There are several elements in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird that touch upon controversial issues in contemporary society:
- child neglect and abuse
Boo Radley represents someone who is out of the norm. Because he has been punished for a lifetime for having made poor choices in his younger years as have many teens, and has thus been alienated from others for so long, Boo is certainly socially dysfunctional; perhaps, even his ability to think rationally is disabled by his having been cloistered so long.
Harper Lee satirizes John Dewey's educational philosophy which was concerned with interaction and environments for learning as essential for providing a framework for practice of concepts. Miss Caroline, an avid student of Dewey, is appalled that Atticus Finch has taught his daughter to read in what she considers a non-learning environment without the proper structure. Lee's satire is apparent when Jem attempts to explain the "new way they're teach' the first grade...It's the Dewey Decimal System."
Also, Atticus Finch critiques public education as an example of the misuse of the phrase "all men are created equal." He explains in his closing argument of Tom Robinson's trial that public education, in its great effort to equalize everyone, "promotes the stupid and idle along with the industrious."
3. Child Neglect and Abuse
Because it is 1935, Dill is not removed from his neglectful home where he is given a new toy and told to leave his mother alone. He is able to run away from home in Meridian, take the train on which no one wonders why he is alone, and hide in the Finch home and simply be returned to his mother without DHR investigating and removing Dill from his home and put under foster care.
Bob Ewell neglects all his children. He violates the law in not sending them to school. Moreover, he mentally, physically, and sexually abuses his daughter Mayella. Also, an alcoholic, Ewell is certainly an unfit parent.
Religious hypocrisy is satirized in Lee's novel. Miss Maudie retorts with Scripture when the Fundamentalists castigate her for vanity in having such showy flowers in her garden. Lula hostilely accosts Calpurnia for bringing white children into her church.
At the Missionary Tea hosted by Aunt Alexandra, Mrs. Merriweather is the epitome of a sanctimonious hypocrite as she lauds the missionary Mr. Everett for his wondrous work in Africa, yet she derogates the African-Americans in her town for being "dissatisfied," particularly, her own maid Sophy, whom she only keeps out of the goodness of her heart because "...this depression's on and she needs her dollar and a quarter every week she can get it."
The most controversial and largest issue in the novel, racial bias, is evident in many of the residents of Maycomb--the "usual disease," as Atticus terms it. Exemplifying the worst of racism, the ignorant and reprehensible Bob Ewell coerces his pitiful and love-starved daughter Mayella to accuse Tom Robinson of rape, simply to deflect any kind of talk about his family having anything to do with blacks, so that he, at least, can be superior to someone.
The trial of the gentle and kind Robinson is a travesty of justice, modeled after the real-life trial of the Scottsboro Boys, who were also unjustly tried for rape. Without any medical or other substantial evidence, the jury convicts Tom, who later tries to break out of jail and is tragically shot. Afterwards, the members of the community, such as the sanctimonious Mrs. Merriweather, vilify Atticus for having defended Tom.