In To Kill a Mockingbird, what is the irony of Miss Gates' lecture on democracy when compared to her comments at the trial?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The irony of Miss Gates's remarks about Nazi Germany's anti-Semitism is twofold. First of all, she makes a statement that is contradictory to one she has previously made about another minority group. Secondly, she may not even think that she is bigoted.

People who have grown up within a certain culture do not always realize that they are unjust to others who differ from them. They blind themselves to such injustice because "that is the way it has always been." Miss Gates's remark about "keeping them in their place" (Ch.26) seems to suggest that she feels that the social order in Maycomb should remain unchanged. She believes, as do many others in her town, that the African Americans in Maycomb are naturally inferior. Evidence of this idea appears in her remark that the black citizens of Maycomb "were gettin' way above themselves." (Ch.26) Ironically, such a comment fits the concept of racial superiority held by the Nazis, a concept that she criticizes. However, it is doubtful that Miss Gates would perceive the similarity to her own bigoted observation. 

Miss Gates is an "armchair critic": she condemns when it is safe for her in the comfort of her town, which likely does not have one Jewish resident. As long as nothing affects her, she can afford to be fair to others. Miss Gates is a foil character to Atticus Finch, who, in contrast to Miss Gates, has the integrity to defend the innocent Tom Robinson and the courage to put his social position in the community into jeopardy. Atticus truly believes in the phrase, "Justice for all" (Pledge of Allegiance). This conviction about justice and fairness to others is the reason that he responds to Scout as he does when she asks him about taking the role of the defender in Tom Robinson's case. Atticus tells his daughter that it is the only way that he can live with himself.

Scout obeys her father because he has credibility. Miss Gates has no credibility with Scout. Scout asks Jem, "How can you hate Hitler so bad an' then turn around and be ugly [a Southern colloquialism for hateful] about folks right at home?"

gpane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Miss Gates is Scout’s teacher who lectures the class on the evil of Hitler’s regime which persecutes the Jews. She says she can’t understand what the Jews have done that warrants persecution and deplores Hitler for singling out an ethnic group to target and oppress. She virtuously contrasts American society with Germany under Hitler; in America, she says, a free and democratic country, no one is discriminated against.

“Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Prejudice,” she enunciated carefully. (chapter 26)

Yet, most ironically, she herself appears to be a wholehearted subscriber to the oppression of African Americans in her own country. Scout recalls the nasty remarks she made about African Americans at Tom Robinson’s trial and asks Jem, ‘how can you hate Hitler so bad and then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?’ (chapter 26)

Miss Gates, then, is appallingly blind to injustices in her own country while loudly condemning other societies for their prejudices and persecutions. Scout, in her childlike innocence, is honestly bewildered at such inconsistency. Jem is even less able to cope, in fact he explodes in fury at Scout’s question, leaving her ‘too surprised’ even ‘to cry’ (chapter 26); in the immediate aftermath of the trial he cannot bear to think about it. As so often in the book, the ways of adults are here put under the critical lens of the children’s open-hearted, enquiring innocence and revealed to be narrow-minded and irrational.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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