In the novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Harper Lee explores the need for courage, both physical and moral, in order to change the racist attitudes and prejudices that exist in the society of the small, southern town of Maycomb in the 1930’s. The trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, for assaulting a white women and the events that follow provide the context for this exploration. Atticus’ courageous decision to defend Tom in court offers an example of the societal changes that courage can bring about. Furthermore, through Mayella Ewell’s untrue account of the night of the alleged assault, Harper Lee highlights the need for greater courage in society in order to achieve change.
Harper Lee uses acts of physical courage to highlight the stereotypes that surround the people of Maycomb and emphasise the importance of being courageous in order to bring about a more equal society. Atticus is a character that displays physical courage with a view to changing the justice system so it is fair, whether a person is black or white. Atticus displays this physical courage when he sits outside of the jail in order to protect Tom Robinson from the lynch mob so that he will be able to have a trial. When a mob of four car loads of men approach Atticus, he was not afraid simply telling them to “turn around and go home again”. Atticus’ calm and collected tone highlights the courage he possesses and his strong will to do what is right for Tom. Acts of courage like Atticus’ have the power to challenge the existing practices of violence against black people in the town and create changes to these behaviours. Boo Radley also displays physical courage and defies the societal beliefs that surround him when he protects the children against Mr Ewell. The town perceives Boo as a scary, dangerous man and the children believed that “Radley pecans could kill you” and would not eat them if they fell over the fence. However, Boo became the hero of the novel by saving Jem and Scout from the murderous Mr Ewell. Scout acknowledged that her and Jem beliefs about Boo were untrue saying that “He gave us… our lives”. Scout’s emotive language demonstrates her new respect for Boo, as she now realises their assumptions were incorrect. Boo’s courage allowed for the prejudices against him to be challenged and create a less judgemental society.
Moral courage is also a significant theme throughout the novel. Harper Lee uses characters’ moral courage with the aim to reveal the incredibly biased justice system and encourage change. Atticus shows moral courage when defending Tom Robinson in a trial he knows he will not be able to win, despite the consequences delivered from others in Maycomb. It is courageous for him to defend a black man as it angers many of the townsfolk and risks his career because many people will not work with him again. After a classmate declares that Scouts father defends niggers she asks her father, “Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” which leads into a conversation about why Atticus will not be able to win the case. Scouts innocent point of view throughout the discussion emphasises the idea that the colour of someone’s skin should not affect whether or not they are guilty. Atticus’ moral courage allowed the issue of racism in the justice system to be brought to attention within Maycomb, and his decision to defend a black man was a step towards a change.
Whilst there are many instances of courage throughout the novel that have the ability to create change in the ways Maycomb people, Harper Lee reveals a need for greater courage in order to create a more just society. We see this during Tom Robinsons trial when Mayella Ewell is unable to stand up to her father and tell the truth. During the trial Atticus asks Mayella about her father to which she replies, “He does tollable, except when-”, stopping when she notices her father looking at her. Mayella’s sudden fractured speech reveals the fear she feels towards her father, to the extent that simply his stare has the power to stop her revealing too much. Perhaps if Mayella could have had the ability to be more courageous and declare Tom Robinson innocent, the societal norm of black people being automatically guilty in Maycomb could have been changed for the better and a man’s life could have been saved. Furthermore, Mayella highlights the influences that can affect a person’s ability to be courageous. Mayella’s fear of her father, Mr Ewell, drove her lack of courage and prevented her from telling the truth, in turn preventing change to the justice system from occurring in Maycomb.
In conclusion, Harper Lee uses instances of moral and physical courage throughout the novel in order to bring attention to the need for change to the issues of racism and prejudice in Maycomb society. Additionally, the author stresses the importance of having courage by presenting the consequence of lack of courage, through the unjust death of an innocent man.