Question - Analyse how the experiences of a character were used to comment on Society.
The characters that authors each create and the things that they experience are often, if not always, designed specifically to comment on the societies of their time. This comment typically contains something that each of their readers can take into account and learn from. In the case of her masterpiece, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee uses the young character of Jeremy Finch (a young boy who is 9-12) to comment on the injustice of society. She uses Jem’s young age as a way of showing the journey from childhood to adulthood, and how what he experiences change his views on society. Lee does this though; Jem’s experience with making Boo Radley come out (the Finches reclusive neighbour), reading to Mrs Dubose (an elderly lady dying of cancer and a morphine addiction) and the trial and guilty verdict of Tom Robinson (a black man falsely accused of rape).
The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was significant and lead to significant changes in American society. People such as Martian Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and others were all a key part of the public landscape in the fight for racial equality. Lee’s audience would have been aware of these events as they read her novel, and would have seen the real-life parallels in the societies that they live in. In this way, Lee contributed to the Civil Rights Movement by highlighting important issues in a manner that was easy to understand and emphasised the possibility for positive change and racial harmony. Unfortunately, 70 years after the Civil Rights Movement, despite small improvements, America still suffers racial inequality.
At the beginning of the novel, Jem Finch is filled with the innocence that often accompanies the simplicities of childhood. It is clear to see that he has not yet been corrupted by the harsh realities of the society that he lives in. Harper Lee highlights this innocence through the actions of Jem, Scout (Jem’s younger sister, age 6-9) and Dill (friend of Finches, age 6-9). They try unsuccessfully to make their reclusive neighbour, Arthur (Boo) Radley, come out of his house. One of these attempts includes them trying to put a note through an open window with a fishing pole. When Atticus Finch (the children’s father), learns of this he tells Jem this, ‘What Mr Radely did might seem peculiar to us, but it did not seem peculiar to him’. The use of the adjective peculiar in this statement highlights that Boo Radley is very different to typical social norms. This experience with Boo Radley is important as it teaches Jem that there are all kinds of different people in the world, people do not necessarily fit in one box, with one label. Harper Lee uses this experience of Jem to make this comment on society. Society is full of different people that might be described as being ‘peculiar’, in this way there is not necessarily a normal person. Lee makes a point of this to reflect that her audience is to learn to keep their judgements to themselves and accept all people around them regardless of what they look like or who they are.
Another experience that was used to make a point on society was that of Jem’s experience with reading to Mrs Dubose. Mrs Dubose is an elderly lady who is dying of cancer, yet chooses to die without morphine, a highly addictive pain relief drug. Through his experience of reading to Mrs Dubose, Jem learns a couple of things, the first is this; Jem sees what real courage is. Up until this point Jem had been living with the illusion, as most young children do, that courage comes with violence - guns and fighting. It is through Mrs Dubose that he learns that courage can come in many different forms, with Atticus saying this after Jem questions why he must see 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’. Metaphorically likening courage to violence and then dismantling the common misconception like this is important as society often teaches, mistakenly or otherwise, that the only way to show courage is by stepping into a fight, into battle. This idea is not entirely wrong, but it only offers a small portion of what courage truly is to people within society. Courage can be saying no, courage can be saying yes. Courage can be all sorts of different things that are not necessarily associated with violent behaviours. This is the point that Harper Lee is trying to make here. She uses the character of Jem and his experience with Mrs Dubose to educate her readers on the reality of courage. That it isn’t just a violent and destructive idea, it can be diverse, it can be peaceful and it can often go unseen. She invites her audience to show courage in their ways, and take a step forward to make a change within society.
The second thing that is important to take into consideration during Jem’s experience with Mrs Dubose is this; people can have different opinions, yet that doesn’t make them any less of a person. Mrs Dubose was terrible to the children, she used to insult them and shout at them yet Atticus continued to make them go. This showed them that people can have different opinions, views and thoughts, they can even have bad qualities about them, but that doesn’t make them any less of a person. ‘She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe’, Atticus says this to highlight to Jem that Mrs Dubose was a lady despite all the awful things that she had said. Lee uses Jem’s experience with Mrs Dubose comment on how within society people are flawed, sometimes deeply, but they are never irredeemable. People can change, they can choose to do good and people can have good qualities as well as bad qualities, that is the nature of humankind.
Jem’s experience with Tom Robinson’s (a black man falsely accused of rape) trial is also largely important to how Lee comments on society throughout the novel. It is through this experience Lee comments on the injustice found within society for no good reason. At the end of the trial, Jem is convinced that Atticus has won the case, ‘we’ve won it, don’t see how any jury could convict on what we’ve heard’. This indicates Jem’s clear innocence towards the matter. Jem does not see Tom as a black man, nor does he see the jury as a group of white men. He is not capable of understanding the disparity caused by deep-rooted racism in Maycomb. He simply sees the case for what it is, a man who has been wrongly accused of rape. Lee does this to highlight that prejudice is for nothing, it only harms people. Jem has not yet had the chance to be properly impacted by the views of Maycomb, his views are still that of a child who sees the world as being pure. It is this view of simply seeing people for who they are rather than what they may look like or seem like that Harper Lee is trying to emphasise here.
The final guilty verdict of Tom is the defining experience in the novel for Jem. It is during this experience where he realises the reality of just how deeply the roots of discriminatory attitudes run in his seemingly perfect society. ‘Guilty… guilty… guilty… guilty… I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each guilty was a separate stab between them’ This idea of metaphorically simulating a knife stabbing into Jem with each of the guilty expressions is a rather powerful, emotive line. It highlights the stripping of Jem’s innocence as he is forced to come to terms with the fact that people can be cruel, that they can deny the truth for the sake of their prejudices. Harper Lee uses this pivotal experience in Jem’s life to comment how the choices people make and the actions they choose have a major impact on the younger members of society. Tom was innocent. That was clear to see throughout the trial, yet he was still convicted as guilty. This was simply because of a prejudice that has been held on for far longer than need be. In this way, Lee incites her readers to take a look at themselves. To reevaluate their attitudes and how they might treat people in their society. Lee encourages people to change through gentle persuasion and education.
Overall, it is clear to see that the experiences of such a young character were used profoundly by Harper Lee to comment on society. The messages that are shown throughout the novel are some that will always be relevant and can apply to most of daily life. It is time that people take note of this and make some changes to make the world a better place.