In this To Kill a Mockingbird essay example, the exploration of race and family will play a role in how the characters are experienced by the reader. A look at setting, an emphasis on characters like Aunt Alexandra, will help provide the kind of context needed to explore the topic further. The topic of family is an interesting area to cover because it is a personal and private attempt of the writer to showcase feelings that he or she may not otherwise show in their own lives. Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird offer a glimpse into ideals or struggles of family for the author.
Race Relations in To Kill a Mockingbird
A Look at Jim Crow Laws in To Kill a Mockingbird
Calpurnia and Tim Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird and Their Portrayal of the Black Community
Selected Title: The Role of Family in To Kill a Mockingbird
Jim Crow Laws
Good and Evil
1. The Great Depression
4. Good and Evil
5. Aunt Alexandra
Family plays an important role in the story of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Whether it is the absence of family or the bonds of family, characters tend to develop from the feelings that come from family. At a time when people experienced economic hardship and racial tension, a man by the name of Atticus Finch, tries to stand up for what he believes is right.
Atticus is the lawyer of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman; and family is what keeps Atticus together during and after the aftermath of the false rape accusation.
This essay will show how the relationships between Atticus, Jem, and Scout Finch help shape the plot as well as demonstrate the resiliency of people during times of racism, economic hardship, and struggles with morality; Aunt Alexandra, the sister of Atticus Finch, will serve as the anchor for the concept of family in the novel.
The Great Depression
To Kill a Mockingbird takes places during the Great Depression from 1933 to 1935. The setting, a fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama demonstrates the effects of the Great Depression and how it affected the hardest hit among Americans, farmers. It all begins with the narrator and protagonist, Jean Louise Finch, also known as Scout. She is a six-year old girl who lives with Jeremy (Jem) her older brother, and their father Atticus. Atticus is a widowed, middle-aged lawyer who raises Jem and Scout thanks to the help of a colored maid by the name of Calpurnia. Although the family experiences difficulties growing up during a rough economic time, they manage to pull together and survive it, while letting readers get a glimpse of rural life and poverty.
A key example of poverty during the Great Depression shown in Maycomb is Atticus’ client. The poor farmer has no money to afford Atticus’ legal services and so offers him payment in the form of crops. In the first chapter, Mr. Cunningham leaves a bag of hickory nuts on the porch of the Finch property when Scout discovers him and calls him out. “Later, a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps. With Christmas came a crate of smilax and holly. That spring when we found a croker-sack full of turnip greens, Atticus said Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him.” (Lee 32)
Scout and Jem do not understand why the farmer leaves food at their property and ask if they are poor. Atticus responds with an explanation as to why Mr. Cunningham keeps leaving food at their house and this opens the reader to the realization that the characters are living during a tough economic time. “The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest. Atticus said professional people were poor because the farmers were poor.” (Lee 32) The Great Depression led to many families having little to no money to feed their families or pay for services like lawyers and so forth. Lee did a great job of using Mr. Cunningham as a way to introduce poverty in the story, and the struggle she herself experienced during that time.
Another important example of poverty in the story is the characters of Bob Ewell and Mayella Ewell. Bob Ewell serves as the story’s main antagonist. He is the town drunk and spends whatever money he gets from the government in alcohol. He is the reason for Mayella’s false rape accusation against Tom Robinson. Because of the lack of contact and beauty Mayella has in her life, she decides to flirt with Tom to the rage of Bob.
When the trial commences, it is her testimony that allows for the all-white jury to condemn Robinson even with all the mounting evidence in his favor. It is here one sees the bond of family experienced by the Ewells and carried over to the Finch family. Because so many lived through economic hardship during this era, many carried their anger and rage with them, expressing it in ways that would hurt themselves or others. Bob expressed it in his drinking and Mayella in her support of her father’s false claims.
The Great Depression brought out the worse in the Ewell family. Their impoverished state leads them to make bad choices that eventually contributes to the death of Tom. However, not all families behave like the Ewells. The Finch family rise to the occasion and provide readers with a tale of morality that gives humanity hope of doing the right thing even under incredible odds. Such odds existed at that time due to the racial tension experienced in many parts of the United States, especially in the state of Alabama.
Race played a key role in the events of To Kill a Mockingbird. Many whites that suffered during this time saw an escape goat in black people. Someone like Bob Ewell who drinks and tries to escape his existence through addiction sees a black man like Tom and decides to accuse him in the hopes of landing him in jail. Thanks to Jim Crow laws and the continued separation of blacks and whites, his accusation holds in court even with faulty evidence.
Jim Crow laws existed in the United States decades before the Great Depression. However, it was during the Great Depression that Jim Crow laws extended its reach into promoting inequality throughout the government.
Jim Crow senators and representatives ensured that racial restrictions and inequalities limited ever important government program established during the Great Depression, from the New Deal job programs to Social Security to the minimum wage legislation of 1938. Social security excluded coverage for every category of employment in which African Americans made up a significant part of the U.S. workforce. (Tischauser 84-85)
Jim Crow laws gained ground during this time and many lynchings took place harking back to the ‘red summer’ of 1919. “Into the early twentieth century, lynchings continued to average two to three a week with marked increases during the “Red Summer” race riots of 1919 and during the Great Depression.” (Kirchmeier 127)
Race played such a pivotal part in the novel that even with the evidence of Tom Robinson having a mangled left arm and thus being unable to harm Mayella, the all-white jury chooses in favor of convicting him. The later shooting of Tom as he tries to escape from jail provides further proof of the level of racially based hatred in society at the time. It was only through love and family that the main characters of To Kill a Mockingbird managed to deal with such tragedy. Family provided a source of strength and stability that someone like Atticus Finch needed to continue forward.
Atticus Finch is a moral and upright man. He takes crops as payment for work he did for Mr. Cunningham. He takes up Tom’s case when Tom is falsely accused by Bob. He even shows appreciation for Calpurnia because she takes care of his children. All of this allows readers to see the kind of man he is and what values he strives to maintain.
These values have been passed down to his children, Jem and Scout. Scout in particular does not like seeing the racial inequalities throughout the novel. For example, during the trial, the children have to sit in the colored balcony in the courtroom. They see firsthand how their father tries in vain to convince the jury of Tom’s innocence. It is thanks to Atticus’ determination that his children witness what it is like to fight for the right thing and see someone try to obtain justice for someone.
The novel acts as a study for how Scout and Jem start to understand and perceive the complexity that is inherent in social codes and how such a configuration of relationships sets off or dictates these codes. “In the aftermath of the court case, which is a moral victory and legal defeat for their father, Jem and Scout discuss the heart of the matter, the postlapsarian fragmentation of the human community.” (Bloom 42) Neither Jem or Scout account for what the observe, society’s division of human families into hostile camps. Such isolating distinctions lead to differing opinions amongst the Finch children with Scout seeing her experience as a means of grasping at reality instead of the Eden that she lived before the trial. These all tie into what can be seen as a reassessment of what family is and what components of family drives people to certain conclusions.
Good and Evil
Good and evil play a role in everything as they are the two extremes of morality. Morality played an important role in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus portrays the upright liberal lawyer, defending an innocent black man. “Atticus represents morality and reason in To Kill a Mockingbird. As a character, Atticus is even-handed throughout the story. He is one of the very few characters who never has to rethink his position on an issue.” (Castleman 70) Bob Ewell portrays the evil drunk who hates his lot in life. These two converge at the trial of Tom Robinson and culminate in Bob dying after attacking the Finch children.
The Finch children, who are out in the street defenseless, are approached by Bob. Bob feels anger from the trial because Atticus ruined any credibility he had. So, he decides to go after his children and murder them. Thankfully, Arthur (Boo) Radley intervenes and saves Jem and Scout. Although no one knows what happened to Bob, in the end, everyone assumes he ‘fell on his knife’ and are happy for the outcome. The story ends with Atticus and the children safe and the evil doer Bob, dead.
This seems fitting considering the moral hang ups experienced by the Finch family. However, there is another layer of good and evil at play in the novel. That is the way the people of the town viewed blacks and the way whites treated blacks they perceived as criminals. Going back to the trial, the white jury chooses to condemn Tom even with the evidence supporting his innocence. They do this because of the racial hatred and beliefs many of these whites shared at the time.
That is what Lee wanted to emphasize in her novel. That people will think and act in a way that they believe is right. Atticus upheld his moral beliefs because he did not believe in innocent people suffering. Bob and the jury in the court room did not care about innocent suffering and instead saw the black person as being evil and corrupt regardless of logic or reason. During this time, many black men died because of the hatred whites had for blacks. Blacks were seen as the enemy and people that were less than.
It is an unfortunate part of American history, but it is one that Harper Lee wanted to include and emphasize in her story. People do lose when it comes to the law. The law is not there to protect everyone and to see justice be served. The American government has chosen to be act cruelly towards people of color for centuries, allowing slavery, institutionalized racism, and segregation. By Harper Lee demonstrating the ill effects of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, she showed that good does not always win and no matter how much proof exists of one’s innocence, justice may still not be served.
Aside from the problems of Atticus at trying to sway a corrupt jury, the novel does prevail in reminding readers that good does exist in society. Families work hard to keep their moral foundation strong and the Finch family is an excellent example of that. Lee wants readers to know that although injustices occur, and evil is everywhere, there can be good in the world. That good can come from strangers, from family, or from other things. Regardless, To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent example of the complexities of morality.
Aunt Alexandra is an interesting character that pops into the story when Atticus needs her the most, during the middle. She is a replacement for the Finch family’s mother figure. Calpurnia was the mother figure, however, Aunt Alexandra’s arrival marked a change, especially for Scout. Unlike Calpurnia, who allows Scout to be a tomboy and express herself how she wants, Aunt Alexandra wants Scout to be more feminine and adhere to the expectations of society. “Aunt Alexandra’s great passions include maintaining the Finch family reputation and presiding at missionary teas where the society ladies of Maycomb fret over the native Mruna tribe and other unfortunates.” (Meyer 91) Still, as difficult the relationship between Scout and Aunt Alexandra appear to be, the appearance of Aunt Alexandra shows how much she cares for her brother Atticus, and how much she cares for her niece and nephew.
This change in emotions happens during the Ladies’ Tea. “…an understanding of the necessity for change and flexibility- occurs during the ladies’ tea. In Lee’s account, Alexandra is ‘pierced’ and even gratified when Miss Maudie Atkinson subtly but sharply defends Atticus from Mrs. Merriweather’s racial criticism.” (Meyer 91) When Aunt Alexandra sees the racism displayed and its effect on Atticus, she grieves and then acknowledges the fear felt from racism, expressing her despair of society’s need for people like Atticus to eradicate racism rather than themselves. After this event Aunt Alexandra is no longer dismissive of Scout’s style of dress and exposes a far gentler side, showing remorse for the events of the trial and the desire to help them rebound and stabilize. “Alexandra’s treatment of Scout after this realization is no longer chiding or overbearing: instead, she smiles at Scout and invites her to pass a tray of cookies to the ladies.” (Meyer 91)
Many people can relate to Aunt Alexandra. She is a newcomer to the family who wishes to instill some order. However, as time presses forward, she finds herself becoming a source of comfort in the family and someone who they can depend on even if they do not agree with some of her thoughts and beliefs. It is through her actions the reader can see the progression of the family. Before the trial the Finch family was happy and although fragmented, stable. After the trial, things became sullen. Jem states he may not want to be a lawyer thanks to the unfair treatment of Tom and his death and Scout has a realization of society. However, as Alexandra realizes the extent of what Atticus experienced doing what is right, she changes some of her attitudes and helps the Finch family get some of the ‘Eden’ aspect of their lives back again.
That is the main purpose of family. Family helps individuals get through hard times. Family helps offer stability and comfort. Without family, many have a difficult time getting by, especially during periods of suffering like the Great Depression. Lee chose to write about the Finch family because she wanted to show the dynamic of a father and his two children within the context of the south and provide readers with hope that there is goodness in people and that families can sometimes help preserve that goodness.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a work of complexity and ultimately, morality. The Finch family work hard to try to help Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Although the outcome of the all-white and male jury was a verdict of guilty, and Tom being shot in the aftermath of the trial, the story shows what the strength of family can do in two ways. The first is through the Ewell family. Their bonds helped Bob form a case against Tom and get Tom killed as a result of the false accusations supported by Mayella’s testimony.
The Finch family through the introduction of Aunt Alexandra sees support and comfort brought in during and after the Robinson trial to serve as a means of grounding for Atticus and his two children. While Calpurnia acted as the mother for Jem and Scout, Aunt Alexandra came in around the middle of the story and left her husband and the Finch family homestead to live with her brother and two children. Scout did not like her aunt as much as she would have wanted to, but having Aunt Alexandra there provided some sense of normalcy and stability that allowed Atticus, Jem, and Scout to continue after the events of the Robinson trial.
Racism was and is an ugly part of American society. The Great Depression intensified that racism because so many people were poor and destitute. Even amidst the ugliness of some people and the tragedy of lives lost, there was beauty. That beauty came in the forms of morality and family. The Finch family fought for what was right even if led to nothing in the end for Tom Robinson. That struggle, that perseverance is what makes them shine as characters in Lee’s novel.
Analyzing characters in novels can be a fun exercise in understanding the human condition. Families like those explored in this To Kill a Mockingbird essay are a great way to interpret perspective and emotions. Aunt Alexandra was a key part in deciphering the theme of family in the book as well as how race played a role in the family dynamic.
Bloom, Harold. Harper Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird. Chelsea, 2013.
Castleman, Tamara. Cliffsnotes, Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird. Hungry Minds, Inc, 2000.
Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L. Imprisoned by the Past: Warren Mccleskey and the American Death Penalty. Oxford UP, 2015.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. HarperLuxe, 2010.
Meyer, Michael J. Harper Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird: New Essays. Scarecrow Press, 2010.
Tischauser, Leslie V. Jim Crow Laws. Greenwood, 2012.lite