Justice and its relationship with prejudice is the central theme of the timeless 1960 novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Its focal point is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African-American erroneously charged with the rape of a white girl, Mayella Ewell. Racial prejudice is, of course, thoroughly explored in the novel. However, what originally transpires as discrimination develops into an inferno of injustice, particularly in the debasement and death of an innocent Samaritan, the impoverishment of his family and the humiliation of his race.
The story is narrated by the protagonist, Scout, as an adult woman nostalgically recalling her early childhood over a two-year period. It is presented with the naivete and youth which characterise the observations of an innocent. Because Scout does not perceive or understand the full implications of what she sees and hears, Lee is able contrast the consistency, justice and honesty of children and the double standards, prejudice and sordid adult values inherent in her revelations and mature characters. The first half of the novel revolves around the Scout’s childhood in Maycomb, a fictional “tired old town” in Alabama, before the alleged rape to enlighten readers on the entire social backdrop and subconsciously groom the children for “Maycomb’s usual disease”. In the course of the novel, Lee uses the symbol of a mockingbird to articulate justice by stressing the sin of killing one, as it is utterly innocent and defenceless. Tom Robinson, convicted of crime he did not commit because of his race, and Boo Radley, imagined as a lunatic and monster by townspeople who consider him an outsider without attempting to seek the truth, are both metaphors for a slain mockingbird and for the perversion of justice. The language is appropriate for the various contexts and speakers of the book: Similes and metaphors are constantly used to creates images and emphasize major ideas, objects are personified to give a homely impression, and a range of dialects and southern colloquialisms are applied to attach authenticity and construct a social comment about a character. Notably, prejudiced and unprejudiced characters differentiate in their description of African-Americans and whether their relative poverty is a social or racial dilemma.
Lee positions the plot during the height of the Great Depression when most Southerners believed in the inferiority of African-Americans and their desire for the possessions and status of Whites, including Anglo-Saxon women. The classroom preaching of “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” was far from the practiced reality. Scout ponders the hypocrisy of Miss Gate’s revulsion of Hitler’s persecution of Jews as well as her proclamation that “Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody” and her prejudice against African-Americans. Similarly, she learns of prejudice from Dolphus Raymond, a white man who pretends to be a drunkard to furnish townspeople with an explanation for his residing with his black mistress. Meanwhile, racial segregation is implicitly applauded by most citizens, such as Scout’s Aunt Alexandra, who believes that an individual’s superficial attributes, such as race, gender and class, deposits them within a definite rung in the social hierarchy. She discourages Scout from socialising with the Cunninghams, a family of the lower class, and from visiting the African-American Calpurnia’s home.
The conduct of Maycomb’s white population towards African-Americans culminate in a society and judiciary that is openly discriminatory, making injustice inevitable. Tom Robinson is legally entitled to the benefits of a fair trial by his peers, the supposed impartiality of the jury and an assumption of innocence under the law. However, African-Americans are barred from the jury box, as are women (much to Scout’s indignation), while the incensed and racially prejudiced mob tries to prevent the court hearing itself. In the description of the courthouse, the supposed seat of blind justice, we learn African-Americans are legally required to be separated from white onlookers. The scene where four African-American men rise to give Scout and her companions their seats may appear as an act of respect for Atticus, but in truth the law demanded that the men the men to vacate their seats for any white citizen who desired them.
Scout’s father, Atticus, believes that prejudice stems from a lack of understanding of other people’s opinions which leads to fear and intolerance. The community and all-white jury continuously assume “that all blacks lie, that all blacks are basically immoral beings” and take the word of white man over a black man, despite evidence proving otherwise, so the “rigid and time-honoured code” they live by is not upset. As Reverend Sykes says, “I ain’t ever seen any jury decide in favour of a coloured man over a white man.” Yet Atticus, who represents Robinson, launches the best defense he can, believing that the slight chance of justice offered by the legal system is the light of reason compared to the anarchy of the lynch mob. His shooting of the mad dog symbolises his resolve to suppress and protect his community from misguided prejudice, even if it means deviating from the norms of his personality and beliefs. He presents the certainty of facts and reason against the hypocrisy of prejudice born out of ignorance. However, Scout reveals a profound grasp of the situation when she says that “Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed”.
It is possible to conclude from To Kill a Mockingbird that the extent of prejudice’s influence on the legal system results in injustice. Nowhere does it execute more damage than it does to Tom Robinson, a man who sets out to assist a neglected, forlorn girl but consequently ends up convicted of rape because his skin colour predetermines his guilt. However, the book also lights the path out of prejudice and injustice, which can be achieved if human beings purge themselves of hypocrisy and paranoia and separate the facts from preconceived assumptions by examining life and evidence with a child’s objectivity.