“Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (Lee 259). In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, many of the characters are subjected to cruel and unfair discrimination. Harper Lee was 89 years old when she passed away in 2016, and in her lifetime only published one other novel besides To Kill A Mockingbird, which was titled Go Set A Watchman. This book was set twenty years ahead of the events in To Kill A Mockingbird, and although Go Set A Watchman was originally thought to be a sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird, it was later discovered that it was only a published first draft of Lee’s best-seller. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Arthur “Boo” Radley, the Cunninghams, and Tom Robinson are all faced with different forms of prejudice in their community. Boo Radley is perceived as an insane man and a murderer because he chooses to stay inside his house, the Cunninghams are seen as less valuable human beings because of their financial status, and Tom Robinson is wrongfully accused of sexual assault because of his skin colour.
Arthur “Boo” Radley’s childhood antics caused his father to lock him inside his own house, all because of the family’s fear of embarrassment and social rejection. Although Mr. Radley had originally thought that keeping Arthur in their house would prevent their family from becoming social outcasts and being gossiped about, he was unfortunately mistaken. Miss Stephanie Crawford told stories and spread rumours of Boo being this horrible killer and monster, and evidently, the town believed her. “[Boo] Dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch … what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time” (14). This is the description of Boo that Jem loans Dill; however, Jem later discovers that this societal perception is one of the many reasons that Arthur chooses not to come outside. After years of being accustomed to never going outside his home, and learning about all the unpleasant things happening outside his confines,
Boo develops less and less of an urge or need to leave his house. Consequently, after many summers of trying to coax Boo outside, Jem comes to a conclusion about Arthur when he states, “I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time . . . it’s because he wants to stay inside” (259). Moreover, Boo is a caring and considerate neighbour to the Finch family, and proved himself a hero as he saved both Jem and Scout’s lives at the end of the novel. In the final pages of To Kill A Mockingbird as Atticus is reading to Scout before bed, Scout comments on how the characters of the story he was reading were genuinely kind people, to which Atticus replies, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them” (323). This line is a reference to the way that Arthur’s true character was revealed when he saved the children, and showed that he was not a monster at all, and merely just a man victimized by society’s cruel accusations.
The Cunninghams are ostracized by the community because they are very poor farmers, and can only afford to pay people with fruit and vegetables that they have grown and wood that they have chopped. When Scout learns of this, she assumes that it means that they are lesser than her family, and that they should be treated so. When Walter Jr. comes home with Jem and Scout for lunch after getting her in trouble on the first day, he is delighted as he pours a more than generous helping of syrup on his food. Incensed by this, Scout begins to yell at Walter when she is pulled aside by Calpurnia, who reprimands her for being disrespectful towards their company. Confused by her pre-conceived notion of Walter’s family, Scout claims, “He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham-” (27). Calpurnia edifies Scout about being insolent and as the story progresses, Scout’s idea of the Cunningham family evolves, and she comes to terms with the fact that a person’s social class and how much money they make isn’t a measure of how much they are worth as a human being. Children often learn this type of class segregation from their family, as is evident in the second half of the novel when Scout asks her aunt, Alexandra Finch Hancock, if Walter can come over to play and she refuses. When Scout pleads with her that the Cunninghams are truly delightful people, she responds, “Jean Louise, there is no doubt in my mind that they’re good folks. But they’re not our kind of folks” (255). Having learned all her views from her father, Scout was taken aback by her aunt’s beliefs of the importance of a family’s social status, and was dismayed by the fact that she wasn’t able to change them. When Scout continued to persist and demand an explanation from Aunt Alexandra, she became frustrated and exclaimed,“Because—he—is—trash, that’s why you can’t play with him” (256). Scout’s aunt is ridiculing Walter because she distains the Cunningham name, and is a firm believer in the Southern tradition of someone’s character being determined by their last name. This is undoubtedly untrue, as it is not Walter’s fault that he was born a Cunningham, and he should not be made to feel ashamed of this because of arrogant and condescending people like Alexandra.
One of the novel’s most blatant and overt issues is the constant r*cism towards black people, a prime example being Tom Robinson’s court case. Atticus highlights this when he is speaking to Jem about the reasoning behind Tom’s conviction, “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” (251). In the 1930’s, the time period in which the book takes place, many people like Tom were discriminated against because of their skin colour. This is evident when Atticus tells of how Tom tried to escape from prison by climbing the fence, but was shot seventeen times by the guards who were standing by. This was clearly an excessive amount of bullets required to stop Tom, let alone kill him. Atticus illustrates the guards’ total lack of concern for the value of Tom’s life when Atticus paraphrases their words by saying, “What was one Negro, more or less, among two hundred of ‘em? He wasn’t Tom to them, he was an escaping prisoner” (269). Furthermore, the town’s clear divide in race is prevalent in the court scene where Tom is being questioned by Mr. Gilmer about Mayella, and Tom says he feels sorry for her. Mr. Gilmer responds to this by saying, “You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her? … The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair.” (224). This statement demonstrates how it was seen as a complete anomaly that a black man would ever feel sorry for a white woman, and that it would always be assumed that a white person’s life would be the most desirable.
Although the stories behind Boo Radley, the Cunninghams, and Tom Robinson are all different, they share the same theme of inequity and injustice simply because they are not what society expects. Boo Radley has to deal with the repercussions of his father’s cruelty and the rumours that were a result of this, the Cunninghams are looked down on by others because of their low income livelihood, and Tom Robinson faces injustice because he is black, and that he is not of the race that was considered to be dominant in the 1930’s.
Although the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are fictional, the struggles that they face are very real, and it is clear that for many in society the search for equality is elusive.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Collins, 1960. Print.
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