Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird
In a 1964 interview, Lee remarked that her aspiration was “to be … the Jane Austen of South Alabama”. Both Austen and Lee challenged the status quo and valued individual worth over social standing. When Scout embarrasses her poorer classmate, Walter Cunningham, at the Finch home one day, Calpurnia, their black cook, chastises and punishes her for doing so. Atticus respects Calpurnia’s judgment, and later in the book even stands up to his sister, the formidable Aunt Alexandra, when she strongly suggests that they fire Calpurnia. One writer notes that Scout, “in Austenian fashion”, satirizes women with whom she does not wish to identify. Jean Blackall lists the priorities shared by the two authors:
“Affirmation of order in society, obedience, courtesy, and respect for the individual without regard for status”.
Lee’s Approach to Class and Race
Scholars argue that Lee’s approach to class and race was more complex than ascribing racial prejudice primarily to ‘poor white trash … Lee demonstrates how issues of gender and class intensify prejudice, silence the voices that might challenge the existing social order and greatly complicate many Americans’ conception of the causes of racism and segregation.” Lee’s use of the middle class narrative voice is a literary device that allows all intimacy with the reader, regardless of class or cultural background, and fosters a sense of nostalgia. Sharing Scout and Jem’s perspective, the reader is allowed to engage in relationships with the conservative antebellum Mrs. Dubose; the lower class Ewells, and the Cunninghams who are equally poor but believe in vastly different ways; the wealthy but ostracized Mr. Dolphus Raymond; and Calpurnia and other members of the black community The children internalize Atticus’s admonition not to judge someone until they have walked around in that person’s skin, gaining a greater understanding of people’s motives and behavior.
Courage and Compassion
The novel has been noted for its poignant exploration of different forms of courage. Scout’s impulsive inclination to fight students who insult Atticus reflects her attempt to stand up for him and defend him. Atticus is the moral center of the novel, however, and he teaches Jem one of the most significant lessons of courage. In a statement that foreshadows Atticus’s motivation for defending Tom Robinson and describes Mrs. Dubose, who is determined to break herself of a morphine addiction, Atticus tells Jem that courage is “when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what”.
Charles Shields, who has written only the book-length biography of Harper Lee to date, offers the reason for the novel’s enduring popularity and impact is that its lessons of human dignity and respect for others remain fundamental and universal”. Atticus’s lesson to Scout that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb around in his skin and walk around in it exemplifies his compassion. She ponders the comment when listening to Mayella Ewell’s testimony. When Mayella reacts with confusion to Atticus’s question if she has any friends, Scout offer that she must be lonelier than Boo Radley. Having walked Boo home after he saves their lives, Scout stands on Radley’s porch and considers the events of the previous three years from Boo’s perspective. One writer remarks,
“While the novel concerns tragedy and injustice, heartache and loss, it also carries with it a strong sense (of) courage, compassion, and an awareness of history to be better human beings.”
Just as Lee explores Jem’s development in coming to grips with a racial and unjust society, Scout realizes what being female means and several female characters influence her development. Scout’s primary identification with her father and older brother allows her to describe the variety and depth of female characters in the novel both as one of them and as an outsider. Scout’s primary female models are Calpurnia and her neighbor Miss Maudie, both of whom are strong-willed, independent, and protective. Mayella Ewell also has an influence; Scout watches her destroy an innocent man in order to hide her own desire for him. The female characters who comment the most on Scout’s lack of willingness to adhere to a more feminine role are also those promote the most racist and classist point of view. For example, Mrs. Dubose chastises Scout for not wearing a dress and camisole and indicates she is ruining the family name by not doing so, in addition to insulting Atticus’s intentions to defend Tom Robinson.
By balancing the masculine influences of Atticus and Jem with the feminine influences of Calpurnia and Miss Maudie, one scholar writes:
“Lee gradually demonstrates that Scout is becoming a feminist in the South, for with the use of first-person narration, she indicates that Scout/Jean Louise still maintains the ambivalence about being a Southern lady she possessed as a child.”
Absent mothers and abusive fathers are another theme in the novel. Mayella’s mother is dead, and Mrs. Radley is silent about Boo’s confinement to the house. Apart from Atticus, the fathers are described as abusers. Bob Ewell, it is hinted, molested his daughter, and Mr. Radley imprisons his son in his house until Boo is remembered only as a phantom. Bob Ewell and Mr. Radley represent a form of masculinity that Atticus does not, and the novel suggests that such men as well as the traditional feminine hypocrites at the Missionary Society can lead society astray. Atticus stands apart from other men as a unique model of masculinity. As one scholar explains:
“It is the job of real men who embody the traditional masculine qualities of heroic individualism, bravery, and an unshrinking knowledge of and dedication to social justice and morality, to set the society straight.”
Laws, Written and Unwritten
Allusions to legal issues in To Kill a Mockingbird, particularly in scenes outside of the courtroom, have drawn the attention from legal scholars. Claudia Durst Johnson writes that a greater volume of critical readings has been amassed by two legal scholars in low journals than by all the literary scholars in literary journals.” The opening quote by the nineteenth-century essayist Charles Lamb reads: “Eawyers, I suppose, were children once.” Johnson notes that even in Scout and Jem’s childhood world, compromises and treaties are struck with each other by spitting on one’s palm and laws are discussed by Atticus and his children: is it right that Bob Ewell hunts and traps out of season?
Many social codes are broken by people in symbolic courtrooms: Mr. Dolphus Raymond has been exiled by society for taking a black woman as his common-law wife and having interracial children; Mayella Ewell is beaten by her father in punishment for kissing Tom Robinson; by being turned into a non-person, Boo Radley receives a punishment far greater than any court could have given him. Scout repeatedly breaks codes and laws and reacts to her punishment for them. For example, she refuses to wear frilly clothes, saying that Aunt Alexandra’s “fanatical” attempts to place her in them made her feel “a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on (her)”. Johnson states,
“The novel is a study of how Jem and Scout begin to perceive the complexity of social codes and how the configuration of relationships dictated by or set off by those codes fails or nurtures the inhabitants of (their) small worlds.”
Loss of Innocence
Lee has used the mockingbird to symbolize innocence in the novel. Songbirds and their associated symbolism appear throughout the novel. The family’s last name of Finch also shares Lee’s mother’s maiden name. The titular mockingbird is a key motif of this theme, which first appears when Atticus, having given his children air-rifles for Christmas allows their Uncle Jack to teach them to shoot. Atticus warns them that, although they can “shoot all the bluejays they want”, they must remember that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”. Confused, Scout approaches her neighbor Miss Maudie, who explains that mockingbirds simply provide pleasure with their songs, saying, “They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” Edwin Bruell summarized the symbolism when he wrote in 1964, “To kill a mockingbird is to kill that which is innocent and harmless-like Tom Robinson.” Scholars have noted that Lee often returns to the mockingbird theme when trying to make a moral point.
Tom Robinson is the chief example among several innocents destroyed carelessly or deliberately throughout the novel. However, Christopher Metress connects the Mockingbird too Boo Radley: “Instead of wanting to exploit Boo for her own fun (as she does in the beginning of the novel by putting on Gothic plays about his history), Scout sees him as a ‘mockingbird’–that is, someone with an inner goodness that must be cherished.” The last pages of the book illustrate this as Scout relates the moral of a story that Atticus has been reading to her, and in allusions to both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson states about a character who was misunderstood, “when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things … Atticus, he was real nice,
“to which he responds, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
The novel exposes the loss of innocence so frequently that R.A. Dave claims that because every character has to face, or even suffer defeat, the book takes on elements of a classical tragedy. In exploring how each character deals with his or her own personal defeat, Lee builds a framework to judge whether the characters are heroes or fools. She guides the reader in such judgments, alternating between unabashed adoration and biting irony. Scout’s experience with the Missionary Society is an ironic juxtaposition of women who mock her, gossip, and reflect a smug, colonial attitude toward other races” while giving the “appearance of gentility, piety, and morality”. Conversely, when Atticus loses Tom’s case, he is last to leave the courtroom, except for his children and black spectators in the colored balcony, who rise silently as he walks underneath them, to honor his efforts.
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