How is the theme of family life presented in To Kill a Mockingbird?
The theme of family is explored through Scout's attempt to understand the social caste system of Maycomb, Alexandra's affinity for heredity, and the interactions between characters hailing from different families. Aunt Alexandra expresses her belief that the longer a family has inhabited a plot of land, the "finer" it is. Alexandra also believes that certain "streaks" in families are passed down from one generation to the next. Scout comments on her aunt's belief by saying,
"Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak: a Drinking Streak, a Gambling Streak, a Mean Streak, a Funny Streak" (Lee, 131).
Despite her aunt's beliefs concerning families and their character traits, Scout forms her own opinions of what makes a family respectable from observing her father and having discussions with Jem. During a conversation with her brother, Jem describes Maycomb's caste system by saying,
"There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes" (Lee, 230).
In addition to Jem's perspective on the families of Maycomb, certain families are portrayed as hard-working and respectable like the Cunninghams, while others are depicted as despicable and ignorant like the Ewell family. Aunt Alexandra also believes that her family is better than most families.
Despite their differences, nearly every family in Maycomb sticks together and passes down certain ideas regarding race and morals. In regards to Atticus's family, Jem and Scout share their father's morally-upright character and tolerant attitude towards those with different views. Overall, each family in Maycomb is ascribed certain character traits, and Scout wrestles with how to categorize and describe the various families in her community.
Nearly all of the families in To Kill a Mockingbird are atypical, with the Finches proving to be the most normal in the novel. Yet, Atticus's family is still unusual: It is a single-parent family in which his children call him by his first name. Scout is an intelligent yet precocious tomboy, and neither she nor brother, Jem, have any close friends until Dill comes to visit each summer. The only motherly touch in the household comes from Calpurnia, the African American housekeeper. Nevertheless, the Finches serve as role models for the other dysfunctional families found in Maycomb.
- The Ewells are the "disgrace of Maycomb for three generations," in part because of the lack of a mother and their sorry excuse for a father, Bob. They, too, are a single-parent family, but unlike Atticus, Bob spends little time with his children. He turns over the parenting responsibilities to his oldest daughter, Mayella, who tries her best but whose mothering skills are very limited. The children have no role model, and they scavenge the dump instead of going to school.
- Dill's family is also dysfunctional, and he prefers spending his summers in Maycomb away from them. Dill's mother and his various fathers prefer their own company together without Dill, and Dill is quick to recognize this. He dreams of having a baby with Scout, so they can bring it up properly.
- The Cunningham family is a large one, and poor Walter Jr. never knows when or from where his next meal will come. Like the Ewells, the Cunninghams are outcasts who tend to socialize with other members of their "enormous and confusing tribe."
- The Radley family is both mysterious and unusual. The father is a "foot-washing Baptist" who is perfectly willing to imprison his son, Boo, within the family's old house. When Boo's mother and father die, his brother, Nathan, returns home to serve as Boo's warden/guardian.