In the middle of this century, the South was sharply divided along racial lines. Class distinctions and prejudices left over from the era of slavery caused racial tension as blacks fought for equal rights. Violations of this class system were the basis for Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It follows the conviction of an apparently innocent black man sentenced almost entirely due to his race. The old ways of the south hindered justice for the underclass. The novel was Lee’s hopeful vision for change in the traditionally racially divided South.
The actions of Atticus present this idea into the microcosm that Lee created of the South. After the South lost the Civil War, the institution of slavery was brought down. The Southern slave owners reluctantly emancipated their slaves. The feeling that blacks were inferior remained, causing widespread prejudice against the race. This developed into a caste system (Erisman 2). For example, the black church in Maycomb, which was a place of worship on Sunday, was described as being a gambling house for white men on weekdays (Lee 98). Class distinctions within the white class were also demonstrated.
Atticus Finch represented the middle class, while the lower class was portrayed by Bob Ewell (Mersand n. pag. ). In Maycomb, these varying classes represented the different classes in the entire South. In this way, the author created a cross-section of Southern society, and Maycomb was a microcosm of this society. This is not done simply by representing different classes and races, but also by representing different ages, genders, and lifestyles. One of the most important examples of representing different ages is with Atticus and his children.
Part of the story focuses on his mature and truthful view of society. Another part focuses on his children, and their perceptions of the events in Maycomb. Another way that Maycomb is like a microcosm of the south is that its history was described as being similar to that of the South’s. Also, the story’s emphasis on old beliefs persisted in the fact that Maycomb was described as having a history that changed little throughout history (Erisman 2). The old traditions and ways of thinking were still prevalent in Maycomb. The unwritten laws of race relations prevailed in the town.
For example, when Calpurnia, the black housekeeper, takes Jem and Scout to her church, the black members of the congregation take their hats off to them in respect. Even Atticus, the character intended to have exceptional principle and morals, reflects the influences of being raised in the midst of Southern traditions. When Calpurnia rides with him to tell of Tom Robinson’s death, she rides in the back seat (Erisman 2). Few whites in Maycomb were actually willing to suffer the shame and discrimination by other whites brought by treating a black as an equal.
Atticus was the bravest in this respect for defending Tom Robinson, the black accused of raping the white girl, Mayella Ewell. Much of the white community turns against him, and even taking out their rage on his children. Despite this, he does not compromise his morals or allow his children to do so. Novels serving as a form of protest seldom impacted society until they were accepted widely throughout white society. Many works of protest for racial equality written by blacks were not widely accepted until very recently, as they were thought to be merely the ravings of an angry negro.
The widespread acclaim for Lee’s novel can be attributed to her ability to seamlessly combine morality and art into an aesthetic work of art (Dave 8). Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird is effective at making people more aware of injustices in our society. In Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee’s hometown and basis for Maycomb, many residents attribute great improvements in race relations to the novel (Mayfield 4A). Like other writers, Lee was aware of Southern romanticism, as shown in chapter eleven of the novel.
However, unlike other writers who also wrote about it, her view on Southern romanticism is more hopeful. Her novel is making the suggestion that the south can progress from its traditional ways to more practical principles such as that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Furthermore, she indicates that further maturation of the movement can allow the south to achieve true regionalism (Erisman 1). Despite her dark implications of the downfall of morality and justice to traditional ways, Lee brings a hopeful light to her vision through characters like Atticus Finch and Judge Taylor (Dave 2).
Constantly there is the bleak observation of racial division, especially between blacks and whites and among the middle and upper white classes. Still, the idea that the south can progress through Emersonian Romanticism and morality exists, and that it can bring freedom and equality to each individual (Erisman 2). Amidst a bleak society that holds onto its traditional prejudicial ways, Lee uses Atticus, the protagonist, to present her hope for change. This is clearly observed by the reader, as Atticus is developed as a character that is atypical of his white peers.
His uniqueness is established not only by mentioning that he is not a native of Maycomb, but also by giving him Emersonian qualities. He has no hostility towards traditional ways of thinking, as he understands the difficulties of all classes of southern society (Erisman 5). It would be easy for him to simply agree with all the traditional principles and go along with the majority, but he maintains an independent view, seeing a diverse society that can be united by a set of higher laws.
Atticus is one of only a few characters that can see through the cloud of prejudice to that of an equal, diverse society (Erisman 4). The fact that Lee made such a quiet and introspective person a main character is unique among authors (Going 1). Lee uses Atticus and his relationship with his children to integrate the struggle of growing up and the law (Going 2). This relationship is unique because Atticus must fulfill the roles of both mother and father, forcing him to be strong, yet gentle, raising his children according to his principles (Dave 5). His teachings to his children came back to reward him.
For example, he explains to his daughter, Scout, how the Cunningham family is poor, but proud enough that they do not accept charity. This stimulates enough questions in her young mind that when she is at the jail when the Cunningham lynch mob arrives she effectively saves Tom Robinson’s life by unnerving the mob with innocent questions about Walter Cunningham (Lee 130). Ultimately Atticus serves as the atypical but model southerner in To Kill a Mockingbird. He openly defies traditional thinking even while under scrutiny of the entire town, particularly in his final courtroom speech (Lee 201).
While his children are the only ones who truly understand him, nearly everyone in the town has a basic trust in Atticus that he will do what is right, despite the fact that they despise his independent thinking (Dave 5). Traditions are a powerful force, and breaking them can anger and unnerve people to the core of their souls. The gradual decline of racial prejudice has caused much unnerving among white society in the South, because it involves breaking the unwritten but traditional laws of southern society.
Lee’s novel illustrates the fact that one can stand up for what he believes is fair for all and still keep his dignity, as shown with Atticus. While deviating from the majority, he still relates to and is tolerant of all levels of society in Maycomb. A vision of hope is created, because Lee’s town of Maycomb successfully forms a cross-section of the entire south. This makes it seem that the entire southern society can fully progress towards a free and just society, which was what Maycomb was on its way to achieving, through the actions of people like Atticus Finch.