“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is a novel set in the early 1930s in a fictional town called Maycomb. This town was supposed to be situated in Alabama but could represent any one of the small southern towns in the USA around that time. The book is written from the viewpoint of Scout, a five-year-old girl.
Prejudice is an “opinion formed without taking the time or care to judge fairly.” This opinion may be favourable or unfavourable and is held without regard to the available evidence. A prejudiced person might believe that all individuals of a certain age, colour, ethnic group, religion or sex are lazy, violent, stupid, or greedy. During the time in which the book was set many different forms of prejudice were considered to be “normal”. Some of these prejudices, such as racial prejudice, are still common in today’s society whereas others are still held by a minority of people only, such as prejudice against those who are atheistic. An injustice is “the violation or denial of justice.” Prejudice is unjust because the opinion is usually formed about a whole group of people, regardless of personal merit.
The most prominent form of prejudice depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird” was shown towards Negroes by most of the “white folk”. Only a small minority of the white people treated the Negroes with the respect each individual deserved. One of these people was Atticus Finch, Scout’s father. He treated Calpurnia, the Finch’s cook and maid as “one of the family” and believed that “anything fit to be said at this table is fit to be said in front of Cal.” From an early age the children in Maycomb were subjected to this prejudice as was shown when the children at Scout’s school taunted her by calling Atticus a “Nigger-lover”. Apartheid, separate facilities for Negroes and white people, increased racial prejudice towards the Black community because the facilities provided for the White community were superior to those intended for use by the Negroes. For instance, the white community had a church with the sole-purpose of worshipping, whereas the Negroes’ church, “First Purchase” was used by the White Community for gambling during the week. There were also separate seats in the courthouse for whites and Negroes. There were many other racist rules at that time, which were not mentioned in the novel. For example, when on a bus a Negro had to give up his seat if a white person required it. I think it is unjust that all those living in the “nest of Negroes” were considered inferior when it was only in the Negroes’ church that any real sense of Christian values and compassion was shown.
The main theme of the novel is Tom Robinson’s court case. Tom Robinson was, as all other Negroes in the novel, hard working and respectable but not respected by most of the white people. Although the evidence clearly proved him innocent of any crime towards Mayella Ewell the prejudices of the majority of the Maycomb citizens caused him to be unjustly found guilty. The evidence Bob and Mayella Ewell gave against him was weak and relied only on the “evil assumption” that “all Negroes lie”. This implied that all Negroes were considered to be bad before their true character was known. In the past a black man may have raped a white woman but that gives no one the right to condemn the entire race. Even before the trial had taken place Tom was presumed guilty because “for a black man to even be accused of raping a white woman was a death sentence.” Even though “all men are created equal” in a courthouse Tom Robinson was found guilty because he was black, in a town where white people, even “white trash” like the Ewells were superior. It was unjust that he was convicted and eventually died when he was clearly innocent.
Another group of people who were discriminated against in the novel were women or “ladies”. Scout is a perfect example of this discrimination. Scout preferred to dress and act like a boy and was frequently reprimanded for this. When she “cussed” in front of her Uncle Jack she was asked “Don’t you want to grow up to be a young lady?” This implied that it would be acceptable for a male to use swear words but not for a female. Aunt Alexandra also often instructed Scout to wear dresses “like a proper young lady.” in preference to her usual attire of “breeches”. She was also told she should not do anything “requiring pants.” Which meant she was supposed to amuse herself playing with “small stoves, tea-sets and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace”. Upon realising how limiting life was as an upper middle class woman in Maycomb she said, “I felt the starched walls of cotton penitentiary closing in on me”. I think it is unjust that Scout should be forced to behave like a stereotypical “lady” simply because she is female.
Scout was not the only victim of this sexism. All the middle class women were very restricted at that time. They did not go to work; the only working women we are introduced to in the novel are black, or low class teachers. Many of these “ladies” also had servants to do their housework. This meant they had a lot of spare time to waste in activities such as attending meetings with the other “Maycomb ladies.” The Church also encouraged prejudice against women. In one service, the vicar proclaims that women are the “source of all evil”. This is unjust because it is obviously not true and no one can make a sweeping statement declaring that all women are sinful without sufficient evidence.
Those who did not attend church were also victims of the narrow-mindedness of the inhabitants of Maycomb. Although Miss Maudie Atkinson displayed Christian values, was kind and compassionate she was considered to be lesser by the “foot washing Baptists” because she did not attend church. Many of the people who did regularly attend church such as Miss Stephanie Crawford were automatically labelled as “good” regardless of their unorthodox behaviour. Miss Stephanie was a “stern faced” woman who gossiped frequently about her neighbours, this unpleasant side to her character was ignored because she was “religious”. Miss Stephanie demonstrated her unchristian attitude when she expressed no sympathy for Tom Robinson or his family during the trial.
Another of the prominent themes in the novel is Maycomb’s social class system. This system goes as follows:
1. Upper class Whites.
2. Middle class Whites.
3. Lower class Whites.
4. Very low class Whites or “white trash” such as the Ewells.
This “social snobbery” is another form of prejudice as it puts people into categories and gives them labels. Once people have been categorised they are no longer an individual and their actions affect everyone in that group.
The family from which a person came determined their social status. It was Aunt Alexandra who best defined Maycomb’s social prejudices. Her definition of “fine folk” was: “the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.” This made no allowances for those such as Mayella Ewell, who tried to improve the situation she was in. During the trial Mayella was described as being “hard working” and she made an effort to “keep clean” I think Scout’s understanding of the meaning of the phrase “fine folk” is far better. She said fine folk were “people who did the best they could with the sense they had.” I therefore believe it was unjust that Mayella Ewell was labelled as being “white trash” along with the rest of her family when most of Maycomb’s residents knew little about her true character. Had they looked beyond the family’s disreputable name and taken the time to get to know her they may have been pleasantly surprised.
The residents of Maycomb seemed to fear anything or anyone that was different from their idea of normal. One person who people knew very little about, yet judged anyway, was Arthur Radley. Arthur chose to follow a reclusive lifestyle after an incident in his teens. Since this incident the townspeople called him “Boo” Radley. Even the supposedly unprejudiced Scout referred to him as a “malevolent phantom”. “Boo” chose to live differently from others and consequently became the victim of local gossip and ridicule. In actual fact Arthur was caring and considerate. He took a liking to Scout, Jem and Dill and left them presents. He also placed a blanket around Scout when she was forced to wait outside in the cold while watching Miss Maudie’s house burn down. These actions proved that the rumours and prejudices of the Maycomb citizens were incorrect and therefore they had been unjustly taunting him.
Mrs Dubose was also subjected to the discriminative residents of Maycomb, particularly Jem and Scout. As with “Boo” Radley, rumours around the town that she was mad, violent or evil were common. Her comments may have been “vicious” but nobody made the effort to get to know her as a person. In fact, the reason for her bad-tempered outbursts was a continuous fight against morphine addiction. It was unjust of people to judge her without attempting to find a reason behind her behaviour.
I think the people in Maycomb were afraid of change and were therefore intolerant towards most people who were different. The fact that the story is told from the eyes of an innocent child helps us to see things as they really were and also how, in the case of Arthur Radley and Mrs Dubose, prejudices can quickly be transferred from person to person. Even a child picked up the town’s prejudices towards these people. The novel helps us to see how prejudices can lead to unacceptable injustices and has something to teach everyone about how prejudices can affect and rule our lives.