To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers
by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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What does the novel To Kill a Mockingbird  have to teach us about the problem of human inequality and the divisions within Southern society? Analyze specific dimensions of inequality in Maycomb (i.e., the advantages and disadvantages that certain characters experience). Try to identify an underlying, common lesson that unites each of these characters. Focus on characters such as Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, Mayella Ewell, Burris Ewell, Mr. Cunningham, Dill Harris, and Dophus Raymond.

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There are many examples of social inequality in To Kill a Mockingbird. These human inequalities lead to divisions among the townspeople. Most of these divisions happen due to people's racial backgrounds and financial standing. However, other factors, such as gender and marital status, arguably affect the townspeople's views on other people's respectability. This is exhibited by Aunt Alexandra's extreme concern about Scout's childhood clothing choices:

Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my [Scout's] attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches. (Chapter 9)

Aunt Alexandra says that Scout was born good but grew "progressively worse every year" (chapter 9).

After this conversation with Aunt Alexandra, Scout says,

she hurt my feelings and set my teeth permanently on edge. (Chapter 9)

Even clothing choices, such as Scout's childhood choice to wear overalls rather than dresses, cause divisions in the town of Maycomb. Aunt Alexandra believes that Scout's value will likely be judged by her neighbors based on her outward appearance and manners, even as a child.

However, clothing causes minor divisions in Maycomb. Bigger inequalities are visible between the African American people and white people. This division is evident by the fact that the African American people live in a completely separate area of town from white people. Most African American people have very little education, and it is highly unusual for African American people and white people (in this time and place) to become close friends or to become romantically involved. (Mr. Dolphus Raymond is one of the only white townspeople to be romantically involved with an African American woman. His fellow townspeople cannot easily understand his unusual romance without believing that he is a drunkard.)

Calpurnia, Jem and Scout's housekeeper, is unusual because she is educated:

[Calpurnia] was furious, and when she was furious, Calpurnia's grammar became erratic. When in tranquility, her grammar was as good as anybody's in Maycomb. Atticus said Calpurnia had more education than most colored folks. (Chapter 3)

But Calpurnia's grammar changes the way that some people view her. Even her educated speech can cause divisions. Out of respect, she changes the way she speaks with fellow African Americans. She does not want to seem like she thinks she is more valuable or above her neighbors. When visiting First Purchase African M.E. Church with Calpurnia, Scout notices that Calpurnia intentionally uses poor grammar and different tones of speech:

Again I thought her voice strange: she was talking like the rest of them. (Chapter 12)

While some white people divide themselves from African American people, African American people also separate themselves from the whites in Maycomb. Lula, one woman attending Calpurnia's church, rudely asks,

"I want to know why you bringin' white chillun to... church. ... You ain't got no business bring' white chillun here—they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?" (Chapter 12)

Calpurnia, who respects her friends in both the African American and white communities, responds,

"It's the same God, ain't it?" (Chapter 12)

While many townspeople of all racial backgrounds are stuck in a pattern of division, some people, such as Calpurnia, begin to speak of the commonalities between all humans. These brave people teach that a person's value does not come from their skin color, their culture, the amount of money that they have, or their clothing choices.

Scout learns that actions and character give a human value. Aunt Alexandra tries to teach her that dresses and polite manners give a lady value. Atticus, however, gives her permission to be herself. He teaches Scout and Jem to learn people's stories and to value others for their inner strength and good character.

For example, Atticus teaches Jem to see the courage and good character in Mrs. Dubose, a grumpy old woman. She intentionally overcame her addiction to pain medication before her death because she did not want to be dependent on anything. Atticus calls her, "the bravest person [he] ever knew" (chapter 11). Atticus teaches his children (as well as readers) that quick judgments about others are often inaccurate. Instead, he shows how a person's value can be seen by their motivations, their words, their actions, and their general character.

Scout repeatedly learns this lesson as she grows. She sees another example of this lesson as she observes Mr. Robert Ewell in the courtroom. Scout asserts,

All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white. (Chapter 17)

The Ewell family lived behind a garbage dump in a home that was once a "Negro cabin" (chapter 17). They were very, very poor, and the Ewell children did not routinely go to school. No matter how well he is dressed or how long he scrubs the dirt off his skin, Scout recognizes that his character is corrupt. Mr. Ewell is a liar who allows Tom Robinson, an innocent man, to take the blame for his own violence against his daughter. His well-groomed appearance is nothing but a mask covering his corruption.

An underlying lesson that this novel teaches is that inner character, not outward appearance, gives a person true and lasting value. Further division and even injustice occurs when the townspeople judge one another by outward appearances or manners.

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