In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, what statement does the novel make about race and racial prejudice through the characters of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson?

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson and Calpurnia represent the more decent, benevolent portrait of mankind.  That both are African American is no coincidence.  Lee sought to depict racial tensions in the Deep South through the eyes of her young, perceptive but emotionally innocent protagonist, Scout, and the rape trial at the center of this novel provides the basis for the author’s theme of racism in a segregated community in which the value of life is predicated upon the color of one’s skin.  Calpurnia and Tom are eminently decent individuals; the Ewells are the personification of "poor white trash," yet the system of justice in effect strongly favored the latter.  Tom is falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell despite the absence of any evidence, but his fate is predetermined on the basis of his ethnicity.  Jem and Scout, viewing the trial from the courtroom’s upper balcony where black spectators are confined, are sufficiently innocent so as to harbor hopes for the trial’s outcome.  Discussing the trial’s progress and his expectation of a satisfactory conclusion, Jem engages the African American reverend in conversation:

Jem smiled. “He’s not supposed to lean, Reverend, but don’t fret, we’ve won it,” he said wisely. “Don’t see how any jury could convict on what we heard—”

“Now don’t you be so confident, Mr. Jem, I ain’t ever seen any jury decide in favor of a colored man over a white man…”

Tom’s conviction despite his obvious innocence was never in doubt.  Reflecting on the trial’s outcome, Scout contemplates the meaning of the local newspaper editor Mr. Underwood’s column lamenting the fundamental injustice of Tom’s death in prison:

“Then Mr. Underwood’s meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.”

Tom represents the tribulations of all of blacks across the American South.  He suffers solely on the basis of his skin color, as did the entirety of the African American community.  Calpurnia similarly represents the African American community, at least most of it. Whereas Tom Robinson is an uneducated, simple and meek man, however, Calpurnia is a formidable individual, ruling the Finch household with an iron hand.  When she decides to take Jem and Scout with her to the black church, she is determined to ensure that the children look properly presentable lest it reflect poorly upon her: “I don’t want anybody sayin‘ I don’t look after my children,” she muttered.

It’s at the church that the full measure of Calpurnia’s character is revealed.  Confronted by the venomous Lula, who is loudly critical of Calpurnia’s decision to bring white children to the black church, the two women, representing opposite poles of the segregationist mentality, state their positions clearly:

Lula stopped, but she said, “You ain’t got no business bringin‘ white chillun here —they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?”

Calpurnia said, “It’s the same God, ain’t it?”

Tom Robinson is the personification of victimization; Calpurnia is the symbol of African American fortitude on the side of racial harmony.  Both serve important thematic roles in Lee’s novel.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question