The novel To Kill a Mockingbird presents a vibrant collection of virtues and vices for the reader’s perusal, qualities to emulate and faults to root out. Courage leads the way. Following closely are kindness and compassion. These traits run side by side with their opposites: prejudice, meanness, and cowardice. A thoughtful study of the characters who portray all these things will enrich the reader’s life.
Young Scout Finch exhibits a great deal of boldness in the way she acts toward others. She is utterly frank in her mannerisms. Some of that is due to the naiveté of her youth, but a deeper courage lies within her, planted there by her father, Atticus. Though a tomboy to the core, she also learns respectful manners. For a time, she strives to “be a gentleman” the way Atticus wants her brother to be, but gradually, her attitude begins to shift toward that of a lady—a personal change requiring bravery.
Jem Finch is fiercely protective of his little sister. He may argue with her, and they may come to blows, but he would do anything to keep her safe. This courage is tested near the end of the novel, when Jem must protect Scout by fending off a killer in the dark. In addition to courage, chivalry has been drilled into Jem’s heart. At the beginning of the book, he is a mischievous young lad; by the end, he is well on his way to becoming a mature gentleman.
Arthur “Boo” Radley courageously breaks his hermitical habits, risking attention he’d rather not have, and steps in to rescue both Scout and Jem from the aforementioned killer. His intervention saves their lives and brings about justice.
Courage makes a more surprising appearance in the character of Aunt Alexandra. When news of a man’s death interrupts her missionary circle meeting, she retains her composure for the sake of the ladies present. This quiet act of bravery changes Scout’s mind about women: “After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I,” Scout muses (page 251).
Another unexpected display of bravery is found in cantankerous, sharp-tongued Mrs. Dubose. Though her extreme illness would have justified her morphine doses, she is determined to break her addiction before she dies. Atticus tells Jem, “I wanted you to see something about her—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 . . . She was the bravest person I ever knew.” (p. 121) And indeed, at the cost of great suffering, she wins her battle.
Miss Maudie Atkinson is plucky in holding to her beliefs, even when they aren’t popular, and standing up for her friends. When her house burns down, she takes it in stride and continues to be interested in others. And, along with Aunt Alexandra, she keeps a strong front when bad news hits.
Sheriff Heck Tate performs his job fearlessly. With a kind heart and stubborn will, he upholds justice in the town of Maycomb.
A discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird’s courageous characters would not be complete without mention of Atticus Finch. He takes on a case he knows he probably won’t win: defending the integrity of Tom Robinson. In the face of the town’s hostility, in the face of the jury’s certain prejudice, he refuses to back down. In his calm, unflinching way, he defends Tom to the very best of his ability. He never lets insults or threats sway him in his mission. Not only is he a courageous figure in the courthouse, but also at home. It is said multiple times, “Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets.” (p. 53) He himself tells his children, “. . . Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” (p. 114)
Not all of Maycomb’s residents are quite so noble, however. The Ewell family, particularly Bob, are spiteful, manipulative, lazy, cowardly, and—in Bob’s case—abusive. Mrs. Dubose, although brave, makes cruel and cutting remarks to the Finch children. Miss Stephanie Crawford’s wagging tongue rarely has anything positive to say about anyone. Aunt Alexandra means well, but her efforts to make Scout into a lady and refine the Finch family are often laden with judgement. The missionary circle also has good intentions, but its flighty members gossip and maintain a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. Some of the men of Maycomb form a mob (with violent intent) in their attempts to dissuade Atticus.
The most heartbreaking of the town’s vices is its deep-seated prejudice. Miss Stephanie Crawford’s gossiping ways foster it. Aunt Alexandra’s stiff views of background and propriety promote it. Mrs. Dubose vocalizes it strongly. The missionary circle ladies are blind to their own hypocritical prejudice. The Ewells treat blacks with utter contempt. Miss Gates is another blind hypocrite—she disapproves of the persecution of the Jews in Germany, yet in the next breath persecutes the blacks in her own town.
Prejudice is indeed “Maycomb’s usual disease.” Decades of misconceptions and unfair judgments have festered like an infected wound, and the result is ugly to behold. True justice is trampled on. Tragedy unfolds. The mockingbirds—the innocent—are slaughtered without cause. This prejudice comes between men and reason, and all fairness or levelheadedness is lost.
In Maycomb, people are prejudiced against blacks, against the poor, against the north, against certain individuals. In short, against anything and anyone different than themselves. Folks are labeled according to race, social standing, beliefs, and peculiarities. All blacks are about as valuable as dirt. The Ewells and the Cunninghams are trash. Boo Radley is an insane and malevolent phantom. Truth and lies are mixed and muddied, shaped into suitable rumors, and passed from ear to ear while the disease permeates the hearers’ hearts. Soon, it is nigh impossible to change anyone’s mind.
Despite the pervasiveness of the disease, there are some individuals who remain uninfected. Atticus has found the cure: “. . . You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” (p. 294) And he lives out his philosophy by looking past skin color and social standing. He sees people for what they really are, and he treats everyone as a person of value. He even pities the manipulative, guilty Mayella Ewell.
Calpurnia, too, is uninfected. She doesn’t care that Jem and Scout are white; she takes them to her church anyway. When another woman challenges her, Cal says, “They’s my comp’ny,” and points out that they all serve the same God. (p. 129)
When asked who is on their side, Miss Maudie fervently paints a picture of Maycomb’s honorable residents. “The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.” (p. 249-250)
Tom Robinson, despite the disregard and cruelty shown him, is kind to Mayella and recognizes her loneliness and need. He feels sorry for her. Even when she wrongs him, he treats her like a lady and doesn’t retaliate. Though he has every reason to be bitter, he is free of prejudice.
Other townspeople like Link Deas, Heck Tate, and Mr. Dolphus Raymond are also uninfected. They are fair-minded individuals willing to stick up for the persecuted.
Perhaps the most touching examples of acceptance are Scout, Jem, and Dill. Scout is naturally untouched by the disease. She simply doesn’t care what color someone’s skin is. Jem is troubled by the wrongness of the adults’ views, and struggles to find a way to set the world right. Dill is so tender-hearted that Tom’s trial moves him to tears.
Mr. Raymond says of Dill: “Thing haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being not—not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him . . . Cry about the simple hell people give other people—without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.” (p. 213)
But the children are still young enough to “get sick and cry,” to see the injustice. Jem asks his father how the jury could declare Tom guilty. “I don’t know, but they did it,” Atticus says. “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep.” (p. 225) Indeed, the children’s compassion stirs the reader’s heart powerfully. Their sorrow dusts off the layers of cynicism and, hopefully, unearths the reader’s own compassion.
Therein lies the heartbeat of To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps prejudice is not “Maycomb’s usual disease,” but the world’s. One doesn’t have to look far to see the way we unjustly brand our fellow man by race or speech or religion or caste or appearance. We may think, Those people are lazy; this group is a bunch of hypocrites. This race is deceitful; that sort of person only wants your money. But as Atticus wisely put it, “You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire.” (p. 217) All these faults we think are exclusive to one type of person are, in fact, found everywhere. Perhaps it’s time we stepped into another person’s skin and walked around a bit. Perhaps it’s time we put aside our preconceived notions and gave others the benefit of the doubt. It’s time we let each individual prove who and what he is before we disregard him.
Scout says to her brother, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
He replies, “If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?” (p. 240)
How true. If we can find the courage to treat people as people, no matter who they are or where they come from . . . perhaps then the mockingbirds will live.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia & New York, 1960. Thirty-sixth edition.
Tracey Dyck is an aspiring author in Manitoba, Canada – http://traceydyck.blogspot.ca/
Categories: Guest Post