In To Kill a Mockingbird, the gossip about Tom includes “the veneer’s mighty thin.” This concept of a thin surface and what is underneath has been brought up several times by Lee. Explain what point she is making, using the symbols or descriptions she has used elsewhere in the novel.

The idea of a thin veneer in To Kill a Mockingbird refers to white Maycomb residents’ attitudes toward Tom specifically and African Americans overall. After Tom is killed, many people openly express racist views and claim that Tom’s admirable comportment covered up negative traits they associate with Black people. Lee consistently explores hypocrisy as the relationship between a thin surface and what lies beneath. Superficial social customs masking deep-seated thoughts and behaviors are identified regarding gender and race.

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The idea of a thin veneer is featured in chapter 25 of To Kill a Mockingbird. It applies to public reaction to the prison guards’ killing Tom Robinson. Far from empathizing with Tom’s family or urging an investigation of the guards’ unnecessary use of deadly force, many people in Maycomb criticize Tom for his actions. As the narrator, Scout offers a summary of the racist comments that she heard, which always refer to African Americans with the n-word. These include accusations of cowardice, lack of foresight, and irresponsibility. What they regard as positive attributes, such as marriage, cleanliness, and church attendance are dismissed with the line “the veneer’s mighty thin.” The racist gossips believe that Black people are inherently inferior, and that this inferiority will always be revealed: “N— always comes out in ’em.”

Throughout the novel, Harper Lee repeatedly shows that racism is a basic fact in Maycomb society. The other side of the white claims about Black people’s “veneer” is the superficial benevolence that many people demonstrate, while holding onto their racist views. This hypocrisy is emphasized in chapter 24, as the ladies of the missionary society are shown as wanting to help Black people in Africa, but not supporting local African Americans. When Atticus brings the news of Tom’s death, Miss Maudie comments on hypocritical expressions about justice:

The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us.

In this chapter as well, Scout reveals that she sometimes succumbs to the pressure to conform. While serving the ladies, she has put on a dress to please her great aunt. When they ask her future as a grown-up, she lies and says she plans to become a lady, as she knows that, because she is a girl, they would mock her desire to become a lawyer.

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