In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, originally published in 1960, readers are introduced to Atticus Finch and his family as he works to defend an innocent black man in a southern town. Briefly, the story is that of a small-town lawyer (Atticus Finch) who is hired to defend a black man of the community who is accused of raping a white woman as told from the innocent viewpoint of the lawyer’s 9-year-old daughter, Scout. The setting and characters take on numerous aspects of Lee’s earlier life as the daughter of a lawyer and reflect the infamous Scottsboro Case which occurred when she was five. In the real-life case of 1931, nine black men were accused of raping two white women. As the trials dragged on and five of the nine men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, it became more and more apparent that the women had lied causing many to consider the sentences to be motivated entirely by racial prejudice (Johnson, 1994).
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In Lee’s story, Atticus proves the black man is innocent of all charges while implicating that any damage done was caused by the girl’s abusive father, but the defendant is found guilty anyway by the all-white jury. In the meantime, the children have made friends with their eccentric mentally handicapped neighbor, Boo Radley, who has spent the majority of his life imprisoned by his parents in the house next door. Feeling shamed by the revelations of the trial, the father of the raped girl determines to murder Atticus’ children in retaliation but is instead killed in the dark by the mentally handicapped eccentric who has been keeping an eye out for the children. Although the innocent black man is killed while attempting to break out of prison when he might have gone free had the case proceeded to a higher court, Atticus and the town’s sheriff conjure a story about the death of the evil father that leaves no suspicion of foul play on the part of the eccentric, keeping him out of the court system completely. While the story can be seen as having a pessimistic outlook for the future, coming out just as the Civil Rights Movement was heating up, this paper will show how the story is essentially optimistic that things were about to change.
That Atticus devoutly believes in the ability of the law to see that the right thing is done as the story opens is evidenced in his trust that even though he’s sure he won’t win the trial in Maycomb County as shown in his discussion with Scout, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win” (76), he continues to encourage Tom Robinson to have faith in the system, “She said Atticus tried to explain things to him, and that he must do his best not to lose hope because Atticus was doing his best to get him free” (234). For all his knowledge of the law, though, Atticus is also seen as being the defender of natural law within the town (Moore, 2006). Miss Maudie brings this point home when she’s talking with Aunt Alexandra in the kitchen. “Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying him the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right.” “Who?” “The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us” (236). The town has determined Atticus to be the epitome of positive law because of his actions, such as how he dealt with his son, Jem, when Jem lost his temper at an angry old woman who hurled insults at the Finch family and destroyed all her flowers.
“… son, I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her — I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. 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” (112).
That Atticus seemed to have lost some of his faith in the ability of the legal system to give justice to Boo Radley, the eccentric man that saved his children from the vindictive Bob Ewell is evident in his discussion with Sheriff Heck Tate and is often interpreted to indicate a pessimistic outlook on the ability of the courts to keep ‘White only’ signs out of the system. But this is not the case. He’s ready to go to court to establish a case of self-defense when he thinks Jem committed the murder, only willing to concede to Sheriff Tate’s story when he realizes the person in question is Boo Radley.
There are also several characters in the novel who represent the attitudes of the south and seem to indicate that there is little hope for the concept of change. These include Mrs. Dubose, the elder Radleys, and Bob Ewell. Mrs. Dubose is described as an irritable old woman who causes the children no end of grief. She expresses extreme pessimism regarding the breakdown of society in her constant disapproval of Scout as well as in her comments regarding the proper behavior of various members of society (Shackelford, 1996). Her racism is apparent as she yells at the children regarding their father’s case, “what has this world come to when a Finch goes against his raising … Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for” (102). Similarly negative are the Radleys who lock up their son, Boo, following his misadventures with a group of adolescent boys, imposing a harsh punishment for normal activity. Through this continuous action, including the cruel concrete in the knot of the tree to block communication between the lonely man locked indoors and the inquisitive children outside, the family indicates strong disapproval and mistrust of the outer world as a whole. However, Bob Ewell presents the most pessimistic view of the white man. He is a deplorable man, consistently drunk, unwilling to provide for his family, and violently abusive. His disgust toward black people is seen to be symbolic of the general attitudes of the day.
Despite the negativity of these expressed outlooks, each case, Mrs. Dubose, the Radleys, and Bob Ewell, can be seen to be indicators of change in action. Mrs. Dubose is unhappy because the society of her youth in which she was a member of the genteel class has ceased to exist, shifting more toward the middle. The Radleys, hopelessly elitist and mortified at the corruption the outside world has brought upon their son, can do nothing to protect their beliefs of the old ways but lock themselves off from the rest of the world. Bob Ewell, recognizing at some level of his being that his station in life has sunk even below the black man he has accused, can do nothing to protect his warped sense of honor but make accusations. He is seen more like a caricature than a true representation in his histrionics and his crude, yet successful, an attempt at framing. It is the outcome of the trial itself that typically identifies the book as having a pessimistic attitude. However much of a caricature Bob Ewell might be, this outcome reveals that the reality is still closer to Ewell than it is to Atticus.
This shock to the system of the reader forced many to question their own beliefs, comparing them with the ideas expressed by Ewell and those expressed by Atticus. Presented in such blatant terms, people began trying to align themselves with the noble, honorable, and highly civilized character of Atticus, beginning to base their judgments of others, black or white, more upon actions rather than color (Ebert, 2003). That this could happen is encouraged within the book not only by Atticus’ unshakable belief in the court systems to eventually do the right thing for Jem Finch as well as Tom Robinson but also in the understanding that these changes were already occurring in the dissatisfaction of the more intolerant and unpleasant characters of the novel. Although they were still in their early stages, as is recognized in the conspiracy between Atticus and Heck Tate to keep Boo Radley out of the courts, the concept that the innocent are protected is strongly emphasized in this act of compassion and understanding. This occurs not only between two men of the community but also within the legal system as it is an agreement between a representative of enforcement as well as a representative of the courts or the interpreters.
Ebert, Roger. “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Chicago Sun Tribune. 2003.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1994.
Lee, Harper (1982). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books.
Moore, Andrew. “Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird.” Universal Teacher. (2006). Web.
Shackelford, Dean. “The Female Voice in To Kill a Mockingbird: Narrative Strategies in Film and Novel.” The Mississippi Quarterly. Vol. 50, 1996.