The Story Within
Throughout much of the 20th century, America experienced a dearth of courageous, life changing, and powerful messages in society. However, in all times of trouble, there is always someone willing to stand up for what they believe is right. In a time of great hardship and discrimination for African Americans, the messages displayed in Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, were a big push for change in society. With the Finches’ story in Maycomb County, Alabama, Harper Lee gives many important messages to readers that she believes are absent in society. Through the words and actions of the characters in the novel, Harper Lee displays that understanding is all relative and that only through genuine knowledge of others’ experiences and emotions can one learn to accept others as people.
No matter what someone has done or gone through, it is still important to remember that all people still have morals. Throughout the novel, Atticus is a wise and well tempered person. This benevolent nature is showcased during an encounter with Mr. Ewell after Tom Robinson’s trial. The text states, “Mr. Ewell was a veteran of an obscure war; that plus Atticus’s peaceful reaction probably prompted him to inquire, ‘Too proud to fight, you n-word-lovin’ bastard?’ Miss Stephanie said Atticus said, ‘No, too old’” (Lee 291). While this does showcase Atticus’s personality, the more important takeaway from this scene is not how Atticus is able to keep himself under control, but why. Throughout the novel, Atticus preaches the belief to his children that everything should be justified. In this situation, Atticus is able to justify Mr. Ewell’s actions by remembering his situation. Already coming from a family name of disgrace and contempt, Mr. Ewell is further humiliated by the events of the trial. By allowing these strong feelings to cloud his better judgement, Mr. Ewell was led to confront Atticus. Atticus is aware of this in how he chooses to respond, but he is also aware of how he was confronted by Mr. Ewell. Other than spitting on Atticus, Mr. Ewell never did attack him. Instead, he chose to try and prompt Atticus to make the first move. By calling Atticus names and referring to him as “too proud” Mr. Ewell was seeking to draw out Atticus’s anger. This shows that the values Mr. Ewell once had are still present. Even though Mr. Ewell initially confronted Atticus, his subconscious prompted him to do so in this manner. Mr. Ewell’s goal is to make Atticus attack first so that he would feel that his actions were in some way justified. However, Atticus was able to analyze the situation, and maintain a calm nature by accepting Mr. Ewell’s current situation and realizing that his ethics were still present. This same message is displayed earlier in the novel after the death of Mrs. Dubose. Even though it was Jem and Scout who visited her house for the daily reading sessions, through his children’s experience as well as his own experience with Mrs. Dubose’s death, Atticus was also able to learn a lot more about Mrs. Dubose as a person. After returning home from Mrs. Dubose’s house after her death, Atticus preaches his beliefs about her in a conversation with Jem. He states, “I think that was her way of telling you everything’s all right now, Jem, everything’s all right. You know, she was a great lady” (Lee 149). This conversation is important to the development of Atticus’s character as well as to the theme of the novel. Even though Mrs. Dubose had said hateful things about Atticus, he is able to look past this and begin to comprehend Mrs. Dubose’s true character. Unlike Atticus, while Jem is unfond of Mrs. Dubose, he is unable to comprehend Mrs. Dubose’s situation. Though on the outside Mrs. Dubose seems like a bad person, she is in fact one of great courage and perseverance. After her death, the Finch family becomes aware that the main cause of Mrs. Dubose’s demise had been her lifelong morphine addiction. This provides the needed explanation for Mrs. Dubose’s appearance as well as the fact that she would pass out at a seemingly random time during the visits. This implies Mrs. Dubose was fighting to stop her addiction before she passed away. This is a prime example of her character. Even though she was dying, she was still doing her best to end what she had most likely regretted her entire life in order to be at peace before she passed away. This is what makes Atticus’ understanding of her so significant. By exhibiting genuine empathy for Mrs. Dubose, Atticus was capable of pinpointing Mrs. Dubose’s virtuous character by realizing that there was more to her situation than it seemed.
Harper Lee also does a sensational job of displaying the message that while race, religion, and background make everyone different, the respect that all people deserve is the same. Near the beginning of the novel, Jem and Scout invite Walter Cunningham over for supper as an apology for how Scout had treated him. While they eat, it is discovered that Walter differs from the Finch family a little more than it initially seemed. While Scout thinks that it is okay to disgrace Walter for his actions at the table, Calpurnia has a different opinion. She says, “Yo’ folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you're disgrain’ ‘em” (Lee 33). While Walter’s actions were different compared to those of the general public, they make sense considering that he comes from a poor family. Since his family does not have the money to afford delicacies such as syrup, he was simply just taking advantage of his rare opportunity. Also, even though Walter’s taste in food may have been odd, he still demonstrates respect and manners to the Finch family in his mature conversations with Atticus. This goes to show that while Walter was lacking in some areas of fine dining, Scout should have considered his situation and given him the respect he deserved. In addition to Walter, Harper Lee hints at an even greater message through this confrontation. As the book takes place in the 1930’s, it is known that African Americans were not given the respect that they deserved during this time period. However, this is not true in the case of the Finch family. Early in the novel readers are made aware that Mrs. Finch had passed away very early in Scout’s life. Because of this, Atticus brought Calpurnia around in order to help around the house and take care of the children. Although, unlike the Finch family, Calpurnia is African American. This is what makes Calpurnia’s confrontation with Scout so profound. While most of America would not allow an African American to tell a white person what to do, Atticus does. This is because he does not view Calpurnia as just an African American, instead he views her as a person just like everyone else. Atticus rightfully respects Calpurnia as a well educated woman whose opinion is valid and just. Furthermore, later in the story Atticus takes a case to defend Tom Robinson, an African American in court. However, much of Maycomb does not agree with Atticus’ actions. In response to hearing other children at school make fun of Atticus, Scout decides to talk to him. In response to Scout’s questions, Atticus replies, “I’m simply defending a Negro-his name’s Tom Robinson” (Lee 100). Even though no one else in town would have accepted Tom’s case and looks down on Atticus for doing so, Atticus still takes pride in what he is doing. Regardless, of Tom’s race, Atticus still wants to help him in his attempt to prove that he was innocent. Atticus is capable of looking past the general prejudices of society, and fight for what he genuinely believes in by giving Tom the respect that he deserves. Atticus is aware that Tom’s race has nothing to do with his character, and still gives Tom the kindness and respect that he would give to any other person, regardless of his heritage.
Though it may be sheltered and suppressed by the prejudice of society, everyone has good in them. Slowly throughout the novel, more information about Arthur “Boo” Radley is given to readers. Because he is cut off from society, most of Maycomb starts to believe that Boo is a terrible person, so much so that children are sometimes afraid to walk by his house. However, in one of Scout’s conversations with Ms. Maudie, she shares one of her first hand experiences with Boo. She says, “I remember Arthur Radley when he was a boy. He always spoke nicely to me, no matter what folks said he did. Spoke as nicely as he knew how” (Lee 61). This just goes to show how wrong the prejudice of society can be. Boo isn’t kept inside of his house, he stays inside because he is afraid of what people might do to him if he does come out. Even though he has never done anything wrong, society has a pattern of associating terrible things with people they do not know and understand. However, Ms. Maudie is above of all that. She knows that Boo has always been a respectable person and is unwilling to fall victim to the cancerous rumors of society. This is what she is trying to display to Scout in their conversation. Ms. Maudie is beginning to realize that the basis of the children’s curiosity in Boo is because of the outlandish rumors that they have been told their entire life about him. By telling Scout about her experience with Boo, she wants Scout to realize that the rumors of society are often wrong, as well as that it is important to look past these rumors and to form separate opinions about people that are based on the good found within them. However, while Scout was unable to understand what Ms. Maudie was trying to tell her at the time of this conversation, she finally is able to near the end of the novel. After she finds out that it was Boo who saved her and Jem from Mr. Ewell, she begins to realize a lot of things that she was unfit to realize before. Most importantly finally understanding what Ms. Maudie was trying to say. Scout says, “‘. . . an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice’ . . . ‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them’” (Lee 376). This might as well be the most important part of the story. While up to this point most of Harper Lee’s messages had been pretty subtle, she decides to tell readers what she had been trying to display throughout the entire story. When Scout walked Boo back to his house, she was finally able to realize something that most people go their whole life without. By standing on the Radley porch, she was able to feel and experience everything that Boo had gone through and understand what true empathy was. By solely looking through the eyes of Boo Radley and leaving the hateful views of society behind her, Scout finally realized that Boo Radley was as good of a person as she could meet.
In conclusion, Harper Lee gives the world a light in the dark of the terrible era America was experiencing. Through the subtle hints that are given throughout a seemingly unimportant story, one can decipher the hidden, moving, and deeper meaning of the Finches’ story. While most of America deemed it okay to treat African Americans so poorly, they never took a moment to stop and realize how it feels to do nothing wrong but still have an entire country against you. Through the courage and willingness of characters in the novel to rise up against society in order to accept others, Harper Lee urges society to also feel empathy for each other because after all, everyone is still human.
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