Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird explores the themes of human goodness, racial prejudice, and the destruction of innocence through the narration of six-year-old Scout Finch. Lee’s story takes place in 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama, an era in American history where Jim Crow laws plagued the South, and slavery, Civil War, and the Great Depression were still fresh in the minds of many. Scout and her brother Jem are gradually exposed to and forced to comprehend racist ideologies and the concept of human evil. Their father, Atticus Finch, is a successful lawyer defending a black man in a region swamped with racial inequality. As their father suffers negative public opinion due to his insistence to give the man a fair trial, the siblings are steadily stripped of their naive, childish ignorance and forced to temper their moral compasses and question the more adult world they have been thrust into. Through the children’s personal trials and developments, their father’s wise words, and their newfound recognition of societal flaws, Lee illustrates that an individual’s maintenance of faith in human goodness and recognition of human evil should coexist in equal parts, not allowing one force to completely swallow the other.
In the very beginning, Scout and Jem are presented by the narrator, an adult Scout, as small children, not yet cognizant of the societal and racial divisions of Maycomb. While Scout briefly touches upon her ancestry and the significance of her father, they take a passenger seat to her imagination and superstitions, more concerned with avoiding specters and coldspots than anything else at this point of the book. Accompanying Scout and her brother is Dill, a mischievous, yet intelligent boy with a talent for weaving stories. Following the suggestions of Dill, Scout and Jem spend the summer attempting to lure a shut-in named Arthur “Boo” Radley, a man infamous among the town children as a result of his reclusive nature. Becoming increasingly interested in the man, the three begin to act out their own interpretation of the Boo Radley myth before being apprehended by Atticus. Chastised for their poor manners, Atticus has the children promise never to bother Arthur again, suggesting that they see their actions from the perspective of the affected. However, the trio soon make their way over to the Radley property, ignoring Atticus. While attempting to look at the fabled Boo Radley, they are heard by Arthur’s brother, Nathan, and are shot at, prompting the children to flee. Despite escaping mostly unscathed, Jem discovers that he had lost his pants in the ordeal. Disturbed by the rifle shots, the neighbors gather about the Radley residence, where Nathan suggests that the intruders were simply black men attempting to rob him. As to not get caught by his father, Jem sneaks back to the backyard to recover his pants where he discovers, to his astonishment, his pants were waiting for him, mended and neatly folded.
These initial scenes establish Scout and Jem as young, innocent children, susceptible to false superstitions such as sidewalk ghosts or the tale of insane Boo Radley. They spend their summer playing games with their newfound friend, Dill, and through their interactions, we discover how deeply integrated Maycomb’s social expectations were, even in the minds of naive children. While Scout and Jem’s largest troubles appear to be avoiding cold spots and getting a glimpse of their hermit-like neighbor, they still recognize the role that women and other minorities played in their society. We see this time and time again, where Jem accuses Scout for being a girl for initially refusing to seek out Arthur Radley, or when Scout is confined to playing unexciting, minor roles in the stories the children reenact specifically due to her gender. Despite their overall ignorance towards the general social machinations of Maycomb, Dill and Jem’s attitude towards Scout reflects how the men of that era viewed women. The belief that Scout should be treated differently due to being a girl is so deeply ingrained in Maycomb’s societal structure that even nine year old Jem is convinced of its legitimacy. However, this viewpoint confuses Scout, as seen when she asks why she isn’t allowed to act out other roles in their plays, and her innocence still, at this part of the book, blinds her from understanding the injustice being done to her. Jem and Dill are unable to see from Scout’s perspective, and as a result, confine and slight her. This message is repeated more directly through the scene where Atticus scolds the children for spying on Boo, and is one that is emphasized repeatedly throughout the course of the book. Later on, when Nathan shoots at Jem, everyone easily assumes it was simply a poor black man attempting to rob him despite the fact that Nathan had no legitimate reason to assume it was a member of Maycomb’s black community to trespass. This event highlights the generally low opinion of African Americans in Maycomb, viewed as guilty without any evidence of guilt, foreshadowing Tom Robinson’s false conviction later in the book. Dill’s overall prevalence in this portion of the book is also significant, Dill symbolizing childlike wonder and imagination, his presence steadily declining as Lee’s story progresses. His innocent personality persists throughout the entire novel, and, through comparison, allows the reader to see Jem and Scout’s growth as people since the beginning, when their lives were dictated by Dill’s ideas and games.
The turning point that leads into the second portion of the book is when this childlike innocence begins its erosion, as Scout and Jem are exposed to a great deal of adult controversy. Atticus, their father, takes on a much more prominent role in Scout’s life, as he had recently been assigned the case of a certain Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the daughter of Maycomb’s local lowlife, Robert, more commonly referred to as “Bob,” Ewell. As a result of Atticus’ decision to give Tom fair representation regardless of his race, Atticus is viewed negatively by a vast majority of Maycomb, leading Scout to be ridiculed by her classmates and even her cousin. Atticus’ decision also opens up the African community of Maycomb, as Scout and Jem are invited to the local black church by their African American caretaker, Calipurnia. This friendliness between the Finch children and the African community, however, only escalates the tension involving the trial, leading a lynch mob to apprehend Atticus at the county jail where Tom is being held. While it appears as if a fight is about to break out, Scout reveals herself from a nearby hiding spot, not comprehending the situation, as Dill and Jem follow reluctantly. She immediately recognizes the head of the mob as the father of one of her classmates, and her innocent, polite attempts at small talk with the man causes him to feel ashamed, leading him to call off the mob. Later, at the trial, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the colored seats, listening intently as Atticus questioned Bob. As the trial progressed, it became increasingly obvious that it was not Tom, but Bob that had beat Mayella due to her romantic advances upon Tom, and that Tom was in fact innocent. Confident that Tom would no longer be convicted, Jem is later shocked as the white jury calls for a guilty verdict, leading him to become incarcerated and later shot and killed in an escape attempt. Following this, Bob Ewell later confronts Atticus again on the streets, threatening the lawyer for humiliating him in the courtroom. Bob vows revenge against him and his family, believing his reputation to be completely ruined. At this, Atticus merely shrugs, refusing to fight back, and walks away perfectly calm.
The trial is when once innocent Jem and Scout are steadily exposed to the harsh, unfair ways of the adult world, and an important turning point in their moral perspectives in the novel. As a result of her father’s decisions, Scout ends up in a good deal of fights in school, indiscriminately throwing punches whenever somebody slights Atticus. She doesn’t hesitate to respond to those who wound her pride, even socking her cousin Francis at Christmas dinner for ridiculing her. However, despite the fact that she is attempting to defend her father, Atticus reprimands Scout for her willingness to fight to defend herself, instead telling her to simply ignore the offender. We see Atticus do this himself later, when Bob insults and threatens him. Atticus’ primary message to Scout in this exchange is to always be the bigger person, and never allow petty insults to get under her skin, as he sees it as a form of weakness. Scout ignoring one of the bullies after this talk shows her progression from a hot headed little girl to being a little more conscious of her actions, one step in her transition from the child in the beginning to the empathetic human being at the end. Another catalyst of Scout and Jem’s transition is their interactions with Calipurnia and the other members of the black community. While not often exposed to racism in their own home due to Atticus’ comparatively liberal political views, their time at Calipurnia’s church allow both Finch children to gain a better understanding of a community they had not been previously exposed to, realizing all the positive similarities between their Maycomb’s white and black communities. This experience prompts Scout to ask why the racial division exists in the first place, especially when her aunt forbids her from returning. She questions the logic behind such ridiculous discrimination, and through Scout’s confusion, we as readers are also compelled to ask ourselves the same questions, leading into Lee’s overall message that such discrimination should be done away with entirely. The lynch mob that approaches Atticus is the first real experience that Scout has with real, human evil, and as a result, she doesn’t recognize it until well after the confrontation. While it is ultimately her innocence that shatters the mob’s killing intent, this scene shows not only that Scout has not yet broken out of her stage of naivete, but more importantly, that, like Scout believing in the man’s ability to respond with goodness, faith in the inherently good nature of people can sometimes be the most effective way to drive out evil. Shortly after the mob, Tom’s trial begins and concludes, and by the end, Atticus clearly illustrates Tom’s innocence to the audience and judge and Jem is convinced of an innocent verdict. Bob Ewell is infamous in Maycomb for spending welfare checks on liquor and never having worked an honest day in his life, widely regarded as the “trash” of the town. However, Ewell is white, and Robinson is not. Tom’s conviction, and later, his death are some of the most transformative injustices the Finch children witness, and one that completely strips away any remnant of Jem’s childish ignorance, the conviction affecting him on a personally emotional level. He becomes something of a recluse before emerging as a more mature, responsible version of himself for the remainder of the novel. His transformation allows him to take pride in his father and society once again, despite the “failure” in the courtroom, now understanding the intent behind his father’s actions. While Scout’s own innocence lingers, her current preoccupation with questioning the racial and social divisions of Maycomb stand in stark contrast with how she was initially presented as a character, less superstitious and better able to empathize with the emotions and thoughts of others. Her progression as an individual is made clear through her more developed, adult actions and analysis of human interaction as a direct result of Tom Robinson’s trial.
The final arc of To Kill a Mockingbird is shorter than the other pieces of the novel, but arguably the most important. Wandering in the woods at night with Jem after a school performance, Bob Ewell decides this to be the most appropriate time to make good on his promise to Atticus, attacking Jem and Scout with a knife. After breaking Jem’s arm and knocking him out, Scout hears a sharp cry as Boo Radley intervenes in the fighting, mortally wounding Ewell in the process. He carries Jem back to the Finch household, where Scout, with great maturity, reveals what had happened to the sheriff and Atticus. Finally able to accept her father’s advice, Scout sees Radley no longer as a monster or myth but as another human being and adopts Atticus’ policy of sympathy, regardless of the individual in question. After ensuring Jem’s safety, Scout escorts Boo back to his home, arms intertwined. Boo smiles, grateful, before disappearing in the front door, never to be seen by Scout again.
Scout’s final, and probably most intense confrontation with evil is what finally draws good out of both her, and the Radley house. Throughout the entire novel, Boo Radley is presented as a misunderstood figure, yet is inherently good, just as Atticus had described him beforehand. As a result, Scout is finally able to break out from her shell of blind childishness, as the novel ends with her finally accepting sympathy as her father taught. Despite the prejudice and divisions that surround Maycomb, we can expect Scout and Jem to take the first step in resolving those issues, and begin the first steps in Maycomb’s transformation in the future.
So, how does this story hold up over time? In the 57 years since the original date of publication, how should we interpret the events of the novel? Is its meaning diminished because we now live in an era where certain events and laws are no longer relevant?
Personally, I strongly believe that To Kill a Mockingbird is still heavily relevant in modern society. Despite whatever societal upheavals the United States may have experienced in the past five decades, themes of inequality and discrimination still plague the country. Between the surge in Islamophobia, the rapidly rising tensions between African American protesters and law enforcement, and countless other resurgences in extreme political ideologies, the message that all people are inherently good, regardless of gender, race, or previous misdeeds, is arguably more relevant than it was in the 1960's. As I see it, America currently sits at the cusp of a major social division, where the circumstances of one's birth or their political alignment alone is enough to antagonize. In order to prevent history from once again repeating itself, we must truly take To Kill a Mockingbird's message to heart, and understand that the story can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, not only in the context in which it was written, but our modern society as well.
Do you agree with my analysis? Or do you believe that Jem and Scout’s journey holds a different meaning than what I described? I invite you to comment your thoughts below.