The Overcoming of Prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird

715VLP6M-OLWhen Harper Lee passed away a few weeks ago, I pulled out my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird (Grand Central 1960) and re-read it for the first time since 1999. I haven’t followed the controversy about Go Set a Watchman very closely, but I had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade, and then again in 9th grade when my family moved. I liked it the first time, loved it the second time, and now appreciate it even more 17 years later. I was also surprised how much I remembered all these years later. How can you forget a character like Atticus Finch?

I love the book for its literary excellence–the memorable characters, the realistic dialogue, the quickly moving, non-labored narration. The scenes where Tom Robinson’s verdict is announced, or when Scout sees the world from Boo Radley’s porch, are masterfully told. But the great value of the book, for me, lies in what I see as its central theme: the lament of the ugliness of prejudice, and its celebration of the overcoming of prejudice.

This lament rings out most clearly in the central story of the middle and later portions of the novel, Tom Robinson’s trial and then death. In his final speech to the jury, Atticus argues that dishonesty and immorality belong “to the human race and to no particular race of men” (273). He bases his appeal in the proposition of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and argues that this truth applies especially in the courtroom (274), that is, to our equality in the eyes of the law. When justice miscarries, Atticus defends the jury system and attributes it to the deeper, heart-level problem: the evil of racism. “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads–they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life” (295).

The disillusionment that Jem Finch suffers after Tom is found guilty furthers the book’s depiction of the ugliness of prejudice. Atticus is shaken by the outcome of the trial, but seems to recover somewhat the next morning by the outpouring of thanks sent to him. Jem seems more deeply stung, and struggles along for a while. In the midst of his struggle, Jem tells Scout that he thinks there are four kinds of people. Scout ultimately responds, “naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (304). Jem responds by punching his pillow and wondering why, if people are all basically alike, they still despise each other. Jem’s struggle to accept Scout’s philosophy, which the reader feels to be true along with her, powerfully conveys the ugliness of prejudice. One feels acutely the anger, the lack of resolution, the deep yearning for justice it creates.

Although this theme of racial prejudice is central to the book, it occurred to me during this reading that, here and there, the book also protests against other forms of prejudice–say, socio-economic prejudice (think Scout’s indignation at her aunt calling Walker Cunningham “white trash” [302]), or gender prejudice (think of Scout’s discussion with Atticus about women being unable to serve on juries [296]). Especially gripping is the later parallel that Scout draws between Hitler’s anti-semitism in Germany and racial prejudice at home–which once again Jem is too angry to accept (328-331). Thus, although To Kill a Mockingbird uses racial tensions in the Deep South in the 1930’s to make its point, it is really about a more basic issue in the fallen human heart that has all different kinds of expressions.

This time through, I saw more clearly how the parallel narratives of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley hang together, and how the book therefore amounts not merely to a lament of prejudice, but to a celebration of how prejudice is overcome. This is accomplished, in part, through the character of Atticus Finch, who seems to me to be the great hero of the story (with Miss Maudie in an accompanying, less prominent but similar role). Atticus is always believing the best about people, even people who have considerable flaws and are persecuting him. He praises Mrs. Dubose as a great lady, despite her despicable racism (149); after Walter Cunningham tries to kill him, he defends him as basically a good man with some blind spots (210). The only possible critique one can make of Atticus is that he is possibly a bit naive, and thus fails to sufficiently protect his children from Bob Ewell. But his inexhaustible faith in others, despite everything they do against him, is what triumphs in the final scene of the book, as he allows Heck Tate to protect Radley, and then cares for his son throughout the night. Atticus is the opposite of prejudice: prejudice hates without reason; Atticus, despite having reasons, refrains from hate.

Another example of prejudice being overcome in the book is Jem’s reaction to Mrs. Dubose’s death. Jem has thoroughly hated her throughout the book, and dreaded having to go read to her. But when she dies and he discovers from Atticus her struggle against morphine addiction, and receives a camellia from her as a gift, he has a sort of meltdown. It’s a beautiful moment, in a way. He is angered, but you can tell he appreciates the camellia, and that his hatred of her has been softened. It’s a great depiction of the unmaking of prejudice. I love Atticus’ words to him about courage:

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew (149).

The other great depiction of overcoming prejudice is the transformation of Scout’s relationship with Boo Radley. Early on Atticus gives his famous quote: “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (39). The entire book can be understood, as I see it, as an unpacking of this assertion. It resurfaces again and again throughout the story, but especially in the drama surrounding Boo Radley.

Boo Radley is the central focus of the early chapters of the book, as an intriguing, disgusting, fearful figure, the object of Scout and Jem and Dill’s fascination and dread. The great event of the book, the great moment of victory, is at the end of the book when Scout changes from fearing and hating Radley to accepting him and befriending him. A great divide is crossed, the seeming unbridgeable divide of prejudice, as she comes to understand him–as Atticus would put it, she sees the world through his eyes and walks around in his skin for a bit. The reversal is seen most clearly when she walks him home, escorting him up onto the very porch she has feared approaching for so long, and then stands on that porch looking out at the world from its vantage point. After re-summarizing the events of the book from Radley’s standpoint, she writes, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough” (374).

This is redemption in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout comes to understand Radley, to see the world through his eyes. He ceases to be some fearful, strange thing to her. She learns to see him as a human being. It is a beautiful thing.

And it is something we very much need to consider in our own polarized, fragmented culture. At the root of so much of the pain of our world is the inability to see those with whom we disagree as human beings. Because of our differences with them–be they racial, ideological, political, personal, whatever–we relegate them to a category outside of ourselves, the realm of the “Other.” We draw thick lines of distinction between our tribe and theirs, forgetting the deeper solidarity that unites us as fallen image-bearers. To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful celebration of the possibility of overcoming these ugly walls of prejudice, and learning to treat each other as human beings.

One Comment

  1. […] Carl Sagan is a kind of iconic figure. I want to understand scientific worldviews in the way that Atticus Finch talks about as “seeing the world through another person’s eyes”—that is, in a […]

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