In To Kill a Mockingbird, what idea does Harper Lee develop regarding the individual in the midst of conflict?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is plenty of conflict to be found in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. A quick look at some of the characters who experience some kind of conflict in this novel might help us determine what the author's philosophy is regarding the individual in the midst of conflict.

Scout, the narrator of the story, is a young girl who always seems to be in the middle of some kind of conflict. She gets in a fight with Walter Cunningham because he caused her to get off on the wrong foot with their teacher (another conflict); then she has a conflict with Calpurnia because of how she treats Walter as their guest. Scout also gets in a fight with her cousin because he calls Atticus names and is constantly in conflict with her Aunt Alexandra because she wants the girl to be more ladylike. Atticus' consistent advice to her is this:

"[I]f you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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." 

Miss Maudie has a conflict with the "foot-washing Baptists who think her love for beautiful flowers is a sin, and she simply stands her ground and quotes Scripture back to them. She holds to her beliefs in the midst of conflict.

There is a constant conflict within the town of Maycomb over its views on race, and those who treat the blacks with respect are undeterred by the views of the racist others. 

Jem has a conflict with Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and Atticus rather forces his son to see the older woman in a different way so he will understand something more about what courage means. Jem learns to be the bigger person by following Atticus' advice to consider things from her point of view.

The primary conflict in this story centers around Tom Robinson's trial. Tom is accused of raping a white girl, but it is obvious to anyone who is not blinded by prejudice that he did not commit this act. In the midst of this conflict, Tom does not fight back because he knows it will do no good. Instead he allows his lawyer, Atticus, to speak for him. 

Boo Radley is in a friendly conflict with the town: people will not respect his privacy. He remains kind and helpful despite these intrusions.

Many people in town are in conflict with Atticus because he is doing the unthinkable: he is giving Tom Robinson an actual defense. Their ugly words and attitudes do not faze Atticus, and he continues to do what Miss Maudie once praised him for doing--living the same life on the streets as he lives inside of his house. It must be working, because the townspeople keep electing Atticus to serve on their behalf and do their "dirty work."

The conflict between Bob Ewell and Atticus is one-sided, but it is nevertheless intense. Atticus simply treats Ewell with consistent respect, no matter how terribly Ewell treats him. Even when Ewell spits in Atticus' face, the lawyer is glad to take it because he knows he is sparing Ewell's children from bearing the brunt of their father's anger. 

Clearly Harper Lee believes that people should attempt to understand those with whom they have conflict, that they should stand for the principles in which they believe, they should let other speak for them if they know their voice will not be heard, they should continue to be kind, and they should treat their enemies with respect.

For more insights and analysis of this classic novel, be sure to check out the excellent eNotes sites linked below.

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