“You know the truth, and the truth…applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.”
Matthew Pinkett explores the ways prejudice is presented in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee presents prejudice as an all encompassing force arising from a lack of empathy for others; this has a dangerous influence on those who come into contact with it.
The Finch children’s fear of Boo Radley provides the reader with a symbol of the prejudice that exists in wider Maycomb society outside of the world of the children. It is through the exploration of Jem, Scout and Dill’s fear of Boo, that Harper Lee convinces the reader that prejudice is an irrational emotion borne out of an inability to empathise with those that aren’t familiar.
Lee presents the Radley house as ‘alien.’ It is a ‘Rain-rotted’ place where ‘oak trees kept the sun away.’ A ‘picket drunkenly’ guards the front yard. This ‘darkened’ description of the house which fully evokes the genre of the ‘Southern Gothic’ sets the house apart from the rest of the Maycomb where physical attractiveness is valued. After all, Maycomb is a place where the ‘Ladies bathed before noon’ in ‘sweet talcum’ and a flaw in one’s lawn is likened to ‘the Second Battle of Marne.’ The personification of the trees of the Radley house, keeping out the sun with all its positive connotations of purity and good suggests to the reader that the Radley’s separateness is something that is entirely natural. For Scout, the Radley’s must be feared.
Scout’s narrative voice is one that continually vacillates between the adult Scout, talking in hindsight, and the child Scout, recounting a tale as she saw it to be true at the time. Lee is keen that the reader realize the conviction the young Scout has of Boo’s assumed monstrous appearance by having the adult Scout tell the reader, ‘Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo.’ This ‘reasonable’ description puts Boo at ‘six-and-a-half feet tall’ with ‘blood-stained’ hands and a ‘long jagged scar’ running along his face. Completing the monstrous description are eyes that pop and a mouth that drools. The fact is, Scout has never seen Boo Radley. In fact, Scout explicitly states, ‘Jem and I had never seen him.’ Scout’s description-and fear- of Boo is based purely on the things, ‘People said’. Because they’ve never met Boo, the Finches can’t possibly begin to understand him. This results in nothing but negative outcomes: a deep fear entrenched within the children and a potentially inaccurate and unfair portrayal of a man both the children-and the reader- have not yet met. Lee doesn’t, in this early part of the novel, provide us with any physical description of Boo that can be taken for accurate. This could be because Lee wants to evoke in the reader, the same excitement of dread that comes in simply not knowing. The reader only has Scout’s description to go on; the reader is complicit in Scout’s prejudice.
In the third to last chapter, Lee finally provides the reader with a description of Boo that only serves to emphasise Lee’s view that prejudice is something based on a flawed lack of knowledge and understanding. Scout, some years older than the point at which she made her first description, describes Boo as having a ‘face…as white as his hands’ with ‘delicate indentations at his temples’ and hair that is ‘dead and thin, almost feathery.’ Whilst Boo ‘s actual appearance does display elements of the unusual, it does so in a way that is reminiscent of weak vulnerability rather than grotesque monstrosity. The adjectives, ‘white’, ‘delicate’ and ‘feathery’ are strongly evocative of softness, the latter of these adjectives linking Boo to the ‘mockingbird’ of the title; a vulnerable bird, forever in jeopardy of man’s ability to destroy, in spite of its innocence.
Lee’s presentation of Scout’s descriptions of Boo, and in fact other characters in the novel, are interesting because of Scout’s focus on the mouth. In Scout’s initial description of Boo, he is described as having teeth that ‘were yellow and rotten’ and it is noted that ‘he drooled most of the time.’ Here, the mouth is presented as a physical embodiment of the monstrosity that justifies the children’s fears of its owner. In contrast, in the ‘true’ description of Boo, this monstrous imagery has disappeared. Instead, Boo has simply a ‘wide’ mouth whose ‘lips parted into a timid smile’. It is this smile, from a mouth that was previously used only for eating ‘raw squirrels’, that produces ‘sudden tears’ in Scout. Scout, brought up by a respectable Lawyer, does not recognise savagery. She does, however, recognise happiness and Boo’s smile shows Scout that he too feels this very human emotion. Boo’s smile is an indicator of his humanity and it is at this point that Lee completes Scout’s journey from ignorant child to empathic youth.
Scout’s bildungsroman can finally be seen to be complete in the final chapter of the novel. Here Lee presents prejudice as something which can be eradicated through empathy. Standing on Boo’s porch, an area of access previously denied to her, Scout is finally able to ‘stand in his [Boo’s] shoes and walk around in them.’ From here she observes the daily comings and goings of her life as Boo might have observed them. She describes herself and her brother in the third person, positioning herself as an outsider to the ‘self’ that is Boo. Boo is no longer seen as an outsider of Maycomb society. Rather, he is an omniscient being fully aware of the comings and goings of a neighborhood blinded by the prejudice of a narrow-minded and naïve Maycomb society that Boo eventually protects them from. Lee’s description of Jem and Finch as ‘Boo’s children’ only serves to emphasise the importance of a wider perspective in protecting the future of society, in this case, the children, Jem and Scout.
Scout’s journey from immature child to empathic adult clearly demonstrates Lee’s belief that empathy destroys prejudice.
Racial discrimination is something that infiltrates all areas of Maycomb life. Early on in the novel, the childish Scout dismisses Jem’s childish superstitions as ‘Nigger-talk.’ This is in spite of her being the daughter of Atticus, a man for whom the term ‘Nigger’ is something used by ‘ignorant, trashy people’ use ‘when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.’ Lee has reduced Scout to ‘common’ in spite of her father’s high level of education and social standing. Lee is clearly implying here that no one is immune from the corruptible force of prejudice, particularly at a young age. What’s also interesting is that Scout cites, Calpurnia as the source of her idea that superstitions are childish things, only believed by black people, presumably because of their inferiority: ‘Calpurnia says that’s nigger talk.’. The fact that Calpurnia, a black woman herself, uses the derogatory ‘n-word’ suggests either a form of reluctant self-loathing or a determinedness to distance herself from other black people whom she considers inferior to herself as a black woman serving the family of Maycomb’s most esteemed resident: whatever the interpretation, the negative implications are clear: to be black is to be inferior, stupid, a believer in ‘hot steams’, ‘haints’ and other such supersitions.
Just as racial prejudice impacts the domestic lives of the Maycomb residents, so also is it found, with devastating effects, in the area of law and order. In chapter twenty Atticus confidently states that, in this country [America] our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.’ The irony of this statement is stark when one considers what Lee has had Scout tell us about the layout of the courtroom some chapters earlier: ‘The Coloured balcony ran along three walls of the courtroom like a second-storey verandah, and from it we could see everything.’ The black people are, quite literally, anything but ‘level’ with the white people of the courtroom. Here, in the courtroom, just as they are in the homes of those they serve, the black community is segregated from white community. The result of this prejudice, found in the institution of the courthouse, is nothing short of catastrophic. An innocent man is sentenced for a crime he has not committed and in the end, pays for it with his life.
Having established the fact that prejudice permeates the domestic and the legal institutions that make up a society, one may consider religious institutions, such as churches, exempt from the destructive force of of prejudice. Lee is keen to show the reader that this is not so. When Lula, a black member of Calpurnia’s ‘nigger church’ sees that Calpurnia has brought Jem and Scout to service, she remarks, ‘I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.’ Lula’s animosity is tangible. Here Lee presents the reader with a black woman exhibiting the kind of racial prejudice only previously observed in white characters of the novel. Lee does this for two reasons: firstly to highlight again, the fact that prejudice is prevalent in all areas of society whether it be church, court or family home; black or white, and secondly, to humanize the black characters of the novel. Scout mentions that she ‘sensed, rather than saw, that we [her and Jem] were being advanced upon’ by Lula. This amounts to a recognition that black people feel too.
Lee’s use of dialect in the language of Lula, Tom Robinson and Calpurnia only serves to distance the reader from these characters. The children whom the reader knows so well are now ‘chillun’ according to Lula. At church Scout notes that Calpurnia ‘was talking like the rest of them,’ the use of the pronoun ‘them’ only serving to emphasise Scout’s distance from the black people she is associating with. This distance can be said to be due to a lack of formal education in members of the black community. This reveals itself in the unorthodox dialect adopted by Lula. And yet, tragically, the fact that Calpurnia mimics Lula’s way of speaking, in spite of the fact that she is one of only four members of the black congregation that can read, suggests that a lack of education is something for which the black members of Maycomb society can feel a sense of community, amongst themselves.
This lack of education and its manifestation in ‘unrefined’ speech patterns is fatal. Tom Robinson’s clumsy attempts to explain himself in the witness stand: ‘ no suh, scared I’d hafta face up to what I didn’t do’ presents him as an easy target for a white lawyer intent on destroying him: ‘Are you being impudent to me, boy?’ Lee’s use of the word ‘boy’ in Gilmer’s comment to Tom, implies that Tom’s lack of education, which reveals itself in the way he speaks, makes it acceptable for learned members of white society to judge him as merely a child when he is in fact, a man.
Nowhere is racial prejudice exhibited in its most vitriolic form than in the incident of Mrs Dubose proclaiming to Jem and Scout, ‘Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for.’ This intense hatred coming from an adult, directed at children, is nothing short of shocking. Interestingly, during Mrs Dubose’s rant, Scout notices a ‘long silver thread of saliva’ in Mrs Dubose’s mouth. The parallels with Scout’s earlier description of the monstrous Boo Radley are clear. And yet, in this case, Scout is not inaccurate in connecting Dubose with Radley. The words that emanate from Dubose’s mouth are repugnant; monstrous even. Here, Lee presents the mouth as a weapon that is physically repulsive. However, here we are seeing true monstrosity: racial prejudice from an adult who should know better. This mouth imagery is continued later on in the chapter when Scout remarks of Mrs Dubose: ‘From time to time she would open her mouth wide, and I could see her tongue undulate faintly.’ Scout goes on to mention that ‘Cords of saliva would collect on her lips’ and the fact that ‘Her mouth seemed to have a private existence of her own.’ Lee is keen to use the image of the mouth as a something which is as physically repulsive as the words which it can produce. A mouth has a dual purpose: to speak and to consume. The allegory to prejudice is stark: prejudice must spread its message and that is one that consumes and destroys.
Although racial prejudice is shown to be reprehensible, violent, and damaging, the novel does present some hope for change in this area, just as there is hope to be found in Scout’s empathy for Boo Radley. Tom Robinson’s death, although heartbreaking, does signify a determination in Tom to do something for himself. Atticus mentions the fact that he feels, ‘Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.’ Tom’s death could represent a martyrdom for others to learn from. Certainly, his death has a positive impact on other members of Maycomb society.
Mr Link Deas is shown to be supportive of Tom Robinson’s widow, warning Bob Ewell that he’d get Bob arrested if he continued to harass her. The fact that ‘Helen reported no further trouble’ after this incident is suggestive of the fact that Deas’ threat was taken on board. Here Lee presents law as something which works in favour of the black community instead of against it.
More hope in a change to attitudes to black people can be taken from Tom’s obituary in which he is described as a ‘cripple’ as opposed to definition by colour. Furthermore, Lee mentions that Underwood ‘likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children’. The sibilant words here draws the reader to acknowledge the full impact of the truth of Tom’s death: that it was futile and preventable. Considering this passage more closely, Lee also explains the metaphor that gives the novel its name: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Lee could be trying to get the reader to think about the novel as a thematic device. As something which consciously tries to open a dialogue on the ‘senseless’ discrimination of people of differing races and colour.
To conclude, Lee presents prejudice as a destructive force which can be found in all areas of society. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that prejudice can’t be overcome; all it takes is understanding and empathy.
Matthew Pinkett is Literacy Co-Ordinator at George Abbot School, Guildford.