Q: Analyse how one or more important events influenced a change in a character
Thesis Statement: Harper Lee uses important events in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to show how they influenced a change in Jem.
Harper Lee grew up in Alabama in the 1930s and observed the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s-1960s. In her masterpiece, Harper Lee shows the extremes of institutionalised racism and human degradation in Alabama through her novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the novel, Lee shows that the encounters with Mrs Dubose (cranky old lady), the courtroom verdict, and the attacking of the Finch children (Jem and Scout) influences a change in Jem as it awakens him to the dark reality of Maycomb’s society.
Preamble: The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was significant and led to change in American society. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and others were all a part of the public landscape as they fought for racial equality. Lee’s audience would have been aware of these events as the real-life parallels in their own society. 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, 60 years later, despite improvements, America still suffers from some racial inequality.
I believe that in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Harper Lee intentionally makes Mrs Dubose the person she is to add to the nature of American society and blame the extensive discrimination during that time. This shows that she did influence a change in Jem as he is introduced to the meaning of prejudice. As he journeys from childhood to adulthood, Lee perfectly portrays this sad reality through a variety of language features. A clear example of this is when Mrs. Dubose uses Jem and Scout to pull away from her morphine addiction and Atticus explains to the kids why Mrs. Dubose was the bravest person he’d ever known. When considering statements such as “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." You learn the importance of Mrs. Dubose and just how courageous she really is. Not only that, you realise that Mrs Dubose did what she thought was right, even though it felt impossible. This is where you can contrast her to Atticus as they both have the same quality. Lee uses symbolism as a technique for Mrs Dubose as she illustrates the courage and perseverance of a woman while knowing that she will die soon and trying her best to die free of her addiction. This effect of symbolism is to make the reader contemplate their actions. So what? Why does this point matter? This linked back to the purpose that Harper Lee had in mind for her audience - to incite people to reflect on their actions and make a change. Lee wrote this during the time of the Civil Rights Movement because she wanted the people of America to look at what was happening at that time and reflect on their current situation.
Harper Lee is trying to convey the message that the injustice actions that occurred during the courtroom verdict hit Jem heavily and was probably the most important event in the novel that made him change immensely. This can be shown through the reaction of Jem before and after the verdict. When the author writes “…we’ve won, Scout!” we see that he is still innocent. But as the verdict came in - “his shoulders jerked as if each ‘guilty’ was a separate stab between them…” Jem is rocked by the reality of Maycomb’s racism (the journey to adulthood) and learns that good doesn’t always overcome evil. The guilty verdict contrasts with the real-life D.Scottsboro 9 event that happened in 1931. Nine coloured men were accused of raping two white women in Alabama. Just like Tom Robinson, they were convicted guilty by an all-white jury, despite the evidence that they were innocent (one woman took back her statement and no evidence medically of rape just like how one of the Cunninghams who were in the jury thought Tom to be innocent but caved in the end). This is a significant (small) step as attitudes are slowly changing in the novel, not just for Jem but for people around Maycomb. The difference between Tom and Scottsboro 9 is that the jury takes several hours to make a decision. Lee does this to show that she thinks there’s hope in overcoming racism. You can also clearly see a change in Jem as Miss Maudie says to Jem; “There are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us…Your father’s one of them”. Based on the evidence, it appears that Jem has obviously been disillusioned by the verdict. He thinks badly of everyone in Maycomb now which is still clear evidence that he is changing but is still far from adulthood. This is how the courtroom verdict has influenced Jem.
The attacking of the Finch kids (Jem and Scout) impacts Jem to change as he (and also Scout) becomes aware of how outrageous someone can be just to save their position. A clear example of this is when Boo saves them from Ewell and Jem ends up walking Boo home even though Jem hasn’t thought of him as a righteous man all these years. This is where you can also see a change in his attitude towards Boo and his journey into adulthood. In chapter 23, Jem says “Boo Radley stays inside to avoid the prejudice and hatred in Maycomb.” It is clear from the quote above that Jem has come to understand Boo Radley which is symbolic of his journey to adulthood. Harper Lee uses Boo Radley as a metaphor in this novel. Boo Radley is a metaphor for the fear of everyone in Maycomb. This is because they’re afraid that if they obey the rules to socialize more that they’ll end up just like Boo Radley - lonely and away from society. This is meaningful as it links back to what the message was from Mrs Dubose. That people aren’t always what they appear to be.
In conclusion, the encounter with Mrs Dubose, the guilty verdict, and the attacking of the Finch kids were the most important events that influenced Jem to change. As Jem begins his journey to adulthood, he is exposed to the dark reality of Maycomb’s racism. This teaches him about the influences of respect, humbleness, and courage just by watching their father do good deeds.