- The Book Questions Gender and Class Roles in Southern Life
To Kill a Mockingbird has several themes that run very deep. Some of the themes that get relatively little consideration are the book’s treatment of social class and gender roles. Scout (the narrator) and her brother Jem are middle class white children living a comfortable existence within a complex web of relationships. Lee’s writing, in particular the use of a child’s perspective and voice allows us to see that just as not all white people are middle class, the black characters within the book come from different backgrounds and have different motivations.
Just as important as the questions about class is the book’s commentary on gender roles in the South. Scout is a young girl who as gown up with predominately male influences in her life. For this reason she can look on the women in the book with a dispassionate gaze and assess their motivations while simultaneously sharing some of their character traits.
Harper Lee identified herself with Jane Austen and, like Austen, she wanted to challenge social norms and customs. Harper Lee combines her commentary on gender, race and class with satire – those who hold an extreme view on one of these aspects will hold it on all. For example she satirizes the women of the Missionary society with Austenesque irony as Scout watches them behave in a smug, mocking manner while pretending to be moral.
- To Kill a Mockingbird Famously Comments on Racial Injustice and Prejudice in the Deep South
While the novel comments on many themes most readers will take from it that the most important theme is one of racial prejudice. It is not surprising that this pervades the book as it was written during the difficult period of the civil rights movement. Although it is set in the 1930’s it is redolent with the struggle of the 1950s.
Many commentators have complained that the treatment of the black characters in the novel is one-dimensional (Calpurnia is the contented slave; Tom Robinson had to rely on the benevolent white man to save him). The book is viewed through the lens of the experiences of the white characters and how they impact on the black people they come into contact with. For these reasons it is often said that although white readers have a positive view of the book and its commentary on racism, black readers react very differently (there is a significant use of racist epithets) and feel that it does not go far enough. Nevertheless is a book of its time, the racial slurs are in context and the book is, in many people’s minds inexorably intertwined with the civil rights movement.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is a Treatise on Courage
Throughout the book Harper Lee comments on and explores the different forms of courage that people can exhibit when called to. Scout and Jem are insulted and ostracized when their father takes on the defense of Tom Robinson. When their father is facing the lynch mob Jem refuses to listen to his father and is willing to stand up to protect him and Scout talks to the mob, at potential risk to her own life.
Atticus defines courage in the book, he stands alone to protect his town against the predations of a rabid dog. When asked to represent Tom Robinson he does not decline even though his specialty is not criminal law, even though he knows he will loose and even though he knows his family will pay the price for it.
It is not just the book’s heroes who exhibit courage. Harper Lee’s book is nuanced enough to accept that even unlikable people can be brave. Mrs. Dubose, hated by the children and a cruel racist nevertheless exhibits extraordinary courage in overcoming her morphine addiction. As Atticus says ‘courage is when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what’. A powerful lesson for all readers.