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Lessons About Race and Gender from the Characters in To Kill a Mockingbird

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By Edited Jun 22, 2015 1 2

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Part of what makes Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird such an important American classic is that it deals unflinchingly with the theme of social convention – which packs an extra punch as seen through the eyes of an unconventional young girl. One of Scout's major epiphanies is discovering that her housekeeper, Calpurnia, not only has a life beyond simply raising Scout and her brother, but also switches into the African-American lingo of her peers whenever she's in their company. This strikes Scout as totally disingenuous, but when she asks Calpurnia why she talks in a way that she knows is "not right," Calpurnia explains that her friends and family would think she were "puttin' on airs" if they knew she spoke like a white person.

The fact that Calpurnia leads "a modest double life" not only hints at the total unacceptability of social blending between the white and black communities in Maycomb, but also serves to contrast against Atticus's absolute constancy; he has the rare quality of behaving exactly the same way around everyone he meets regardless of race or social status – or even age. (Seriously, how many adults resisted the urge to raise their voice an octave to you when you were a kid?) This discrepancy begs the question as to why Calpurnia is expected to conform to her racial environment while Atticus has the freedom to behave as he pleases – and even though race would seem to be the obvious x-factor, the answer isn't actually that simple.

Take Scout Finch, for example. Although she is astonished by the existence of Calpurnia's linguistic alter-ego, she forgets that she herself performs a very similar act at school; since her English teacher worries that any outside studies will interfere with the learning process, Scout has to pretend that Atticus doesn't teach her at home (and that it hasn't helped her read or write at an advanced level, by the way). And then there's the transformation that happens every time Scout's prim and prissy aunt comes to visit, and Scout suddenly trades in her fistfights and overalls for teacakes and pink cotton. If being white isn't what gives people in To Kill a Mockingbird the liberty to be themselves, perhaps it's being male that does the trick?

Once again, no. Just consider the Tom Robinson trial: although it's obvious that Tom will be condemned to death regardless of his testimony or Atticus's defense, one of the major mistakes he makes on the stand is admitting that he feels "sorry" for Mayella Ewell, the woman he is accused of raping. In forgetting that a black man should under no circumstances act superior to a white woman in 1930's Alabama, Tom drops a lot of jaws in the courthouse, helping the jury justify the fact that they reached a guilty verdict long before Tom ever opened his mouth.

Looking at these and other To Kill a Mockingbird characters suggests that the magic combination in Maycomb doesn't have to do with race or gender alone; Atticus has the luxury of being himself in every situation because he happens to be both white AND male at the same time. But don't let this convince you that his principles are any less praiseworthy; after all, among the many other white males in the story, Atticus still stands alone.


Feb 25, 2010 1:25pm
Nice article about a fantastic book (and movie)!
Sep 28, 2010 8:21pm
This is definitely one of the best articles to be written for IB...It is informative, and well written...keep it up!
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