To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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In "To Kill A Mockingbird," who uses the 'N' word ?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Although several characters in To Kill a Mockingbird use this pejorative racial term for African-Americans, perhaps the most offensive use of this word comes from Mrs. Dubose and Bob Ewell.

Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose is an older neighbor who is frequently wheeled out in her chair onto her porch. From there, she passes judgment on the Finch children who walk to meet Atticus as he returns home from his office. "She was vicious," Scout narrates. On the day following Jem's twelfth birthday, he is anxious to spend his money, and because he has enough to purchase a coveted baton for Scout, the two children head to town. When they pass Mrs. Dubose's house, she hurls several personal insults at the children. Finally, she utters her greatest invective against Atticus: "Your father's no better than the n——rs and trash he works for!" With these words, Mrs. Dubose places Atticus at the very bottom of the social stratum in Maycomb as she equates Atticus with the lowest of the African-American community and with "white trash," the lowest social level of caucasians.

Arguably the most offensive use of "the N-word" comes from the mouth of Bob Ewell, who is included in Mrs. Dubose's terming of "trash" (i.e., white trash) in the Maycomb community. It is offensive to call anyone the N-word, but when Ewell calls Tom Robinson a n——r in the courtroom, his use of the word is particularly hostile and meant to do injury to Tom's character. By implying that Tom Robinson is a person who deserves no more than to be given such an identity, Bob Ewell also attempts to elevate himself in the only way he can. Further, his use of the term is meant to dehumanize the kind, polite, and hard-working Tom Robinson.

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huntress eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Just about everyone in the book uses the 'N' word at one time or another. Miss Maudie doesn't at any point, and neither does Aunt Alexandra, Calpurnia, Boo, or Mr. Dolphus Raymond. Most of the black people don't use it, either, with the exception of Tom Robinson himself when he says in the trial to Mr. Gilmer, "It weren't safe for a nigger like me to be in a--fix like that," and Lula, when Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to church with her one Sunday, who says, "I wants to know why you bringin' white chillun to nigger church." 

Even Atticus uses it a couple of times, but each time he points out, overtly or subtly, that it's a word they don't use. When Scout asks him, "Do you defend niggers, Atticus?" He responds, "Of course I do. Don't say nigger, Scout. It's common." 

Mr. Gilmer doesn't actually say it, either, but he uses all the language cues that suggest he would in other circumstances (outside of a trial), calling Tom Robinson "boy," for example. 

The men from Old Sarum who surround the jailhouse the night Atticus is sitting watch to hopefully prevent a lynching don't actually use the word, but they clearly use it in normal circumstances--since they're clearly there to lynch Tom. 

Mrs. Dubose accuses Atticus of "lawing for niggers," and Bob Ewell accuses Atticus of being "nigger-lovin' trash," and Mayella uses the word when she says that "that nigger took advantage of me." 

Just because a person doesn't use the word in the novel doesn't make them non-racist, though. 

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libbyvunk | Student

There are only two characters in To Kill a Mockingbird that use the "N" word, Bob Ewell and Mayella Ewell. Bob Ewell uses it numerous times, as if he sees it as an acceptable word to use and either does not see the pain it causes or just does not care. Mayella, on the otherhand, only uses the "N" word when she becomes scared, angry, and frustrated as Atticus is demonstrating that she must be lying about Tom Robinson trying to rape her. This may be to show that Mayella does not have the same racist feelings that her father does and, in reality, likes Tom Robinson and looks to him to help cure her loneliness. It may be that when she feels threatened, as she does in the courtroom, she resorts to what she knows, what she has been taught by her father. It could also be to show that she doesn't care about other humans when it comes to saving herself and her family. In the South, during the depression, there were undoubtedly many people who used the "N" word, so the author had a reason to only have two characters in the book speak it. This may be so she could show the impact of the word, demonstrate how destructive racism is, or to show the importance of parents and the ideas they pass down to their children, who are born without these feelings about others.