Prejudice is arguably the most prominent theme of the novel. It is directed towards groups and individuals in the Maycomb community. Prejudice is linked with ideas of fear superstition and injustice.
Racial prejudice consumed the mob (pg 166), which wished to prevent Tom even gaining a court hearing, the most basic form of justice. This is probably the fiercest form of prejudice in the novel.
The abolition of slavery after the civil war gave blacks the same legal position as many whites in America. This initially made Blacks’ lives harder because now the Whites saw them as competitors for jobs during the 30s depression. Fear and paranoid led to the Whites believing that the Blacks desired all the whites had, including their women.
Aunt Alexandra’s attitude to Calpurnia
The Missionary tea ladies’ comments about the Blacks
Segregation of White and Black in Maycomb
Dolphus Raymond – White man living with Black woman
Class ; Family Group is recognised by Jem on page 249 “There are four kinds of folks in the world” –
Finches ; neighbours: White middle-class
Cunninghams: Badly hit farming community
Ewells: Lowest class of whites White Trash’
Blacks: Seen as bottom of social strata
Due to the abolition of slavery there was no longer a clear-cut line between the Ewells and the Blacks; skin colour did not make them any better.
When Tom said in the trial that he felt sorry for Mayella (a crime worse than rape in the jury’s eyes) – the lowest class showing superiority for a class above themselves. The white community was frightened for their own position in society; the only reason Tom was found guilty was to maintain the traditional hierarchies.
Alexandra is obsessed with heredity and educating Scout and Jem of their superior family background – she will not allow Scout to bring home a Cunningham to play, nor will she allow her to visit Calpurnia at her home. Everyone in Maycomb has a particular “streak” (pg 143), mean streak, drinking streak etc. There is a lot of pigeon holing families (pg 145).
Gender – At the time the novel is set, women were still regarded as unequal to men. Scout learns this from:
Miss Maudie in terms of religion (pg 50)
Atticus in terms of the law – no women on juries
Alexandra in expected terms of dress and behaviour
However, there was an idealised view of women held at the time – the Southern Gentleman was excepted to be chivalrous to Southern Belles and that these women were to be protected and almost worshiped. Mayella played on this idea at the trial to blackmail the jury into defending her.
Tom Robinson’s hearing was thus not only racial, but also class and gender prejudice entered into it.
Prejudice directed towards individuals in the novel who do not fit into the expected behavioural patterns of society and about whom little is known. This is fed by:
Fear – Children are frightened of Boo Radley; an outsider to society whom they have never seen
Rumour – Children have heard rumours from Miss Stephanie and other children about Boo
Superstition – Views such as ghosts and stories they have been told whilst growing up feed their fears of Boo
When the children mature and realise that Boo is a real person, capable of suffering like everyone else, the prejudice dies. Other people who are targeted are:
– Miss Maudie by the foot-washers for her love of nature
– Atticus by the community for defending a Black man
– Tom Robinson himself
Harper Lee indicates that the breaking down of prejudice has to be targeted towards individuals initially, like the Cunningham man at the trial. As Miss Maudie says “a baby step” must be taken instead of trying to solve all prejudice at once.
Solutions to prejudice
Atticus’ Maxim – if you attempt to stand in another’s shoes (skin) you will be able to see their point of view and thus there will be an understanding and tolerance thus no prejudice. Atticus does this with Mrs Dubose and Mr Ewell and as the children mature, they learn to do this with various characters, such as Mayella Ewell and Boo Radley. Atticus tries to get into the skin of Robert Ewell, but here he fails (maybe a sign of his humanity?) and Harper Lee seems to be able to offer no explanation as to what to do with inherently evil characters such as Mr Ewell.
Blacks – Viewed as either evil or stupid but lovable childlike people. Tom & Calpurnia are seen as normal humans, the same as the Whites and are often more law-abiding and hardworking than some Whites.
Southern Gentleman – Atticus does not simply worship Southern Belles, but is polite in his own way to everyone equally. He is “in favour of southern womanhood as much as anybody, but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life”
Southern Belle – Scout does not fit into this role of a young Belle and is accordingly mocked’ by the Missionary Circle. Atticus is not concerned with making Scout into a “ray of sunshine”, although Harper Lee does make concessions here with showing Scout to be sympathetic towards the Belle image.
Harper lee’s aim for her readers seems to be to live the lives of her characters, to live Atticus’ Maxim and by doing this make them appreciate similar characters in their own communities, especially those you know little about. It is a sin’ to harm an innocent (mockingbird). Harper Lee does not suggest a quick solution to prejudice, which is why it is such a realistic book.
Symbolism – Mockingbird is the most significant symbol in the novel. Repeated image of an innocent creature to form a strong motif. Mockingbird is a type of Finch (family name significant: Atticus could view the Mockingbirds as part of his family that he ought to protect). First shown in Chpt 10 where Atticus says “shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (symbol for Mr Ewell?). Because mockingbirds are neither harmful nor destructive – they only make nice music for people to enjoy.
Symbol for Boo Radley and Tom Robinson is not drawn together until the very end of the book where Scout realises that the public exposure of Boo would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird”.
Both characters show kindness: Boo to the children and Tom to Mayella
Both are innocent: Boo of his evil persona and Tom of the crime of rape
Both are victims of prejudice
Both are imprisoned and potentially vulnerable: Boo is imprisoned to protect him from prejudice and Tom is imprisoned and killed as a result of prejudice.
Atticus could also be a mockingbird, he has sung Tom’s song of truth to the people and he has been ignored. Mockingbird is refered to throughout the novel:
After the Mad Dog incident
When waiting for the Jury’s verdict
In Mr Underwood’s article about Tom’s death
When Scout & Jem are going to the pageant
At tense moments even the mockingbird is silent and at moments of descriptive beauty, the mockingbird is referred to lurking in the background.
Children mock Boo’s life as they make fun of it and intimidate it
Mayella accuses Atticus of mocking her
Trial is a mockery of justice
Other symbols are the snowman, showing how superficial skin colour is; Mrs Dubose’s camellias showing deep rooted prejudices that must be tugged from the roots; Boo’s tree as his desire to communicate with the innocent’ children which is broken by the cement then re-established after the fire.
Courage – Jem rescues his trousers; Chuck Little stands up to Burris Ewell in class; Maudie’s optimism after her house burnt down; Link Deas speaking out for the Robinsons.
Real courage: Mrs Dubose fighting the losing battle with her addiction but still carrying on; Fighting evil and prejudice by an act of bravery, eg.
Mr Underwood’s article about Tom
Boo rescuing the children
Atticus represents Tom even though success is unlikely (real courage) and he makes a stand against racial prejudice in the community (courageous act).