In To Kill a Mockingbird, how does Harper Lee establish her tone in order to convey an opinion about ignorance?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, we understand her feelings toward ignorance by listening to the children as they observe the adults around them, by having Atticus or Miss Maudie explain things that don't make sense to the children, watching how ignorant people act, and witnessing the impact of actions driven by ignorance. 

Lee seems to imply that children learn important lessons about life through the examples of others...

Mrs. Dubose, an nasty old woman, intimidates the Finch children and shows her ignorance by insulting Atticus for defending a black man. She tells Scout she'll end up waiting tables someday at a place of ill-repute.

I was terrified. The O.K. Cafe was a dim organization on the north side of the square...

"Come on, Scout," he whispered. "Don't pay any attention to her, just hold your head high and be a gentleman."

But Mrs. Dubose held us: "Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for n***ers!"

While Mrs. Dubose is a woman of some standing in Maycomb, she is also a bigot—the result of ignorance in her upbringing. This shows the reader that ignorance is not limited to the poor and/or uneducated.

Bob Ewell is just that: poor, uneducated and ignorant. If there is a stereotype for a bigot, Ewell fits it. He accuses Tom Robinson of raping his daughter because, descended from a long line of ignorant people, when he sees Mayella kissing Tom, he'd rather see the man dead than deal with the fact that his daughter kissed a black man.

Ignorance also drives the mob that comes to the jail to lynch Tom Robinson. At first, they are ignorant of the humanity of the man they intend to kill. It is not until Scout demonstrates her admiration for Walter Cunningham's son, though Scout and Walter, Jr. come from different backgrounds—that the father tells the others to disburse. Walter, Sr., is poor and uneducated, but not ignorant.

Another form of ignorance is seen in how Miss Stephanie gossips about Boo Radley—though she knows nothing about him. She says terrible things that are not true. Miss Maudie reports:

Stephanie Crawford even told me once she woke up in the middle of the night and found him looking in the window at her. I said what did you do, Stephanie, move over in the bed and make room for him? That shut her up a while.

Miss Stephanie's ignorance unfairly spreads rumors about the man who will eventually save the children's lives.

We see a different kind of ignorance in the way old Mr. Radley punishes his son, Arthur (Boo). Declaring him to be a "foot-washing Baptist," Miss Maudie explains how hard the man was in life. It is, as we find in the story, Mr. Radley who punished his son so severely. It was his ignorance about the tenets of his own faith that made him overlook the Christian religion's teachings about forgiveness, and abuse Boo.

Ignorance is everywhere in Maycomb—in the South, after the devastation of the Civil War and the recent Depression. Often a lack of information fuels the actions and attitudes of many of the people there. The exceptions are easy to spot in the persons of Atticus, Miss Maudie, Judge Taylor, Heck Tate, and even Dolphus Raymond. These are people who do not let a small-minded mentality rule their better judgment. They are people who are willing to search out the truth of a situation based on ethics and intelligence.

However, the impact of ignorance can be seen in that it leads to Tom Robinson's death, and nearly costs Scout and Jem their lives.


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