man. Bob Ewell picks his words deliberately to create an atmosphere that will portray Tom Robison as a heartless man capable of committing the accusations labeled against him. The quoted words spread the perception that the black folk was creation’s mistake and was a curse to the larger human society. Bob Ewell exposes the white man’s prejudiced view that the black man is always evil-minded and mischievous.
Interestingly, an interaction with Tom Robison reveals him to be a humble and morally upright individual while Bob Ewell turns out as cruel and devious. Nonetheless, Bob’s fictitious accusations carry the day against the truth from a black man. The events can only be described as an instance of racial prejudice in the novel. While interacting with other women during the Aunt Alexandra’s missionary women tea party, Mrs. Grace Merriweather demonstrates racial prejudice. Referring to the Mrunas in Africa, Mrs. Grace Merriweather describes them as living in darkness and poverty (Smykowski 53). She continues to explain that they solely rely on J. Grimes Everett for help and guidance. This is because only J. Grimes Everett (a white person) would go near them as no other white person would want to. There exists a racial prejudice that the black people in Africa are foolish and poor. The white man’s way of life is seen as superior to the black man’s. The white people do not view the life of the black man from the perspective of an African. The way of life of the black man in Africa has helped him thrive through generations and seasons. The civilization that is found in Africa cannot be in any way comparable to the one seen in the white man’s society. The usual environmental conditions between the two geographic locations are different. Therefore, the two communities are expected to list their priorities in life differently. Hence, the white folk doesn’t have a reason at all to fault or talk down the way of life of the people in Africa. Civilization should be seen as a way of life that enables human beings to adapt and get the best quality of living from their surroundings. It is prejudiced to label the life of the African people as one that is filled with darkness and poverty. More so, just because of prominent differences between the black people’s way of life and that of the white man’s community.
The conversation between Atticus Finch and Jem Finch reveals a deeper case of racial prejudice rooted in the country’s justice system. From the conversation, the sentencing of Tom Robinson was not based on evidence but on his race as Lanphear states “the sentence is based not on the evidence, but on Tom’s race.” (Lanphear 127). Lee helps the reader to realize that Robison is innocent of the accusation; however, she goes ahead to allow the judge to deliver a ruling that is unfair to foreground the issue. Matters of racial prejudice arise because of the way Tom Robinson’s case is handled. It can be argued that the court precedings were an execution of the protocol, if anything, Mr. Robinson’s fate was already determined. Sadly, not because he had committed the crime he was being accused of, but because he was a black person. Scout says that “a jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson” (Lanphear 128). The judicial system is racially biased; it is beyond any explanation how the jury falls for the devious words of Bob and disregards proven facts from the defendant. In other words, justice was not meant to be enjoyed by the black folk; it was a reserve of the white men who ‘always tell the truth.’ The main observation of Lanphear’s argument is that the justice system always has some biases that are informed by the color of the skin of the man before it. Harper Lee allows the readers to understand the racial prejudices through the interaction of characters. The novel does not, however, allow the society to correct its racial prejudices which shows that such acts were standard.
Lee uses the interactions between characters to demonstrate the effects of gender prejudice. In the interaction between Aunt Alexandra and her niece, Scout Finch, gender prejudice is revealed. Hakala states that, “Scout’s Aunt Alexandra emphasizes these conventions when she suggests that Scout play with small stoves and tea sets, desiring that Scout submit to domesticity.” (Hakala 10). According to this phrase, there are some expected behaviors or societal standards that each gender must observe from an early age. Therefore, since Scout was a girl, it was expected that she would play with kitchen items that reflect her expected roles when she grew up. Lee foregrounds the prejudice with which tasks are shared between genders. According to Hakala (11), the female gender in the white patriarchal society depended on male figures for identity and status. A lady’s status depended on her father’s or the man who marries her. The male gender was in control of all aspects of the society. Scout explains that Jem and Dill would not allow her to join them in their play at the tree house due to her gender. Harper Lee writes that “but I kept aloof from their more fool hardy schemes for a while, and on pain of being called a girl, I spent most of my remaining twilights that summer sitting on Miss Maudie’s porch” (Lee 55). Because of her opposite gender, Jem and Dill (boys) would not allow Scout to join them in the tree house to play.
This instance was a clear reflection of how the society had connected gender prejudice to innocent children at their young age. Jem and Dill make Scout feel that being a girl is wrong. The two boys do not see anything wrong with their statement because that is what they have been brought up knowing; that the girl and females are ‘the insignificant other.’ In a demonstration of the power that the male gender uses in Scout’s society, they refuse to play with her because of who she is; a girl- something that she cannot change. Sometimes, Jem and Dill would play with Scout. The instance in the text that they refuse to play with her citing gender reasons expose the unfairness with which the dominant gender led its activities. It is a comment about the larger society that men only associate with women when it is beneficial to them and quickly dispose of them as they wish. The interaction between Bob Ewell and her daughter reveals gender prejudice in the society represented in the novel. According to Hakala, Bob Ewell uses his masculine authority over her daughter in forcing her to give a false confession (Hakala 11). Her daughter, Mayella, therefore goes ahead and claims that she was raped by Tom Robinson. The Maycomb society was a masculine society. With the male parent being the head of the household at home, his word was final and was to be observed without much questioning. Mayella is assaulted by her father; she suffers physical injuries on her body. However, she does not dare to rise against her father and defend herself. She submits to her father and takes a brutal beating. The interaction between Mayella and her father uncovers the ugly and unfortunate occurrences that the female gender was subjected to in Maycomb. The female often lived in fear and uncertainty. The rape incident, though made-up, points to the possibility that the act was a common occurrence. Thus, the male gender must have been sexually abusing the females. There exists some prejudice in the way the males would treat their likes (with respect) but view their female counterparts as objects from which pleasure could be derived. The society at Maycomb struggled with gender inequality, which also reflects the state of worldwide gender inequality at the time. In a world that expected a person to behave in a certain way due to their gender, it was difficult for a person (especially from the female gender) to break the curse.
Lee shows the ways in which social prejudice tended to keep certain people in their place in society. Mrs. Dubose conversation with Scout shows a case of social class prejudice. Mrs. Dubose explains to Scout that “unconventional behaviors will lower Scout to the working class.” (Hakala 16). The unusual behaviors are shown to be identical with the lower-working-class people. Furthermore, this is an indication that behavior was one of the classifications used to determine the social class. The society in Maycomb held the belief that the lower-working-class folk was rude. The elite class’ behavior, on the other hand, was regarded as the ideal. By default, every action of the lower-class folk was disliked by the Maycomb society whether good or bad. There is prejudice in the way the so-called ‘boyish’ behavior would make Scout dive into the world of unimportant jobs in the future. Bob Ewell was a member of the upper class; unlike Tom Robinson, the Maycomb community held his reputation in high favor. In the case fabricated against Tom Robinson, the jury is more persuaded to believe Bob Ewell because of his social status. Hence, it can be interpreted that the jury convicts Robinson because of his lower social status compared to the plaintiff. According to Hakala, people in different social classes in Maycomb acquire different levels of education. “Historically, men of their social class acquire more education than women, but Scout is on the path to surpassing the educational level of everyone in her class, including the boys” (Hakala 34). While this statement reveals two forms of prejudice, gender, and social class prejudice, it is the social class prejudice that holds more weight. This shows that the social class in which Scout was between, had the privilege of education among other things.
Scout’s social class accepted her as a member but had limited her freedom to pursue education beyond a certain threshold. The class where Scout belongs is prejudiced because it limits the powers of a group of its members from taking advantage of specific areas in life while increasing the potential for other groups. According to Smykowski (2), the black folk received the least form of education. Black people like Tom Robinson were kept from climbing up the social ladder in part because of the role that hardened social classes played. As Stiltner wrote, “Lee’s journey to have people live in a world where social class and race mean little in terms of harmony finds weight in Atticus’ ability to practice basic manners.” (Stiltner 33) Again, people from the lower working class such as Atticus could not be expected to have basic manners (the expected code of conduct). The lower social class people were therefore prejudiced against for not being able to observe these normal standards.
While Atticus made an impassioned plea that Tom could not have been responsible for the crime, Harper Lee demonstrated that social class prejudice kept the jury from properly understanding, accepting, and conceptualizing this. In his questioning, he made clear that Tom was not of the proper handedness to have committed the crime as suggested. However, in part because of his low social class and because of the high social class of Mayella’s father, the jury refused to believe that the father could have been responsible for the crime. In this, Lee shows how social class tends to operate—the benefit of the doubt is bestowed on the person of the higher social class as opposed to a person in the lower social class. This was Lee’s way of suggesting that along with social class, there came a belief in superior morality. As Hovet (67) wrote, the father was one of those “fine” Southern gentlemen often allowed to do basically whatever he wanted because of his perceived moral superiority to those around him. People were believed to be “good” if they were wealthy and prominent, while they were perceived to be “bad” if they were not rich. Social class prejudice infected the criminal justice system just as it infected other elements of the social world.
Lee’s work in To Kill a Mockingbird presents a clear picture of the pernicious effect that prejudice can have on a person in a society where divisions are hardened. The author shows that racial prejudice caused some within the community to jump to conclusions when evidence was not there. Gender prejudice allowed preconceived notions of the desired “roles” of individuals to have a massive effect. Social prejudice ensured that the rich would get the benefit of the doubt, while the poor would struggle to gain the trust of jury members and the like. In total, various prejudices combined to impact the case of Tom Robinson, which is used by Lee as a bigger symbol for the community as a whole.
- Hakala, Laura, “Scouting for a Tomboy: Gender-Bending Behaviors in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” (2010). Electronic Theses & Dissertations, no. 176. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/etd/176. Accessed 26 Mar 2018.
- Hovet, Theodore R., and Grace-Ann Hovet. “Fine Fancy Gentlemen” and” Yappy Folk”: Contending Voices in” To Kill a Mockingbird.” Southern Quarterly 40.1 (2001): 67.
- Lanphear, Joshua B. “Inherent Racial Biases Woven into America’s Criminal Justice Institutions: A Reexamination of To Kill a Mockingbird”. Journal of Law and Social Deviance, vol 10, no. 2015, 2015, pp. 69-136. Elsevier BV, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2655639. Accessed 26 Mar 2018.
- Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. (50th Anniversary Eds.). Arrow, 2010.
- Smykowski, Adam. “Symbolism and Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 194, Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center, Originally published in Readings on “To Kill a Mockingbird”, edited by Terry O’Neill, Greenhaven Press, 2000, pp. 52-56.
- Stiltner, MitziAnn, “Don’t Put Your Shoes on the Bed: A Moral Analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird.” (2002). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 722. http://dc.etsu.edu/etd/722