Race and class in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a Southern gothic bestseller written by Harper Lee. The novel is narrated by Scout Finch, a six-year-old white girl who learns about life, people and the injustices prevalent in her society. Through her, Lee cleverly portrays issues such as gender, race and class discrimination in the fictional setting of Maycomb county, Alabama. Readers have speculated that the character of Scout was based on Lee’s own childhood experiences, wherein she combines the nostalgic elements with the political situation that she witnessed around her in America. Scout’s innocence and her defiance against the social hierarchies in Maycomb cuts a deeper meaning into the futility of these societal constructs.

Race is one of the issues that is evidently portrayed in the novel. Scout’s father Atticus Finch is a lawyer who defends the less privileged. He strives hard to stand by his moral compass and wishes to set an example for his children through his actions. One of the major events in the novel takes place when Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. The racist residents of Maycomb, as well as his family members are horrified and attempt hard to dissuade him. So much so, that even Scout and her brother Jem are subjected to verbal abuse by other children for his actions. During the trial, Atticus provides clear evidence to prove Tom’s innocence. Despite the impressive evidences, the extremely racist jury sentences him to jail where he later attempts to escape, but is shot and killed. We see that even the law is corrupted when it comes to rendering justice to innocent African Americans. Tom Robinson’s trial scene is monumental in proving the racial discrimination in America.

Calpurnia, the Finch family’s black maid plays a significant role in Scout’s life. Unlike most southern black characters, she is well- educated and is highly respected within the Finch family. Having lost her mother at a young age, Scout regards Calpurnia as a mother-like figure. One of the important moments in the novel is when Calpurnia takes Jem and Scout to the Black Church. Here, the children witness a different side of characteristics in Calpurnia as she interacts with the rest of her community. W. E. B. Du Bois refers to this as “double consciousness”; a phenomenon wherein a person exhibits two different personalities with the blacks and the whites. This can be seen as a defence mechanism to gain acceptance in a white supremist society due to their own internalised racism. Furthermore, despite being a novel that is concerned with issues like racism, it only portrays a subjective version of it. The black community are not given a voice of their own against this prejudice, which marginalises them within the text. If they are given a voice, it is usually to show gratitude to the good white people instead of raising their anger and frustration against the racial injustices in Maycomb.  

Social class prejudice is an important element highlighted in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. This can be understood clearly when Jem imagines ‘folks’ as being divided into four different kinds. “Our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the coloured folks.” (Lee, 249) Through Jem, Lee clearly explains the class hierarchical structure of Maycomb. It is a prejudice engrained in Maycomb which even dictates the relationship between children at school. But the novel also explains that the class system can eventually be dismantled. Initially, when Scout treats Walter Cunningham Jr differently, Calpurnia teaches her otherwise and makes her realise that a person’s financial background has nothing to do with their personality. When Cunningham Sr. arrives with a mob to lynch Tom Robinson, Scout’s innocence humbles him, saving Tom’s life briefly. Scout thus is able to achieve a small proportion of justice by disregarding the class system. Her reply “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” (Lee, 250) is an innocent yet powerful statement against the prevailing class structure in the society.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view…”

Harper Lee

Aside from race and class, the novel also deals with other important issues like gender, disability, and sexuality. As Scout belongs to a middle-class white family, the primary concern that she personally deals with is sexism. She is portrayed as a tomboy, who is forced to confirm to the conventional idea of a girl. Over the years, readers have come up with multiple theories from the book pertaining to current social issues which proves that even after sixty years, it is still contemporary. Atticus’s advice that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . .” is a principle that could serve as a solution for all types of prejudices. And as mentioned by John Green, the “combination of nostalgia and criticism makes Mockingbird both endearing and enduring.” To Kill a Mockingbird is revolutionary in the fact that it brilliantly portrays multiple serious themes through the eyes of an innocent child.

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