To Kill A Mockingbird—Response
by David Schlachter
Harper Lee’s book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is, in my opinion, a book with a diverse collection of messages, skillfully woven into an interesting and engaging story. It seems to me, though, that the book is very focused on symbolism.
The symbol of mockingbirds is reoccurring in the book. It appears in the title, it is suggested in various characters and situations, and in parts of the book it is stated explicitly. For example, on page 90, Atticus told Scout and Jem, “Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Scout didn’t understand this, and so she asked Miss Maudie about it. She responded, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, they don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” From these parts of the book, we learn that mockingbirds are innocent; it is a sin to hurt or injure them. I think that the symbolism of mockingbirds extends to humans also. They represent the innocent ones who are injured by evil. For example, I think that Tom Robinson is a prime example of a mockingbird that was killed. He was innocent; he was a good guy who didn’t hurt anybody. However, because of prejudice, he was accused of a capital offence. He was convicted by a prejudiced jury and sentenced to death. With all his hope gone, he made a crazed attempt to escape his prison, but was shot dead. Clearly, the author is telling us here that Tom shouldn’t have died. It was a sin to kill him. He shouldn’t have been convicted because he didn’t do anything.
Boo Radley, however, is an example of Mimidæn symbolism that was not killed, but nearly was. He led a reclusive life, but he was a kind person. He gave gifts to Scout and Jem, and even patched up Jem’s pants. However, his greatest moment in the book was when he saved Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell. Without Boo, Scout and Jem would have ended up dead. However, even though Scout and Jem were saved, Mr. Ewell was not so lucky. When Atticus heard about all this, he was presented with a serious moral situation. He didn’t really know what to do about Boo. Boo had almost definitely murdered Mr. Ewell, but Mr. Ewell had nearly murdered two children. At first Atticus was convinced that Boo should go to court. In Atticus’s mind, not sending Boo to court would be hypocrisy. As he stated on page 274, “I can’t live one way in town and another in my home.” The choice boiled down to this: if Boo went to court, justice would be carried out, but an innocent life might be destroyed. If Boo didn’t go to court, Atticus would be a hypocrite. Atticus was confronted with this problem, but Heck Tate and Scout convinced him that it a greater sin to kill a mockingbird. As Scout said on page 276, “[sending Boo to court would] be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.” Eventually, Atticus decided that it would be better to save Boo. Here, the author is telling us that killing a mockingbird, or hurting an innocent person, is wrong, more so than most things that a person can do.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is… It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Ms. Dubose won… She was the bravest person I ever knew.” Atticus told this to Scout and Jem to help them understand what real courage was. According to Atticus, real courage is when you keep on trying to do what you think is right, even if you’re almost certain to lose. When I was reading about courage and Ms. Dubose, I was reminded of Homer’s “The Iliad.” The main character of the Iliad, Achilles, was a nearly invincible Achaean hero who possessed the same refusal to change his views as Ms. Dubose. In Homer’s book, the king of the Achaeans had wronged Achilles, and so he decided not to fight in the war. He kept this totally fixed resolve for most of the book. In the Iliad, Homer even compared Achilles’ total refusal to change his opinions, based on what others thought, to how the Greek gods behaved. In the book, for example, Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite each believed that they were the most beautiful goddess. Rather than make a compromise, they eventually started the Trojan war because of this dispute, and fought each other over something so seemingly insignificant. For example, in one part of the Iliad, Athena and Aphrodite were each helping opposing sides in the war. Athena was helping the Achaean hero Diomedes, and so she had him throw a spear at Aphrodite. The spear went right through Aphrodite’s wrist, injuring her, and gave the Achaeans a small victory in the battle. Ironically, thousands of Achaean and Trojan lives were lost because of a dispute between three goddesses. The goddesses did not care how many mortals were killed because of their dispute, just as Achilles didn’t care that the Achaeans might lose the war because of his decisions. Similarly, Ms. Dubose would not change her views for anything. This is what Atticus described as real courage.
According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, prejudice is, “preconceived judgment or opinion.” Prejudice is also a major theme in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” For example, while in court Atticus referred to, “the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are immoral, that all Negroes are not to be trusted around women.” According to Atticus, people with minds like Mr. Ewell had these assumptions, and Mr. Ewell was counting on the jury being the same. For most of the trial though, Mr. Ewell’s attempts to win over the jury with such an extreme assumption were a total failure. Atticus had solid evidence and Mr. Ewell had nothing. As Atticus put it, “[The state] has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant.” However, Tom Robinson didn’t win the trial. Something happened that caused the jury to turn against him. This event happened on page 197, when Tom said, “I felt right sorry for her.” The people in the jury were uncomfortable with this answer, as alluded to on the same page. I think that this was because they believed black people to be subhuman. They thought that black people, such as Tom Robinson, had a limited capacity to feel human emotions, especially for someone who was supposedly higher than them in society. Atticus though, a firm believer in equality, called Tom’s feelings for Miss Ewell, “unmitigated temerity” (page 204). The jury was not prejudiced enough to assume that all black people were born criminals, but they did feel that a black person could not feel sorry for a white person. Somehow, Tom’s one statement of temerity jeopardized all of Atticus’s evidence. To the jury, Tom was guilty.
Of course, prejudice in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” also occurred on a less dramatic level. Maycomb itself was divided into different social groups. For example, in chapter 23, Scout thought that it would be nice to invite Walter Cunningham over for dinner. However, Aunt Alexandra forbade this, on the grounds that Walter was somehow not as good as the Finches. Jem summed up Maycomb’s social hierarchy on page 226 when he stated, “Our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the colored folk.” Scout, however, didn’t quite agree with this system. She believed that all folks were equal. I think that by showing us the prejudice in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the author is telling us that all labels are wrong. For example, Scout thought that Walter was a nice person, but society disagreed. Tom Robinson was a respectable man, but because he was black and admitted to being capable of feeling sorry for someone who was white, society condemned him. I personally think that giving a person a label is wrong, because each person is an individual, not a clone of some stereotype.
Today, I think prejudice and stereotypes are a not only a big problem for the entire world, but they also affect teenagers such as D’Arcy students. It seems that all too often students categorize each other into stereotyped groups, much like how the citizens of Maycomb divided themselves. For example, if someone was walking down the hall at a school wearing old 70’s style glasses, corduroy pants, a plaid vest, suspenders, an ugly bow tie, and a shirt with a pocket protector and several pens plus a calculator in the pocket, many students would immediately associate this person with a stereotype. However, this student might be a great skateboarder who enjoys cooking and football. Obviously, labels are wrong. They can never be accurate because a person is not a stereotype. People are individuals. If everyone understood this, then maybe the world would have less problems, because many of the artificial barriers that we create because of prejudice would be broken down, and we would all get along much better. Of course, what starts off as a barely conscious stereotyping at school could develop into racism, just as Maycomb’s subtle prejudice escalated in enough racism to kill an innocent black man. Racism is a major problem around the world, and I think that its foundation is based on small acts of prejudice, and hypocrisy or ignorance. For example, one major connection to racism in the book occurred in chapter 26 when Scout was discussing current events in her class. What she wanted to know was, “How can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?” I think that what the author was trying to tell us here was that many people are hypocrites. Atticus was very careful to avoid this, almost to the point of killing a mockingbird, but others, such as Ms. Gates (Scout’s teacher), were total hypocrites when it came to racism. As Scout said, how could a person accept the social hierarchy of Maycomb, convict Tom Robinson, and then turn around and say that prejudice is wrong? I think that the author is not only telling us that racism is completely wrong, but she is also telling us that we should not be hypocrites. We should make up our minds about what is right.
“Folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates em’.” Calpurnia said this on page 126, in response to a question from Scout. When I read this, I realized that it was very true. Generally, people don’t like to have people around who know more than they do. For example, a few weeks ago I was talking to someone at school who had gotten an excellent mark on an important assignment. When they told me their mark, they asked me not to tell their friends, because they might be angry. I think that it’s too bad that people, especially students such as those at D’Arcy, can’t always share their achievements with others without running the risk of “aggravating em’.”
While I was reading, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I noticed that one of the most effective tools that was used was point of view. The story was told in first person perspective, with Scout speaking. I think that this mainly allowed us to follow Scout’s personal development; it allowed us to see Scout’s thoughts and emotions. For example, in the beginning of the book, Scout enjoyed terrorizing Boo Radley in an attempt to make him get out of his house. Later on, though, she realized that doing this was really just hurting an innocent person. On page 279, Scout finally understood Boo well, and she felt that she had developed so much that “there wasn’t much else left [for her] to learn, except possibly algebra.” This sort of progress in Scout’s character made the story much more interesting for me, and helped me to better recognize the messages that the author was trying to convey. I also thought that the author used point of view to alter the mood in certain parts of the book. For example, on page 211, when the jury was convicting Tom, Scout said that it “had a dreamlike quality”. This sort of dazed confusion from Scout helped me understand what she thought of the conviction. I think that Scout knew that Tom would be found guilty, but she didn’t want to accept it. This sort of tension and confusion seemed to convey similar feelings to the reader. When I first read this part of the book, I had to read it again to make sure that Tom really was being convicted, just like how Scout seemed to have some trouble accepting what happened to Tom.
One of the characters in the book that I found particularly interesting was Atticus. Atticus was a person who knew what the world was like. He knew that countless mockingbirds were being killed every day around the world. He knew that there were many people who were selfish and unwilling to help others. However, even when he knew all this, he was one of the few characters in the book that continued to believe that there was good in the world. For example, after Jem had seen prejudice in a jarring way at the trial, he decided that everyone was not really equal. As he stated on page 227, “If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other?” Jem didn’t understand that even though many people fight each other and divide themselves into social groups, they really are equal. Because what Jem thought was right wasn’t reflected in society, he changed his values. Atticus, though, understood that prejudice and racism were common in the world, but he always tried to see the best in people. On page 281, the story was ending when Atticus was putting Scout to bed. Scout was talking about a book that Atticus had been reading, and she said, “When they finally saw him he hadn’t done any of those things. Atticus, he was real nice…” Atticus responded, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” From this quote we can see that Atticus kept his own values, and his faith in humanity, despite what others did. I think that Atticus was able to do this because he didn’t think of a person as a ‘good’ person or a ‘bad’ person, instead he saw people as individuals with good and bad qualities. I think that the author is trying to tell us that people should be like Atticus, and not change their values to suit society’s values. We need to see people for who they really are, though, or it would be almost impossible to do this.
Also, the way that Jem changed his own values to represent what society thought reminded me of John Wyndham’s book, “The Chrysalids.” In the book, the people of Waknuk were obsessed with ‘the norm’. They believed that any deviation from ‘the norm’ was totally wrong, and they exiled offenders for (a very short) life. All of the people strived for their concept of normality, sort of an exaggerated example of how Jem changed his values to reflect what the majority of Maycomb thought.
One last theme that I noticed in the book was the importance of education. The novel seemed to contrast two different types of education. One type was Atticus’ teachings to his children. Atticus enjoyed reading, and he passed this on to Scout by reading to her every night. Atticus also helped Scout and Jem to understand courage by sending them to Ms. Dubose. When Atticus taught something to Scout and Jem, he was always sympathetic and he usually succeeded in teaching whatever he was trying to. This contrasts strongly to the way that Scout’s schoolteachers tried to teach children. They ignored, or perhaps were oblivious to, the needs of their students, and tried to force them to follow the educational system they had been hired to teach. For example, on Scout’s first day of grade one, her teacher, Miss Caroline, found out that Scout could read. You would think that any reasonable grade one teacher would be very impressed by this, and maybe send Scout up a few grades, but instead Miss Caroline said (on page 16), “You tell [Atticus] I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage… Your father does not know how to teach.” Actually, Atticus was a much better teacher than Miss Caroline, because he understood Scout and Jem, his students. I think that the author is trying to tell us that while it is important to educate children, it is important to do it right. The key to teaching children, or, for that matter, anyone else, is to understand those who you are trying to teach.
In conclusion, I think that, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a book that talks about innocence and understanding. It encourages us all to not hurt the innocent ones, the mockingbirds.