How do the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird challenge society?
Three characters come to mind as challenging society: Jem, Tom, and Atticus. First, Jem is at the mercy of the society he was born into. He didn't create the prejudiced mindset that infects the whole South; yet, there he is facing the raw side of it when his father decides to defend a black man in court. As a result, neighbors such as Mrs. Dubose take out their disapproval for Atticus's decision on Jem. Atticus tells Jem to keep his head and not let an old woman get his goat. Jem is required to hold his tongue and act like a gentleman at all costs. But once Mrs. Dubose calls Atticus too many names, and then brings up his deceased mother, Jem retaliates. Scout explains why Jem challenges society as follows:
"In later years, I sometimes wondered exactly what made Jem do it, what made him break the bonds of 'You just be a gentleman, son,' and the phase of self-conscious rectitude he had recently entered. Jem had probably stood as much guff about Atticus lawing for ni***** as had I, and I took it for granted that he kept his temper . . . I thought the only explanation for what he did was that for a few minutes he simply went mad" (102).
Jem proceeds to grab Scout's baton, and with fury and angst against the society that says he should be a gentleman and simply take people's insults, he chops off the tops of Mrs. Dubose's camellia bushes. Mrs. Dubose and Atticus represent the society that Jem fights against on this occasion, but it doesn't last for long. He has to pay penance for it by reading to the old woman every day for a month after school; but, his feelings are made known by his violent demonstration.
Next, Tom Robinson challenges society simply by going to court and standing up against the Ewells. He could have taken off the night of the alleged rape, become a fugitive, and left his family in Maycomb--but he didn't do that. He stayed to face false charges against a court full of people who were not his peers, but his enemies. He took the witness stand and told the truth against a young, white girl, who would rather see him die just to save her face. Even though the battle might have been lost before it even started, Tom publicly faced his accusers thereby, challenging the prejudiced society he was born into as well.
Finally, Atticus challenges society by defending Tom Robinson. After Cecil Jacobs tells the whole school that Scout's father "defends ni*****," Scout asks him what it means. Atticus tells her that some people don't believe he should be defending a black man. Scout asks why he is doing it, then. He responds with the following:
"For a number of reasons . . . The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something" (75).
What Atticus means by this is he doesn't want to be a hypocrite. Most people in Maycomb like having segregation and treating black people like servants, but Atticus doesn't. He could have declined to take the case, but he didn't. When the people of Maycomb put on the pressure for him not to defend Tom Robinson, he could have caved and given up, but he doesn't. Even his friend Link Deas says in chapter 15 that Atticus has everything to lose in taking the Tom Robinson case, but Atticus doesn't see it that way. In fact, Atticus believes that he would lose his integrity and self-respect if he didn't do his best to give Tom Robinson the best defense he can offer; and, the defense he provides goes against everything people in his society believe.