“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” This is how the novel written by Harper Lee in the 1930s starts, this awkward beginning grabs our attention before introducing us to the horrendous conditions in the 1930s. Lee offers us an awkward beginning introducing a first person narrator and other main character of the novel. If we were only to judge the novel by its first sentence, we would think that the novel narrates an adventure that Scout and Jem experience throughout the time narrated. However, as the novel and time progresses we can see how both depressing and optimistic events are narrated through Lee’s use of Scout as the narrator of the story in the first person.
Throughout the novel, Harper Lee presents different depressing events including not only the trial, but many other events which I will also analyse. Poverty in southern USA in the 1930s was very common. This poverty is display in the novel by the use of lower class citizens such as the Ewell. In the trail, the reader sees the Ewell social class and they realize how poor they were. Jem also call them trash when explaining to Scout how there are four types of folks. The fact that Harper Lee exhibits this poverty in the novel, and the fact that she uses Mayella to describe her life in the trail shows a depressing event of the novel as the reader will then feel sorry for the Ewells. “The witness frowned as if puzzled. ‘Friends?’ ” (Chapter 18, page 189) Harper Lee wants us to feel sympathy for these citizens to portray how poverty stroke citizens in the 1930s.
From my personal point of view, Harper Lee wants to describe the prejudices and conditions faced in the 1930s. After the Roaring Twenties, Lee portrays the change in the state of mind and in the conditions in which people from different social classes lived particularly focusing in Alabama, USA. Due to the Wall Street Crash, many people were bankrupt and they had to live in poverty attending to breadlines. As shown in the novel, everyone was affected by the Great Depression, and especially the black society was badly hit. The black community of southern USA were treated as third class citizens and had a lack of rights. Furthermore, blacks at this time were usually sharecroppers and had to leave the land with the dust ball, therefore affecting their attitudes towards life and society on a whole as they became even poorer.
Although, at first sight this lack of rights black people experienced shows inequality and a depressing side of the story, the fact that many members of the black community like ‘Calpurnia’, Atticus’ maid, acted as a bridge between the white and the black society, giving the reader some optimism. It gives the reader this happy feeling as it makes it deduce how one day in the future, the black society will be equal to the whites thanks to this bridges. The fact that in Maycomb there were also members of the white society, such as Judge Taylor willing to help black individuals also shows optimism. “Did it ever strike you that Judge Taylor naming Atticus to defend that boy was no accident?” However, I will discuss these in more detail later.
Harper Lee studied law at the University of Alabama. During her course, she personally experienced the inequality and discrimination which occurred between both communities. From my point of view, I think it was this feeling which leads her to write such a novel in which she identifies herself with Scout and also identifies Dill with her best friend for example. Harper Lee’s father was also a lawyer and she may have been under pressure or motivated to fulfil a decent career leading us to a pessimist theme of pressure experienced by the younger generation like Jem and Scout in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
Throughout the novel different themes are described which gives the reader a feeling of both optimism and pessimism. One of the biggest themes portrayed in the novel is the theme of prejudice. Lee presents the theme of prejudices in two main forms, prejudice towards groups and individual prejudice. One of the most significant themes shown in the novel is racial prejudice. The main obvious case of racial prejudice is the way in which Tom Robinson is treated. Tom Robinson is a minor character who is not explored in depth. However, he is important in the sense that he carries the themes and issues the novel explores like racial prejudice, for example. Tom is a traditional and religious black man who is considered honourable but also a lonely character with a disability which makes him an outcast. “Didn’t Mr. Ewell run you off the place, boy?” (Chapter 19, page 204) By the use of the word ‘boy’ when Mr. Gilmer refers to Tom, shows the lack of respect an educated lawyer like Mr. Gilmer shows to the witness. However, many other cases of racial prejudice take place throughout the novel.
One case of racial prejudice can be found in the way in which Aunt Alexandra treats Calpurnia. Calpurnia is one of the main characters of the novel. She is member of the black society, but also looks after Jem and Scout. Even though she is black, she is able to read and write and even teaches other black members of her community to read and write, as in order to attempt to bridge both societies together the blacks needed to be educated. “There wasn’t a school even when he was boy. I made him learn, though” (Chapter12, page 131). Harper Lee not only uses Calpurnia as the representative of the situation of the black society, she is used as a bridge that links both societies together. Atticus also considers Calpurnia as a member of the family and she is like a mother figure for both children, as Lee tells us how the Finches consist of only Atticus, Scout and Jem. Therefore, the consideration of Calpurnia, their household, to act as a mother presents an optimistic view as it shows how the nuclear family was important for the Finches.
The importance which these three members of a respected family like the Finch family gives to a black women who is supposed to just do the household tasks also shows optimism as it shows how some members of the black society were integrated within the white society, and also exposes how the member of the white society liked this and were beginning to accept all races equal. However, a depressing element is shown in the attitude Aunt Alexandra has towards Calpurnia as unlike her brother and nephews, she does not consider Calpurnia a member of the family even thought Calpurnia always worked for the Finch family.
On the other hand Calpurnia is merely considered a maid rather than a mother to Aunt Alexandra. “I’ve spent my days working for the Fiches or the Bufords, an’ I moved to Maycomb when your daddy and your mamma married.” (Chapter 12, page 131) Just in Aunt Alexandra’s arrival to the Fiches house, she shows her negative attitude towards Calpurnia. “Put my bag in the front bedroom Calpurnia, was the first thing Aunt Alexandra said” (Chapter 13, page 132). Her first sentence after arriving at the Finch house has a very imperative tone towards Calpurnia. From her sentence, we can immediately see how she has no respect to Calpurnia and even how she thinks she is from a higher class so she should not show any equality towards her. This negative attitude towards a black woman considered by a member of the Finch family gives a reader a depressing sense, as this attitude makes the reader suggests that for certain white people things will never change.
Prejudice towards different social classes within Maycomb is also presented in the novel as for example when the life of the Ewells is the described, or when Scouts learns about the different ‘types of folks’ within the town. According to Jem, there are four types of folks in the world. There are the “ordinary kind like us and the neighbours” (Chapter 23, page 232), there are the “kind like the Cunninghams, the kind like the Ewell down at the dump and the Negroes” (Chapter 23, page 232). The fact that a boy who is nearly thirteen is able to himself divide the society of Maycomb into four groups forming a social class structure shows a depressing side as the children are then not learning about equality but about differences between classes. The fact that the Ewell are placed down the damp, also gives the reader the feeling that the Ewell are ‘White Trash’ due to their poverty. However, Jem is not the only child who can identify the differences between social classes. Scout also describes the prejudice occurring between different social groups to Miss Caroline in her first day of school. “Walter Cunningham was sitting there laying his head off. He didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any…. Walter’s one of the Cunninghams.” (Chapter 2, page 26) Thus, indicating that the Cunninghams were low in society and were therefore unassisted.
One last prejudice towards groups is the prejudice present in gender. Harper Lee, being a woman, portrays the woman’s way of life in the 1930s. Throughout the novel, we do meet many different female characters. However, not many of them have good, respectable jobs even though they do belong to the high social class. The fact that ladies like Miss Maudie are economical well-off also shows women’s dependence on the man who is the member which brings the money home, as it is considered the main breadwinner. On the other hand, Lee does clearly shows how women are dependent on the man because of the society.
This is clearly shown when Atticus explains to Jem how women cannot be part of a jury. “Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she’s a woman.” (Chapter 23, page 227) As mentioned before, Harper Lee herself studied law and was also a writer. For her society, she was probably an exception as most women in the 1930s did not have such decent and respected jobs. This is not only reflected by Lee in the trial when there are no females lawyers, but also when Miss Alexandra explains to Scout how to be a lady, in order to make her aware on how she must fit into society at some point. From my point of view, Lee uses Aunt Alexandra to represent the typical woman of the 1930s. Miss Alexandra, unlike her brother, did not work and her only task was to look after the children. This can be then considered ironical as Harper Lee presents the reader with the women’s lifestyle which may not be their real lifestyles, as herself for example did have a respectable job. For this reason, the prejudice towards gender existing in the novel will then be considered a depressing element as it shows how women were a type of second class citizens, dependant on males.
From the beginning to the end of the novel, the theme of individual prejudice also exists directed to different members belonging to different social classes. In the first chapter, Harper Lee describes Boo Radley “The Radley place was inhabited by an unknown entity the mere description of whom it was enough to make us behave for days on end” (Chapter 1, page 12). However, as the novel progresses the children lose interest on this mysterious character as they start to concentrate on the trial and so realize the different type of prejudices taking place within society. At the end of the novel, Boo Radley comes back to the children’s mind as he saves them from Bob Ewell. Boo Radley is, from my point of view the most enigmatic and “malevolent” character cited in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
Arthur is a recluse who is emotionally unstable. He has been destructed by his evil father and he his mocked by society as well as by Jem, Scout and Dill as he is the centre of their games. Boo Radley is a character who, unlike other character, develops his personality as the novel progresses. Boo can also be considered sensitive as he grows to love the children and he leaves presents for them. As a whole, Boo Radley can be considered a mockingbird that has been harmed by the cruel society of Maycomb. However, at the end of the novel Scout finally realizes what life is like for him and she then feels sorry for him. “Atticus was right. One time he said you never rally know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” (Chapter 31, page 285) This prejudice towards an indivual, Boo Radley in this case can be then considered both depressing at the beginning but also optimistic as Scout finally realises how life is for him. She has then learnt how stereotyping a person from simply what you hear from others is not the correct way to approach life and criticise others.
The racial segregation taking place in Maycomb is also a depressing fact as it shows how many American citizens like Tom Robinson were judge just because of their race. “Tom Robinson’s a coloured man, Jem. No jury in this part of the world’s going to say. ‘We think guilty, but not very,’ on a charge like that.” (Chapter 23, page 225) This shows how Atticus being a lawyer admits how racism takes place in trial and he describes how everyone knew that Tom was going to be convicted guilty because of his race. This is very depressing as it shows the discrimination taking place at the time.
Deaths are another main point of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ which gives the reader a scary and depressing feeling. As the novel progresses, we encounter many different deaths taking place in Maycomb. One of the first deaths Scout informs the reader about her mother death. The fact that both Scout and Jem now have no mother gives the reader a depressing sensation. “Our mother died when I was two, so I never felt her absence.” (Chapter 1, page 12) This short sentence is used by Lee to impact critically on the reader’s feelings making it feel sorry for both Scout and Jem and also adding to the novel another depressing aspect. As Scout is the narrator of the novel, she is unable to express her feelings about her mother’s death as she does not remember her and she only has memories Atticus told her about. However, Lee does sometimes describes what Jem thinks about it, which gives the reader a sad feeling. “I did not miss her, but I think Jem did.” (Chapter 1, page 12) Mrs. Dubose is another character who is present in the story but dies later.
Mrs. Dubose was not very popular in the neighbourhood as she used to shout and insult people within the neighbourhood by shouting things like “you father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for” (Chapter 11, page 108). Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, is used by Harper Lee to represent the typical Maycomb society, she also represents the norms and values and of a typical lady. As Mrs Dubose is an old lady, we can understand her racist view as when she was younger black people were slaves. However, the fact that she still treats black people as slave makes the novel depressing. She is also a lonely character that decided to give Jem a harsh punishment just because she needed some distraction. “According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” (Chapter 11, page 117) Towards the end, the children feel sorry for Mrs. Dubose when she dies as they realize how she was trying to combat her morphine addiction.
At the start of the novel, she is seen as a ‘flat’ character however, her personality suddenly develops to become an example of courage to the children. The most dramatic and unfair death which takes place in the novel is Tom Robinson’s death. His death is also used to give a depressing point to the novel. As we have seen, most of the novel deals with racial prejudice and one of the main characters that demonstrate this is Tom Robinson Even though Tom is not explored in depth, and we do not learn about his personality, Tom is the character whose function is to show the theme of prejudice and symbolisms (of which we will talk about later). Tom Robinson was accused of raping Miss Mayella Ewell, and even though Atticus proves how he physically was unable to do this, Tom is found guilty as the result of the racial prejudice taking place at this time in the United States. Once he is imprisoned, he tries to escape from the prison and he is then shot in the attempt of escaping. His death was considered unfair by some citizens by fair by others, it was all a choice of colour. As for the Fich family, Tom’s death is a terrible event which then adds more depressing events to the novel.
The title of the novel by Harper Lee, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, has a symbolic effect which is portrayed in the novel. The first link between the story narrated in the novel and the title is exposed when the children are given air rifles for Christmas and Atticus tell them “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit them, but remember it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (Chapter10, page 96) From this point of the novel onwards the theme of symbolism is present as the mockingbird is the most significant symbol we come across with. A mockingbird is a type of finch, a small, plain bird with beautiful songs which ‘mocks’ and mimics other birds’ songs. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their heart out for us. That is why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (Chapter 9, page 96)
This show how Miss Maudie agrees with Atticus as she also thinks that mockingbirds are harmless creatures which do not do anything but sing for us. Two main characters which are considered the main mockingbirds of the novel are Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. At the end of the novel, Scout finally realises how it will be being on Boo’s shoes. “We had given him nothing, and it made me sad.” (Chapter 31, page 285) However, throughout the novel we do see the evidence which makes us deduce how both of these characters are mockingbirds. Both characters are described as kind characters as Boo is kind towards Jem and Scout as he leaves them presents. Tom is also kind to Mayella Ewell even though she has accused him of raping her. “I felt sorry for her, she seemed to try no more’n the rest of ’em-“. This shows how Tom as sorry for Mayella as she was always alone and she had no one to comfort her.
When Tom said this, in the court room, most of Maycomb’s citizens found this ironical as the Ewell are suppose to feel sorry for the black community as the black community were of a much lower class. As mockingbirds, both Boo and Tom were innocent but were still punished. In the case of Mr. Radley, he was imprisoned and mocked by society as he was shown as an evil character affected by the society. The same occurred with Tom, Mr Robinson was found guilty of a rape which he did not commit. Tom and Arthur Radley are both also affected by the prejudices of the Maycomb society at the time. As we have seen before, Tom was present in the racial prejudice that took place while Boo was more in an individual prejudice as we were isolated from society. Finally, both of these characters are imprisoned because of the 1930s’ society values. The fact that these characters were considered mockingbirds but were discriminated heavily by society is also a negative and depressive point shown in the novel.
We have now seen the main depressive points present in the novel by Harper Lee. However, Lee also includes positive and optimistic events in her novel. Another main theme which we find in the novel is the theme of growing up. The first chapter of the novel shows how Jem and Scout learn various things from real life situations. This learning process continues as the novel progresses and the children also learn about the society in the days of the trial. Scout is the narrator of the story, as the novel progresses we can see how Scout grows up and becomes a mature individual as she starts to realize how things are in the real world.
“As I made my way home, I thought of Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”(Chapter 31, page 286) This shows how by the end of the novel, Scout has matured and she is now older and naive. Scout learns different things from different people. Scout leans how politeness should be shown to everyone from Calpurnia, she learns to understand the attitude of society from Atticus and she also learns how to be a lady from Aunt Alexandra. Jem is also a character who rapidly and radically grows up in the novel. Jem becomes much more responsible and mature as the novel progresses, this is shown as by the end of the novel Jem and Scout are much more distant from each other. The fact that both children are able to learn and grow up differentiating the good and evil gives the reader an optimistic feeling.
From the trial, the children also learn many things as they are witnesses of how prejudiced society is. “If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom will be a free man.” (Chapter 22, page 226) This exhibits how according to Atticus, Jem has learn to see the difference between the evil and the good things. This is then considered to be optimistic as it shows how some children, which are the new generations, are not prejudiced as they judge people on the evidence and not on their race or other irrelevant element like social class for example.
As previously mentioned, many members of the white society tried to help Tom Robinson in the trial. “His coloured friends for one thing, and people like us for another. People like Judge Taylor. People like Mr Heck Tate.” (Chapter 22, page 222) This exposes how Miss Maudie explained to Jem how many white people acted against the norms and values of the society in order to help Tom Robinson. This is a very optimistic element presented in the novel which demonstrates how many white people did not agree with the prejudice mind and thought that white and black people should have the same rights.
As we have seen before, black people like Calpurnia acted as a bridge between both communities, this then also indicates how white people wanted the union of both communities into an equal community. “There is nothing more to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.” (Chapter 23, page 227) This statement by Atticus also affirms how many people wanted an equal and fair society in which black and white people lived together without segregation. Atticus also mentions a very important thing in this quotation, education. He says that Negroes are ignorant. However, we know that they are ignorant because they cannot go to school. This then makes the reader deduce how Atticus wants black people to receive the same education as white people. The desire of many members of the white society of having a united community and the will of other to help black people portrays one of the most optimistic points in the novel.
Boo Radley was described as a scary and isolated man at the beginning of the story. However, we learn how his character grows in a very special way. As the novel advances Arthur’s love for the children increases as he starts giving presents to the children and even taking care of them. “I stood on tiptoe, hastily looked around once more, reached into the hole, and withdrew two pieced of chewing gum minus their outer wrappers.” This shows how affection towards Jem and Scout grows more and more as Boo find them an entertainment. However, as the friendship continues, Boo’s affection rapidly increases until he is a father figure for the children and he saves them from Bob Ewell’s attack. This is also optimistic as a “malevolent” character like Boo as turned into a decent character, or the character that he used to be before being affected by the cruel society of Maycomb.
One main optimistic point is the way in which people work together. “The men of Maycomb, in all degrees of dress and undress, took furniture from Miss Maudie’s house to a yard across the street.” This shows how people were pulled together in many cases in order to help everyone, like in the quotation presented. The quotation, from chapter 4 indicates how every men of Maycomb had come to help rescuing Miss Maudie’s things from the fire. This is a very positive thing as it shows how even though many men do not agree with each other, this shows how at least they are able to work together. The fact that many people like Atticus or Mrs Dubose relay on a black woman to look after their or house or them can be considered optimistic as it shows how even discrimination occurred, many prejudiced people like Mrs Dubose did accept the help of black people. “Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for niggers.” (Chapter 11, page 108) This exposes Mrs Dubuses’s racial prejudice towards black people.
The theme of courage portrayed throughout the novel also shows optimistic points. As the novel progresses, courage is presented in two main ways. In most cases courage appears as a fight against moral and normal values of society and as a stand against prejudice. On the other hand, some characters use courage as a device to tackle their loneliness, fear and torment. The characters which show courage in any of these ways, add optimism to the novel as they try to break the norm and values of society. From my point of view, the character that presents most character is Atticus Finch as he accepts to defend a black man in a trail against a white man, and even further more in a case of rape. “Your father’s no better than the nigger and trash he works for!” This is what Mrs Dubose shouted at Jem and Scout. From my point of view, Mrs Dubose represents the typical society and its norm and values. Lee then uses Mrs Dubose to show the reaction of the emblematic society to Atticus’ acceptant of defending Tom Robinson. For this reason then I think that they courage presented in the novel adds lost of optimistic points as it shows how not everyone agreed with the society of that time. For example, Mr Link Deas reflects courage as he offers a job and support to Tom and then to Helen Robinson, as he wanted to help Helen with the family economy when Tom Robinson died.
In conclusion, throughout the novel Lee presents different depressing and optimistic events which affect the reader’s feeling and the transition of the novel. From my point of view, Harper Lee exposes these events by the use of main themes like growing up which shows the optimistic points of the education of Jem and Scout to an equal society. The theme of prejudice is also a very big theme that can be even decomposed into many other smaller themes including racial prejudice and individual prejudice.
The use of the theme of prejudice mostly described depressing points about how many people were segregated by the evil society in Maycomb at this time. Another theme used by Lee is the theme of courage. Courage is a theme which portrays how many member of the white society disagreed with the norm and values of the typical society as they thought that everyone should be treated equal. This theme therefore evidences us with mostly optimism as it makes the reader feel the desire many citizen had of having a fair society. A last theme used by Lee is the theme of symbolism which is about using the title of the novel as a metaphoric meaning. The symbolism of the word mockingbird brings a depressing feeling to the reader as it shows how many harmless people had been killed by society like Boo Radley or Tom Robinson for example.
As I read the novel, I experienced both optimistic and depressing feeling depending on the tone, the language and the content. From my point of view, I think that the first chapters of the book narrate mostly optimistic events as it shows how the children learn the difference between what is good and bad. I think that the trial narrates the most depressing events in the novel but could be also considered optimistic as once the trial was finished many members of the white society realized how black people should be treated equally to whites. As a conclusion, from my own experience when reading the novel I think that the novel itself is depressing. However, I could consider the novel optimistic in a long-term way as it gives the reader the feeling that in the future everything will different as black and white will have the same rights.