‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee is a novel that teaches the audience many life lessons. Throughout the story, the narrator, Scout Finch is able to teach the audience about racism, prejudice and social class. These three themes all impact the reader and are able to teach them life lessons which may make them better people. Harper Lee has been able to do this through several important language techniques. The themes shown will particularly stem from Chapter 23 which is the result of a lot of the author’s thoughts on society.
Reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ makes you a better person in many different ways primarily because it makes you realise that the colour of your skin does not matter- it is who you are on the inside that counts.
Harper Lee used a variety of literary techniques to make the novel interesting. Harper Lee used symbolism, humour, suspense, juxtaposition, dialect, flashback and irony in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
This novel is related to Harper Lee’s own life as she lived in Monroeville, Alabama, a town very much like the imaginary town of Maycomb. The trial of Tom Robinson is very similar to other trials that occurred during Lee’s childhood, for example the trials of the Scottsboro Boys, as the defendants were both falsely accused by white girls of rape. In both trials the defendants were African-American and were both set during The Great Depression in Alabama. The significance of the context for this story is important because it tells you what ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was based on and the time it was written in.
There are two linked stories in this novel. One is about Jean Louise Finch – Scout, her brother Jem, their friend Dill and their fascination with a neighbourhood outcast named Arthur Radley – Boo. The other story is about Tom Robinson, an African American who was falsely accused of rape by a poor white girl named Mayella Ewell. Jem and Scout’s father is appointed to defend Tom in court.
Social class is a main theme in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. There are many different social classes in this story. What separates people into these social classes is the colour of their skin and their profession. In Maycomb County, Atticus, Scout, and Jem are part of the highest social class. Because Atticus is a white lawyer, it makes him a highly respected person in the county. Jem and Scout also fit into this class as well seeing as they are white and because of who their dad is. Scout and Jem have a discussion on social class and Jem tells Scout that he has it all figured out. “There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbours, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.” Jem comes up with his own classification of the various people of Maycomb County. The way things are in Maycomb is the way things have always been, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
The following quote is also spoken by Jem about how he sees everyone in Maycomb: “The thing about it is, our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the coloured folks.” In this quote we see how the people of Maycomb are seen in regards to their social status. This makes us better people as we learn not to be prejudice against anyone because of their social status or because of where they come from. Maycomb County is a town full of prejudiced people towards those of low social class.
The theme of prejudice in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is portrayed right through the entire story as it is something that runs rampant throughout Maycomb County. Harper Lee depicts the theme of prejudice using dialogue as shown in this quote by Aunt Alexandra when Scout suggests inviting Walter over for dinner: “Jean Louise, there is no doubt in my mind that they’re good folks. But they’re not our kind of folks.” In this quote Aunt Alexandra is clearly saying that there is more than one type of folk and that they are better than the Cunninghams. Aunt Alexandra has prejudice against the Cunninghams because they are poor and come from the woods. Another quote that explores the theme of prejudice is also spoken by Aunt Alexandra comparing Walter to Jem: “‘Don’t be silly, Jean Louise,’ said Aunt Alexandra.’
The thing is, you can scrub Walter Cunningham till he shines, you can put him in new shoes and new suit, but he’ll never be like Jem. (…..) Finch women aren’t interested in that sort of people.” Aunt Alexandra is telling Scout to stay away from Walter and his “sort of people” because she does not want Finches mixing with the Cunninghams. Aunt Alexandra also says that even if the Cunninghams were related to the Finches, the answer about inviting Walter home for dinner would still be the same. Harper Lee uses comparison to show the difference between the Cunningham and Finch men. In this quote, Aunt Alexandra is saying that no matter what you do to Walter, he has the blood of a Cunningham which, according to her makes them lower than the Finches. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ teaches us to never judge someone before getting to know them as it is wrong.
Racism is a type of prejudice and is a major theme in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Throughout the novel, Scout explores the differences between black people and white people and the different ways they are treated. During the trial, Tom Robinson is found guilty simply because he is a black man and his accuser is white. The evidence clearly points out that Tom Robinson is innocent, that race is undoubtedly the only reason Tom was convicted. When Atticus loses the trial, he tries to make his children understand that although he lost, he thinks they have a good chance if an appeal comes through. Atticus tells Jem and Scout that no matter how evident the proof is, it all comes back to your race. In the following quote he explains that when there is a black man’s word against a white man’s, the black man has no chance. “In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly but those are the facts of life”. Here, Atticus is saying that a black man never wins against a white man because of the colour of his skin. In this quote, Jem is upset after witnessing, for the first time just how racist society can be: “Doesn’t make it right’, said Jem stolidity.
He beat his fist softly on his knee. “You can’t just convict a man on evidence like that-you can’t”. Harper Lee uses juxtaposition to contrast the difference between a racist side and an innocent side. This is to show the innocence of Jem and how he does not understand why Tom should be convicted when he is clearly innocent. We learn here that the people of Maycomb convict Tom Robinson only because he is a different colour to them, he is not white and so he is inferior to them. This teaches us that no matter what colour anyone is, we do not have the right to judge them. Another quote which depicts the theme of racism is one by Scout about how different Calpurnia’s way of life is compared to hers: “(…) when i was absorbed with plans to visit Calpurnia’s house – I was curious, interested; I wanted to be her ‘company’, to see how she lived, who her friends were. I might as well have wanted to see the other side of the moon.” In this quote Harper Lee uses hyperbole to exaggerate the whereabouts of Calpurnia and Scouts wish to visit her. Here Scout is saying that Calpurnia might as well be living on the other side of the world, and the answer she got was more like asking to visit the other side of Earth.
In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ the children experience and react to the influences of family life, education and their religion. They also confront the painful realities of racism and prejudice during the trial of Tom Robinson. Through these experiences the children begin their journey to adulthood and maturity. We, on the other hand learn many life lessons during the course of this book. They have helped us understand the mind of society and the way people think. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a unique story that tells a tale of love, hate and many things in-between.
* History in Literature, The story behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’- Bryon Giddens-White – Harcourt Education Ltd, 2007