To Kill a Mockingbird Essays and Criticism

Harper Lee

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...

(The entire section is 1229 words.)

The Class System in Maycomb County

To Kill a Mockingbird’s Maycomb County could be considered a microcosm (a small representation) of American class as a whole. A true “upper crust” isn’t present, probably due to Harper Lee’s desire to make the novel a more realistic depiction of a small southern town during the Great Depression of the 1930s – even the most well-off citizens are doing well to get by. The wealthiest citizens of Maycomb County are what people in most communities today might consider “comfortable.” By drawing clear lines between the classes in Maycomb County, Harper Lee shows us the power of class division.

The Finches are near the top of the county’s social strata; Atticus’ position as an attorney sets him apart from the less-educated members of his society. His children, however, lack any pretensions of privilege; they wear blue jeans and overalls like any other country kids, and they show no real prejudice toward any of their peers. Jem and Scout’s new friend Dill, who appears in Chapter 1, seems to lie in the same “comfortable” category as his playmates, with his good clothes that must be changed.

Farm families like the Cunninghams could be considered the “Middle Class” of the area – they are the most prevalent, and they contribute the most to be backbone of the county’s well-being through farming. The Cunningham family is large, and they pay Atticus in turnips or nuts for his legal help and advice. While struggling, the Cunninghams do scrape by on what they can get through hard work and bartering. Many families in the Depression found themselves in the Cunninghams’ position, and made the best with what little they had. Still, within the context of the story, they are seen as inferior due to their lack of material possessions and simple things like Walter’s inability to buy lunch at school. Jem invites Walter home for lunch, where he promptly pours molasses – a luxury at his house – all over his meat and potatoes. As Scout reacts in horror, the Finches’ housekeeper Calpurnia pulls her aside and teaches her her first lesson in class.

The Ewells, even lower on the social ladder than the Cunninghams, might be...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

Why Scout? Gender in To Kill a Mockingbird

It's no coincidence that young Jean Louise Finch is nicknamed "Scout"; in addition to the obvious symbolism of the term, "Scout" is almost gender-neutral. Harper Lee's examination of racial and class-based issues in To Kill a Mockingbird extend to gender roles as well. Scout symbolically moves from boy to girl and back, giving us a glimpse of the woman she will become, much like Harper Lee herself, who questions southern gender stereotypes as a part of the problem of growing up southern.

Early on in the novel Jem places his sister right on the balance of male and female: "'Scout, I'm tellin' you for the last time, shut your trap or go home - I declare to the Lord you're gettin' more like a girl every day'" (52). "More like a girl" in the sense that she tends to talk through a situation rather than immediately acting upon it, as women are taught, Scout nevertheless shows both feminine and masculine tendencies, giving her an insight no character except possibly her father (the best possible example of masculinity in the book) can hope to achieve.

Having lost her mother at an early age, Scout’s female role models are fleeting at best, and negative at worst. Her aunt Alexandra, brought into town to help Atticus by providing a "motherly" influence, is simply incapable of understanding her niece having any interest in "doing things that required pants" (81). In one particular case, Mrs. Dubose, a grumpy old lady, stops Jem and Scout as they walk into town, asking Scout, "'what are you doing in those overalls? You should be in a dress and camisole, young lady!'" Mrs. Dubose is crabby and unpleasant, and the idea of being like her repulses Scout. Jem's reaction? "'Come on, Scout,' [. . .] be a gentleman'" (101). Much of Scout's gender identity originates with those closest to her, her father and brother, so rolling around in the dirt and fighting with boys (and beating them) comes naturally. Aunt Alexandra and Mrs. Dubose represent opposite extremes of womanhood – the prissy socialite and the rotten old dowager – in effect showing Scout what she does not want to be.

By the time Mayella Ewell enters...

(The entire section is 888 words.)

Growing Pains: Levels of Maturity in To Kill a Mockingbird

As To Kill a Mockingbird opens, we get a glimpse of Scout and Jem’s world – dark, overgrown, one might even say a bit decaying. It’s hardly the bright world of Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows. Neither, though, is it the harsh existence of The Lord of the Flies; the key word to describe Maycomb county would have to be “realism.”

Harper Lee seems to be showing the children as realistic characters in the midst of a heightened “Southern Gothic” background. A great deal of this heightened world comes from the children’s (particularly Scout, the narrator’s) observations and active imaginations: "In rainy weather the streets turned to...

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Narrative structure of To Kill a Mockingbird: Protesting Prejudice and Racism

(Novels for Students)

Most critics characterize Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel of initiation and an indictment of racism. The novel's point...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)

The Mockingbird's Song

(Novels for Students)

The subject of To Kill a Mockingbird is also song, that is, expression reading and literacy; both overt and covert attempts at...

(The entire section is 2246 words.)

In Defense of To Kill a Mockingbird.

(Novels for Students)

The critical career of To Kill a Mockingbird is a late-twentieth-century case study of censorship. When Harper Lee's novel about a...

(The entire section is 3261 words.)