How does Harper Lee balance the bad in people with good counterpoints in To Kill a Mockingbird? Why does she not just make outright accusations against the society and the characters?

Expert Answers
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In To Kill a Mockingbird, one example of Harper Lee balancing people's bad characteristics with good counterpoints can be seen in Walter Cunningham Sr.

Mr. Cunningham is characterized as the sort of man who takes great pride in his abilities. He is also very honest and loyal. Due to his pride, his family will not accept charity, regardless of their poverty. Due to his honesty and loyalty, when he needs Atticus's legal assistance with his entailment, though he can't pay Atticus for his services with money, bit by bit, Mr. Cunningham pays Atticus by giving him anything he can. Scout narrates that when Mr. Cunningham expressed regret at not being able to pay Atticus, Atticus tells his children, "[B]efore the year's out I'll have been paid, You watch" (Ch. 2). Scout notes Mr. Cunningham's method of paying Atticus in the following:

We watched. One morning Jem and I found a load of stovewood in the back yard. Later, a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps. With Christmas came a crate of smilax and holly. That spring when we found a crokersack full of turnip greens, Atticus said Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him. (Ch. 2)

Mr. Cunningham's devotion to repaying Atticus shows us just how honest and loyal Mr. Cunningham is.

Yet, despite these good qualities, Mr. Cunningham also leads a mob of other Cunninghams to pursue lynching Tom Robinson before his trial. Nevertheless, Scout is able to influence Mr. Cunningham to break up the mob by reminding him of his good qualities, such as his loyalty. Scout does so by respectfully asking him to say hello to his son for her and by asking him, "How's your entailment gettin' along?" (Ch. 15). Later, when Scout asks Atticus about Mr. Cunningham, feeling confused about why "he wanted to hurt" Atticus that night when he is supposed to be a friend of the Finches, Atticus explains, just like everyone, Mr. Cunningham has his good and bad traits:

Mr. Cunningham's basically a good man ... he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us. (Ch. 16)

Just like Atticus, Harper Lee chooses to see both the good and the bad in people because doing so is much more open-minded and honest. Seeing both the good and bad in people relates to Atticus's golden rule that we cannot truly understand a person "until [we] climb into his skin and walk around in it" (Ch. 3). Similarly, we are unable to see both the good and bad in a person unless we try to see things from that person's perspective, to see all of the person's influences and motives. If we fail to truly understand a person, we judge that person based on prejudiced beliefs, which is exactly what Harper Lee is using the novel to oppose.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question