How is tolerance shown as a theme in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With a statement such as that made by Atticus Finch to his daughter in Chapter 3, the theme of tolerance as an understanding of people's differences is developed throughout the narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • When a disgruntled Scout returns home from her first experience of school, she complains to Atticus about Miss Caroline and the treatment she has received from this new teacher. But Atticus tells her that it is necessary to learn to realize that people are all different and the key to getting along with them is to be able to perceive things from their points of view--

"You never really understand a person...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" (Ch.3)

  • When the children talk to Miss Maudie one day and ask about Arthur "Boo" Radley, their kind neighbor instructs them about the sad history of the rigid, sanctimonious Mr. Radley, who punishes his son by forcing him out of society. In an effort to encourage the children to be tolerant of Arthur, she asks them, "Wouldn't you stay in the house if you didn't want to come out?" (Ch.5)
  • Jem retaliates against Mrs. Dubose's caustic and insulting remarks about his father, destroying many of her camellia blossoms. Atticus teaches Jem to "climb into [her] skin" by having him read to the dying woman for a number of days. After Mrs. Dubose passes away, Atticus hands Jem her peace offering of a beautiful camellia in a box, and he explains the circumstances around Mrs. Dubose's death and how bravely she withdrew from morphine so that she could face death honestly. After reaching an understanding of his neighbor, Jem feels differently about Mrs. Dubose, having learned a lesson in tolerance.
  • When an unexpected snow falls, Jem and Scout create a snowman who resembles Mr. Avery. However, he does not stand long because Atticus scolds the children, "You can't go around making caricatures of the neighbors," adding that Mr. Avery may be insulted, and they should be understanding and tolerant of his feelings.
  • After giving Jem and Scout air rifles, their father tells them not to shoot mockingbirds because they never bother anything or anyone. This statement resounds in the hearts of the children as later Scout recognizes the insensitivity of her remark ("He's just a Negro") when speaking to Dill about Tom Robinson. During the trial she understands the terrible intolerance with which this man is treated.
    Also, Scout recalls her father's advice about tolerance again when he debates whether he should go along with Sheriff Tate's proposed report about the death of Bob Ewell; she suggests that implicating Arthur Radley would be like killing a mockingbird.
  • Outside the courthouse, the children meet Mr. Dolphus Raymond, who consoles a weeping Dill. Mr. Raymond's explanation of why he pretends to be an alcoholic exemplifies his tolerance of the opinionated people in Maycomb: 
"Cry about the hell white people give colored folks without even stopping to think that they're people, too."
  • Mr. Braxton Underwood demonstrates that he has learned tolerance for black people after having been biased against them. In his editorial he decries the unjust treatment and morbid results of the intolerance dealt to Tom Robinson:

He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children....

  • After the trial of Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell spits in the face of Atticus, but Atticus demonstrates tolerance for Bob Ewell when he explains to his sister Alexandra that Bob Ewell has reacted to him as he has because "...he knows in his heart that very few people in Maycomb really believed his and Mayella's yarns."
  • In the final chapter, Scout evinces that she has clearly learned much about tolerance. This is demonstrated by her remarks that by standing on the Radley porch she has been able to see her neighborhood from a different standpoint.
accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tolerance is a message that is preached again and again through the way that Atticus tries to instil a sense of moral education into his children. Some of the most powerful teachings in the novel come from the way that he tries to show Jem and Scout that it is vital not to judge people and that humans should always try to show empathy towards each other and understand the position that they occupy. This is something that is encapsulated in the following quote:

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.

Although this quotation is in reference to Boo Radley, this is advice that Atticus adopts in the tolerance he shows towards the Ewell family and his response to the rather worrying actions of Bob Ewell after the trial. Throughout the novel, therefore, tolerance as a theme is stressed in the way that Atticus interacts with others and the way that the children learn this lesson. This is finally highlighted when Scout, at the very end of the novel, says of Boo Radley that he is "real nice." Atticus responds that "most people are... when you finally see them." Tolerance therefore is a key theme of this novel and is shown to be one of the distinguishing features of the moral education Atticus tries to instil into Jem and Scout.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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