How does Harper Lee's portrayal of ignorance reflect upon society today?Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee's theme that ignorance often leads to misjudgments recurs throughout her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. So often, Atticus Finch cautions his children to respect people as individuals and not categorize them as "haints" or make caricatures of them in the snow, or dislike them for what they say or do or appear to be:
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
However, the problem is that so often people choose to remain ignorant of other people or of issues. For instance, if Atticus had not ordered Jem to read to Mrs. Dubose, he would have remained ignorant of her condition and what Atticus terms her bravery in withdrawing herself from morphine before she dies. If the children did not converse outside the courthouse with Mr. Dolphus Raymond, they would have continued to believe, as others held, that he is a drunkard. But, as Calpurnia tells Scout, people "got to want to learn themselves, and when they don't want to learn, there's nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or learn their language."
Tom Robinson tries to keep quiet and learn "their language," but he slips and speaks from his heart, saying that he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell. And, in the Jim Crow society of the Old South, Tom is doomed at his trial by the ignorance of the jury who feels the pressing need to retain the status quo over what is morally right.
This realistic portrayal of the fate of Tom Robinson finds its parallels in contemporary society in which sacrificial lambs are yet made in many parts of society. Certainly, in the political arena labels are quickly attached to people, rumors are begun, or fabricated incidents are created to discredit people's reputations. Rather than deciding for themselves about a person under question, the ignorant multitude often accepts what the "conventional wisdom" decrees and remains complacent in their ignorance, not "wanting to learn" as Calpurnia explains.
The Ewells are the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird that most exhibit the trait of ignorance. Bob Ewell, by supposing that Atticus Finch would side with him simply because he is a white man, displays an ignorance of common human dignity and the ability to discern right from wrong. Mayella Ewell, in her willingness to implicate the innocent Tom Robinson, shows this same ignorance. In fact, Atticus even alludes to this ignorance in his closing argument when he says of Mayella, “She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance.”
But ignorance is not always reserved for the morally low and mean-spirited. Even the Finch children, Jem and Scout, are ignorant with regard to other characters in the book. They pester Boo Radley relentlessly, making up stories about him when they really don’t know him at all. They also assume the worst about the aged Mrs. Dubose, the “meanest woman alive,” not knowing that she is fighting a difficult battle with drug addiction.