To Kill a Mockingbird Essays and Criticism
by Harper Lee

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Symbols of Race in To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s Maycomb county bears out many of the stereotypes commonly attributed to the south and southerners regarding race relations. In the midst of portraying negative attitudes and prejudices, however, a truer face of the south shines through in the actions of the Finch family. Lee skillfully balances Atticus and his children with symbols of life in a “typical” southern town to draw a sharp distinction between those who would live the life they are told to live and those whose consideration of the world around them make their lives richer and more meaningful.

One of the most profound pure symbols of race relations in the novel revolves around Jem and Scout’s snowman. For instance, the building of a snowman by Jem and Scout one winter is very symbolic. Since Alabama winters don’t produce enough snow to allow them to build a snowman entirely out of snow, Jem makes a foundation out of mud, covering it with the snow the children could scrape together. Clearly, one implication of this act is a “covering up” of the black man by making him whiter, more “pure.” Jem is far too innocent for such an interpretation, but the world around him could provide a subtle influence.

More likely, this act is symbolic of a blending of the “clean” snow and the “dirty” mud, both of which are natural substances, showing how similar humans are. The substance created by the mixing is different than, although not necessarily better or worse than, either mud or snow. Atticus approves of his son’s ingenuity as he says, “I didn't know how you were going to do it, but from now on I'll never worry about what'll become of you, son, you'll always have an idea." It is the idea, after all, the act of thinking, that separates intelligence from prejudice.

The snowman changes yet again as Miss Maudie Atkinson's house burns to the ground, melting the snow and leaving nothing but a clump of mud. Is Lee reflecting the townspeople’s view that blacks and whites are indeed not the same, or is she evoking the old adage, “United we stand, divided we fall?” At least the snowman had a short life as a mixed “creature,” enjoying the best of both worlds. In a sense, the snowman is like a mixed-race child who inherits the good qualities of his white and black parent, but who is scorned by a society that blames him for his parents’ choices.

Jem’s reaction to Mrs. Dubose is another case in point. Her insults, which include, "Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!" presume to show us her own views and those of the rest of Maycomb County’s residents. Later on the day of the outburst, Jem takes Scout's baton and "runs flailing wildly up the steps into Mrs. Dubose's front yard. . . . He did not begin to calm down until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned."

Jem’s destruction of the white flowers symbolizes an internal backlash against the prejudice he has so recently witnessed. His subsequent care of the damaged plants (which Atticus demands, along with regular reading to Mrs. Dubose) demonstrates his learning the lesson of tolerance and of standing up to the negativity of his world. The children’s visits to Mrs. Dubose begin their unconscious but very real project of attempting to change attitudes in Maycomb county.

But attitudes are not so easily changed if they are heavily ingrained. Maycomb County is a depiction of the “Old South” where blacks are still barely citizens, and where fear and suspicion reign over understanding and respect. When Tom Robinson is arrested for raping a white woman, the townspeople immediately assumed that he is guilty. Lynching parties are formed, and “ordinary” men (i.e. not wearing Ku Klux Klan robes) let anger and fear empower them.

The same anger and fear are turned toward Atticus and even his children for the simple act of defending an unfairly accused man. Tom goes from being a respectable handy man to a monster simply because a white woman accuses...

(The entire section is 10,945 words.)