To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
(Born Nelle Harper Lee) American novelist.
The following entry provides criticism on Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. See also Harper Lee Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird has remained enormously popular since its publication in 1960. Recalling her experiences as a six-year-old from an adult perspective, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed “Scout,” describes the circumstances involving her widowed father, Atticus, and his legal defense of Tom Robinson, a local black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. In the three years surrounding the trial, Scout and her older brother, Jem, witness the unjust consequences of prejudice and hate while at the same time witnessing the values of courage and integrity through their father's example. Lee's first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird was published during the Civil Rights movement, and was hailed as an exposé of Southern racist society. The heroic character of Atticus Finch has been held up as a role model of moral virtue and impeccable character for lawyers to emulate. To Kill a Mockingbird has endured as a mainstay on high school and college reading lists. It was adapted to film in 1962 as a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck.
Plot and Major Characters
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the small, rural town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the early 1930s. The character of Atticus Finch, Scout's father, was based on Lee's own father, a liberal Alabama lawyer and statesman who frequently defended African Americans within the racially prejudiced Southern legal system. Scout and her brother Jem are raised by their father and by Calpurnia, an African-American housekeeper who works for the family. Scout and Jem meet and befriend seven-year-old Dill Harris, a boy who has arrived in Maycomb to stay with his aunt for the summer. Lee has stated that the character of Dill is based on young Truman Capote, a well-known Southern writer and childhood friend. Together with Dill, Scout and Jem make a game of observing “Boo” Radley, a town recluse who has remained inside his house for fifteen years, trying to provoke him to come outside. Local myth holds that Boo eats live squirrels and prowls the streets at night, and the children's perception of him is colored by such tales. In the fall, Dill returns to his family in the North and Scout enters the first grade. Scout and Jem begin to discover mysterious objects, designed to intrigue children, hidden in a tree on the Radley property.
When Tom Robinson, an African-American man, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, Atticus is appointed as the defense attorney. Mayella and her shiftless father, Bob Ewell, live in abject poverty on the outskirts of town. The family is known as trouble and disliked by townspeople. Despite this, Atticus's defense of Tom is unpopular in the white community, and Scout and Jem find themselves taunted at school due to their father's defense of a black man. Atticus consistently strives to instill moral values in his children, and hopes to counteract the influence of racial prejudice. The children view their father as frustratingly staid and bookish, until he is asked by the sheriff to shoot a rabid dog that is roaming the street. After Atticus kills the dog, Scout and Jem learn that their father is renowned as a deadly marksman in Maycomb County, but that he chooses not to use this skill, unless absolutely necessary. Scout's aunt, Alexandra, unexpectedly arrives to reside with the Finch family, announcing it is time someone reined in the children. She makes it her mission to counteract Atticus's liberal influence on the children and to instill ladylike virtues in the tomboyish Scout. The night before the trial of Tom Robinson is to begin, a group of local men threaten a lynching, but Scout inadvertently disrupts their plan when she recognizes the father of a schoolmate in the crowd of would-be lynchers. When the trial begins, Atticus tries to protect his children from the anger and prejudice they would hear; however, Scout, Jem, and Dill sneak into the courtroom and sit in the balcony with the black community. Mayella and her father testify that Tom raped Mayella after he was asked onto their property to break up an old chifforobe into firewood. Atticus, however, proves Tom's innocence by demonstrating that while Mayella's face was beaten and bruised on her right side, Tom's left arm had been rendered completely useless by an earlier injury. Therefore, Atticus concludes, Tom could not possibly be the left-handed assailant who struck Mayella on the right side of her face. Atticus further suggests that it was Bob, Mayella's father, who beat her, and that, in fact, no rape occurred. Before the jury departs to deliberate, Atticus appeals to their sense of justice, imploring them not to allow racial prejudice to interfere with their deliberations. However, after two hours, the jury returns with a guilty verdict, sentencing Tom to be executed for rape. Later, Tom is shot to death during an attempt to escape from jail. The following fall, Bob Ewell, incensed by Atticus's treatment of him during the trial, attacks Scout and Jem with a knife as they are walking home from a school Halloween pageant. Boo Radley, secretly observing the scene, intervenes in the scuffle, and Bob Ewell is stabbed and killed in the process. Called to the scene, the Sheriff and Atticus agree to not report Boo's involvement to the police, because a trial against him would likely be prejudiced. Intimately aware of issues of prejudice due to the Tom Robinson case, Atticus and the children agree to report that Ewell fell on his knife in the scuffle, sparing Boo the consequences of a legal trial. Scout realizes in retrospect that Boo has never been the threatening figure the children had imagined, and that he was responsible for leaving the mysterious gifts for them to find on his property. After walking Boo home, Scout stands on the porch of his house looking out, finally seeing the world through a wider perspective.
The central thematic concern of To Kill a Mockingbird addresses racial prejudice and social justice. Atticus Finch represents a strongly principled, liberal perspective that runs contrary to the ignorance and prejudice of the white, Southern, small-town community in which he lives. Atticus is convinced that he must instill values of equality in his children, counteracting the racist influence. Lee makes use of several images and allegories throughout the novel to symbolize racial conflict. The children's attitudes about Boo, for example, represent in small scale the foundation of racial prejudice in fear and superstition. The rabid dog that threatens the town has been interpreted as symbolizing the menace of racism. Atticus's shooting of the rabid dog has been considered by many critics as a representation of his skills as an attorney in targeting the racial prejudices of the town. The central symbol of the novel, the mockingbird, further develops the theme of racial prejudice. For Christmas, Scout and Jem are given air rifles by their father, who warns that, although he considers it fair to shoot other birds, he views it a “sin to kill a mockingbird” because they “don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” The mockingbird represents victims of oppression in general, and the African-American community more specifically. The unjust trial of Tom Robinson, in which the jury's racial prejudice condemns an innocent man, is symbolically characterized as the shooting of an innocent mockingbird. Toward the end of the novel, Scout realizes that submitting Boo to a trial would be akin to shooting a mockingbird—just as the prejudice against African Americans influences the trial of Tom Robinson, the town's prejudices against the white but mentally disabled Boo would likely impact a jury's view. The concept of justice is presented in To Kill a Mockingbird as an antidote to racial prejudice. As a strongly principled, liberal lawyer who defends a wrongly accused black man, Atticus represents a role model for moral and legal justice. Atticus explains to Scout that while he believes the American justice system to be without prejudice, the individuals who sit on the jury often harbor bias, which can taint the workings of the system. Throughout the majority of the novel, Atticus retains his faith in the system, but he ultimately loses in his legal defense of Tom. As a result of this experience, Atticus expresses a certain disillusionment when, at the conclusion of the book, he agrees to conceal Boo's culpability in the killing of Ewell, recognizing that Boo would be stereotyped by his peers. Atticus decides to act based on his own principles of justice in the end, rather than rely on a legal system that may be fallible.
To Kill a Mockingbird also can be read as a coming-of-age story featuring a young girl growing up in the South and experiencing moral awakenings. Narrated from Scout's point-of-view, the novel demonstrates the now-adult narrator's hindsight perspective on the growth of her identity and outlook on life. In developing a more mature sensibility, the tomboyish Scout challenges the forces attempting to socialize her into a prescribed gender role as a Southern lady. Aunt Alexandra tries to subtly and not-so subtly push Scout into a traditional gender role—a role that often runs counter to her father's values and her own natural inclinations. However, as events around the trial become ugly, Scout realizes the value of some of the traditions Alexandra is trying to show her and decides she, too, can be a “lady.” To Kill a Mockingbird explores themes of heroism and the idea of role models as well. Lee has stated that the novel was essentially a long love letter to her father, whom she idolized as a man with deeply held moral convictions. Atticus is clearly the hero of the novel, and functions as a role model for his children. Early in the story, the children regard their father as weak and ineffective because he does not conform to several conventional standards of Southern masculinity. They eventually realize that Atticus possesses not only skill with a rifle, but also moral courage, intelligence, and humor, and they come to regard him as a hero in his own right.
Since its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird has been enormously popular with the reading public, has sold millions of copies, and has never gone out of print. The initial critical response to Lee's novel was mixed. Many reviewers lauded the book as a poignant and insightful exposé of racism in the South, and a powerful rendering of modern heroism. Others, however, found fault with Lee's use of narrative voice, asserting that she fails to effectively integrate the voice of the adult Scout with the childish perspective of the young girl who narrates much of the novel. Critical reception of the book has primarily centered around its messages concerning issues of race and justice. Joseph Crespino observed, “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” Proponents of the novel have championed its usefulness as a teaching tool in high school and college curricula for examining issues of racism and justice. Atticus has been held up by law professors and others as an ideal role model of sound moral character and strong ethical principles. As Steven Lubet remarked, “No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession than the hero of Harper's Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. For nearly four decades, the name of Atticus Finch has been invoked to defend and inspire lawyers, to rebut lawyer jokes, and to justify (and fine-tune) the adversary system.” Since the 1960s, as the discourse around race and justice in America has become more complex and multi-faceted, To Kill a Mockingbird has come under strong criticism for the fundamental values it puts forth. The novel has been criticized for promoting a white paternalistic attitude toward the African-American community. Such critics hold that the novel's central image of the mockingbird as a symbol for African Americans ultimately represents the African-American community as a passive body in need of a heroic white male to rescue them from racial prejudice. Isaac Saney remarked, “Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denial of the historical agency of Black people. They are robbed of their roles as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation. … The novel and its supporters deny that Black people have been the central actors in their movement for liberation and justice.” The status of Atticus Finch as a role model for lawyers has also come under attack in recent years. These critics have scrutinized Atticus from the perspective of legal ethics and moral philosophy, and analyzed his characters' underlying values in relation to race, class, and gender. As Monroe Freedman argued, “Finch never attempts to change the racism and sexism that permeates the life of Maycomb […] On the contrary, he lives his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice. And that is not my idea of a role model for young lawyers.” Yet the character of Atticus continues to have avid defenders. Ann Althouse asserted, “For those entering the legal profession, who commonly worry that they will lose themselves in an overbearing and tainted alien culture, Atticus is a model of integrity.” Althouse concluded, “Atticus Finch is an example: a man who has found a way to live and work as a good person in a deeply flawed society.”
Standing in a Persons Shoes – To Kill A Mockingbird May 1, 2009Posted by KJ theBookGirl in Analyse, GCSE, History, KJ, read, theBookGirl, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Tags: Analysis, Atticus, bestseller, book, English Literature, GCSE, History, Jem, KJ, Lessons learnt, Plot, Racism, review, Revision, Scout, Shoes, South America, theBookGirl, TKAMB, To Kill a Mockingbird
The best way to understand a person is “to stand in his or her shoes”. How does the author effectively illustrate this point in the novel?
To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably the journey that Scout Finch makes growing up, which is essentially her journey of learning new values, morals and compassion through experience and practice.
Standing in a person’s shoes is one of the first things Atticus explains to Scout in the novel, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” This is said in chapter three. Atticus is explaining how the things that went wrong on her first day of school (Miss Caroline finding Scout impertinent for correcting her, speaking bluntly about the pupils and being able to read, as well as the episode with Walter Cunningham) could have been avoided or at least made better.
Despite the early introduction to this lesson, Scout doesn’t fully understand it, or at least learn it, until the very last chapter when she finally meets Boo Radley, and stands on his porch thinking about the compilation of events which make up the book, from Boo’s point of view, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” This shows the understanding Scout has finally had of the way people are perceived and the way they actually are. It shows that she has learnt what many people in their life never learn – to have empathy for others. This then puts Scout, still a child really, in a position where she is much wiser than many of the residents of Maycomb who did not put themselves in any of the “Mockingbirds’” shoes during the course of events of the story. If, for example, the white community had honestly put themselves in Tom Robinson’s shoes he would have been found not guilty (or at least he may have had more hope for the appeal and not tried to escape from the jail). If they had stepped in Mayella’s shoes they may have found that Bob Ewell was really the guilty one, or that her evidence really can’t be used at all against Robinson.
A significant character, who is prejudged by the children before they stepped in her shoes, is Mrs. Dubose. As a recovering drug addict she is most definitely nasty, malicious, harsh and opinionated to say the least, but the children only observe this without understanding why. During chapter eleven (the last chapter before Jem has significantly started to grow up, and possibly the catalyst for this) Jem gets fed up of the taunts Mrs. Dubose makes at him about Atticus defending Tom Robinson, amongst other things. He loses sight of his noble aim to “hold hid head high and be a gentleman” and reacts by breaking the stems of all the flowers in Mrs. Dubose’s garden. Clearly this action has its consequences and in this we see how courageous Mrs Dubose is being, trying to give up the drug straight off. If Jem had understood and thought about this before reacting to her, he would have not have been forced to read to her for this reason, and he would have felt more compassion towards her than he did.
Another case of Atticus reiterating his point about seeing things from someone else’s perspective is when Jem makes a snowman to look like Mr Avery in chapter 8. Jem is very proud with his creation, “‘It’s lovely Jem,’ I said… ‘It is, ain’t it?’ he said shyly” this shows how Jem is very pleased with the likeness of the snowman, and is looking at it from the perspective of himself, as an artist. However, when Atticus sees it he says, “‘You can’t go around making caricatures of the neighbours’” and when Jem disagrees that it is a caricature, Atticus replies, “‘Mr Avery might not think so.” Showing that Atticus always sees it from everyone’s point of view. He is tactful, complimenting Jem first, but he makes sure that Jem does sort it out before it can actually hurt Mr Avery. This shows the consistency of Atticus’ morals and of the lessons which Scout and Jem need to learn as they grow up. It also shows how Atticus is always considerate and understanding of everyone, perhaps an aspect to him which makes him such a great lawyer.
An interesting example of standing in someone’s shoes is when Boo stands in Scout’s shoes. His care and concern for her (and Jem) is evident throughout the novel, such as in chapter 8 when Boo puts a blanket around Scout, “Boo Radley. You were so busy looking at the fire you didn’t know it when he put the blanket around you” This shows that Boo looks after the children, and this could be interpreted as standing in Scout’s shoes as the reader can see that he is thinking what it must be like from her point of view, and then doing what he can to help her, which people who talk to her and live with her don’t think of doing. This is especially prominent in the last chapter when Scout stands on his porch and she realises how he has watched “his children” – Jem and Scout – over the course of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Scout and Jem don’t stand in Boo’s shoes, automatically believing the gossip surrounding the Radley’s place.
Another example of standing in someone’s shoes is in chapter 12 when Jem and Scout are at Calpurnia’s church. They have the opportunity to actually stand where Cal does each week and experience a part of her life away from the white community. In this chapter they learn a lot about how the black community lives and this helps them understand the importance of Tom Robinson being found not guilty. “You all know of Brother Tom Robinson’s trouble…the collection taken up today and for the next three Sundays will go to Helen – his wife, to help her out at home.” This shows that the black community are thinking about Tom and Helen’s predicament and are stepping in their shoes and working out the best way to help them. The white community do not do this and only see Robinson as a member of the black community instead of an innocent husband and father. Here Jem and Scout also experience this community spirit and united support which is unusual to them as they are used to the white community’s gossip and scandals. This builds upon the lesson Atticus teaches them.
The white community already assume Tom Robinson is guilty, as he is black, and Helen is guilty by association, as she will not be able to get work and look after her children. If the white community were to stand in Helen’s shoes they would realise that it is not her fault even if Tom Robinson were guilty. Likewise, if the white community stood in the black community’s shoes like Jem and Scout did for the morning, they would probably have far less prejudices than they actually have.
Mayella’s shoes are never stepped in by the community. Her lies are half-swallowed even when all evidence contradicts them, but she is never pitied by anyone apart from the most compassionate characters, such as Tom Robinson, and this only angers the white community further, “You felt sorry for her? You felt sorry for her?” This shows how incredulously the statement is considered and how unexpected it is for a member of the black community (no matter who it is) to pity a member of the white community. This could be seen as Tom Robinson recognising another Mockingbird and wanting to help her, but is more likely just that Robinson is a kind and innocent character who wants to help people no matter what the risk, much like Atticus. Ironically it is partially this which finally causes Robinson’s guilty verdict.
Mayella is thought of as just “white trash” but when her shoes are actually stepped in, it can be seen that she is actually a lonely, unloved young girl who wants company and to be wanted herself. If someone had recognized this and actually acted upon it, helping her to become a distinguished lady, such as Scout will have the opportunity to become, it may have ultimately saved Tom Robinson’s life as she would not have introduced the whole problem with the “love” between the black man and white girl.
Hope this was useful