A Study of Prejudice in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ By Harper Lee Essay Sample
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A Study of Prejudice in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ By Harper Lee Essay Sample
There is a variety of prejudice in the novel, however it all stems back to the mockingbird motif. Chapter ten is the first mention of the mockingbird. Atticus tells the children ‘it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ Atticus is aware the children will shoot birds with their new air rifles, although he would rather they didn’t. He instructs them not to kill mockingbirds because they are symbols of innocence and harmlessness. They are symbols of innocence and harmlessness, just as Tom Robinson was, when he was shot.
The mockingbird also symbolises a world, which is free from fear or evil, just like the world in which Tom Robinson and Boo Radley sought to live in. The reference to mockingbirds in chapter twenty-four focuses our attention on Tom Robinson as the central ‘mockingbird’ figure. Tom is presented as an innocent, good character. Not only does he not do any harm, he demonstrates positive virtues of kindness, compassion, and generosity. Tom’s life and actions are a natural, spontaneous expression of his humanity and decency just as the mockingbird sings its heart out naturally. As people thoughtlessly slaughtered Tom, they too slaughtered the mockingbird.
The white and black communities are divided by deep-rooted fear and mistrust. Poor white people, who would never have owned slaves before the civil war, were particularly resentful of the newly free blacks, seeing them as a potential threat to their security. We see this in the bitter hatred expressed by Bob Ewell and by the lynch mob who set out to kill Tom Robinson. The trial of Tom Robinson revealed the depths of the prejudice, which believed that black people were essentially inferior. Tom was clearly innocent of raping Mayella Ewell, but by his own admission was guilty of daring to feel sorry for a white woman. The white folk could not have accepted such a presumption. The tension surrounding the trial built up as the men warned Atticus that there might be trouble from the ‘Old Sarum bunch.’ You could sense the ugliness in the racial tension, which threatened Tom’s safety even before he came to the trial. Atticus’s speech reflected the heart of the novel. He presented the evidence for Tom’s innocence clearly and expressively. He made the jury face their prejudice, the unfathomable, evil assumption that all Negroes are untrustworthy and that a white persons word should always be accepted over a blacks persons.
Atticus approach towards the court was clear and stylish. He didn’t use emotive words to change the jury’s decision. His language and tone of speech indicated respect for the jury’s intelligence and confidence in their ability to understand the arguments he presented. He used comparisons to make his points clear like when he said Mayella is like a child trying to hide stolen goods. The callous sarcasm in the description of Bob Ewell as a ‘God fearing, persevering, respectable whit man’ shows Atticus’s disapproval for Ewell’s cynical behaviour. His tone there was a contrast to the relaxed way he began his speech and the intensity in which he built up at the end.
When Heck Tate was called to stand, he mentioned some very significant things, which proved Tom was innocent, and that the jury were extremely racist. He claimed to have found Mayella Ewell ‘lying on the floor,’ with a black right eye. ‘She was bunged up on that side of her face…’ she also had finger marks all around her throat. Tom couldn’t have raped her, because his left arm is ‘withered.’ Harper lee created a dramatic effect by revealing his arm at that moment. Atticus’s deeply held belief is that ‘all men are created equal.’ He believes that this is undeniably true in the court of law. The operation of law, doesn’t always lead to justice being done. As long as people are swayed and conditioned by prejudice, they will come to unjust decisions and verdicts. This was shown when Tom’s verdict was announced.
There is a Caste system in Maycomb. The Ewells are seen as ‘trash’ and are the lowest of the low. Bob Ewell’s physical appearance and manner reflect his cocky, aggressive personality. The way in which Bob well gave his evidence revealed his ignorance, prejudice and crudeness. Ewell didn’t understand the purpose of Atticus’s questions. He didn’t see that his failure to get medical attention for Mayella suggested a lack of concern and guilt, and that the fact that he is left-handed suggested that he could have caused the injuries on the right side of Mayella’s face. Burris Ewell was just like Bob. He was the filthiest person Scout had ever seen. The family was ‘the disgrace of Maycomb,’ living like animals in filth and disease. Mayella was frightened and tearful as she gave her evidence. When Atticus spoke to her with his usual politeness, she thought he was mocking her. Slowly, Atticus built up a picture of Mayella’s impoverished, deprived life.
Aunt Alexandra had very strong issues in peoples’ backgrounds. She claimed ‘everybody in Maycomb had a streak,’ and criticised people because it. That was until Atticus turned around and said that the Finch family must have had an ‘incestuous streak.’ Although everything always seems to go back to background, Dolphus Raymond had a very good background, yet he is still an outcast.
In class, Miss Gates spoke with pride of the lack of prejudice in America, and condemned the terrible persecution of Jews since the beginning of history. Scout couldn’t understand how Miss gates could speak out so passionately against Hitler yet support the treatment of the black people in town. Miss Gates was prejudice, but was too dense to see it.
Although understanding other people isn’t being prejudice, it is a theme in the book, which helps to overcome prejudice. One of the important messages in the novel that I came to understand was, understanding other people by walking around in their shoes. Atticus taught and reinforced this lesson throughout the whole of the novel. The children came to understand Boo Radley. An understanding that was most touchingly conveyed at the end of the novel, when Scout literally stood in the position from which Boo had watched them, and saw events as he would have seen them. They learnt the truth about Dolphus Raymond and understood why he maintained his pretence of being a drunkard. The idea of standing in another person’s shoes helped them to understand why the lynch mob turned away when Scout spoke to Mr. Cunningham, and why Bob Ewell wanted revenge. Understanding other people was linked with the books main image of the mockingbird. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were seen as mockingbird figures. They did no harm, but were persecuted and damaged by ignorance and prejudice.
Harper Lee’s attack on prejudice runs throughout the novel. Part of her technique is to lead us to respect the black community. An additional part of her technique is to lead people away from their prejudice views by allowing them to step into another person’s shoes before judging them. No matter how inferior the person or people are, she tries her hardest to bring out the fact that everyone is equal. The legal system should have been better in the 1930’s but what moreover the hearts and minds of everyone needed to be changed first.