Prejudice in to Kill a Mockingbird
As a very powerful attitude that is either negative or hostile, prejudice refers to a very unfavorable feeling about a person or group simply because the person or group has membership with a particular group; prejudice is formed without any thought, reason, or knowledge to support the belief (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, & Sommers, 2016). When people are prejudiced against a particular group, they will engage in unenthusiastic and adverse behaviors toward anyone who is a member of the group against whom they are prejudiced. They unfairly lump all people of that group together and hold a single impression of all members of the group. Because people are members of the group against whom they are prejudiced, they assign negative qualities to all people who are a part of the group (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, & Sommers, 2016).
To Kill A Mockingbird (Kershaw 2003) is filled with characters who do not share Atticus Finch’s philosophy of fairly treating other people; he believes that everyone deserves to be treated as an individual, and that treatment includes showing respect to all people. However, many of the other characters in the movie do not share Atticus’s viewpoint and belief. In fact, several other characters have opinions and actions that are in stark contrast to Atticus’s. For example, some of the characters treat others quiet differently when it comes to race, religion, and social class; however, racism is the most evident for of racism practiced throughout the movie. Despite these differences with Atticus, these characters share something in common with one another; instead of treating people as individuals, they treat people as groups. They refuse to show respect to individuals, and they expect people to change their ways and conform to their ways. Clearly, these actions indicated that they are displaying characteristic of prejudice. Throughout the movie, prejudice is revealed by multiple characters as they display their closed-minded actions.
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As the movie opens, viewers see the first evidence of prejudice when Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, share the story of her first relative that had come to America; Simon Finch left England after being persecuted because of his religious beliefs. As a victim of prejudice because of his religious persecution, Simon Finch does not totally reject discrimination; in fact, once he arrived in America, he purchased slaves to work on his plantation so he could become rich.
One day, Jem, Scout’s older brother and Atticus’s son, invites Walter, one of Scout’s classmates to lunch. As they eat lunch, Atticus, Scout’s father, talks to Walter about his family and their farm. Walter explains that he is having trouble keeping up in school even though he is only in first grade; he blames his scholastic problems on the fact that he has to help work the fields on the farm with his dad. This portion of the movie illustrates Scout’s prejudice; she mistakenly believes that all poor people are dumb, but she is proven to be wrong. Instead, the movie explains that poor people lack resources, but they are not all dumb. While they are still at the table, Scout acts annoyed as Walter decides that he wants molasses all over his food.
Not shy, Scout expresses her disgust with Walter’s actions. Then, Calpurnia takes Scout away from the table; once they are away from the table, Calpurnia admonishes Scout by telling her that she should never be so haughty in commenting on other people’s habits. This scene serves as another example of Scout’s rush to judgement when somebody does something differently than she does. Calpurnia attempts to teach Scout an important lesson when she acknowledges that Walter is different, but he still deserves respect; likewise, she is trying to instill the idea that people can be different, but Scout still needs to treat them respectfully.
Miss Maudie, a neighbor of the Finch’s, encourages the children to start questioning prejudice instead of just simply allowing such behavior; she tries to teach them that all people should be treated with care and respect. She tries to help Scout understand Boo Radley’s behaviors and reasons for not leaving the house by blaming them on a father who was prejudiced. A day after Miss Maudie tries to help Scout understand more about Boo, she, Jem, and their friend Dill attempt to send a note to Boo through the window of his house. Their actions do not go unnoticed; when Atticus realizes what they are doing, he scolds them and warns them to leave Boo alone. He acknowledges that he may seem peculiar to them, but they still should not bother him.
At school, Scout hears other kids talking about her dad. Once home, she asks her dad why the kids are saying what they are saying. Atticus tells Scout that in his job as a lawyer, he is the defense attorney for Tom Robinson, a black gentleman. While Atticus tells Scout that he knows that he will not win the case, he explains that he feels an ethical obligation to represent the man. Atticus warns Scout that there will be people who say mean and nasty things because he is representing Mr. Robinson; he even tells Scout that some of the family’s friends could engage in these nasty behaviors. Despite whatever happens and whatever people say, Atticus tells Scout that she was not to engage in fights, and he also told that she should stand tall and hold her head high. Scout actually took her dad’s advice; in fact, it was the only that Scout had ever avoided an opportunity to fight. Throughout this ordeal, Jem and Scout started to realize that people in Maycomb were prejudice. Atticus used the opportunity to teach his kids about courage and tolerance. Despite what people said, Atticus continued his fight for what he believed was just and right.
The Finch family had a Christmas tradition; all members of the family would meet at Finch’s Landing for their holiday celebration. While spending time with the family, Francis, Aunt Alexandra’s grandson, makes a derogatory remark to Atticus. Scout does not skip this fight; instead, she engages and punches Francis. Instead of admitting what he did to initiate the fight, Francis claims that Scout cursed at him and hit him without provocation; as a result, Uncle Jack decides to punish Scout by spanking her. This incident shows the widespread prevalence against blacks in Maycomb; in fact, the prejudice is so fierce that not even Atticus’s only family supports him and his defense of Mr. Robinson.
As the trial gets closer, Atticus warns Scout and Jem that it is going to be very difficult for them. As he offers an explanation, he tries to help them comprehend how people react when something involves a black person in Maycomb. He tells them that even reasonable people do not act appropriately. With a full grasp of the ways in which prejudice can impact people, Atticus makes a very concerted effort to educate his children and prepare them for the harsh realities that will accompany life during the trial.
Jem and Scout suffer harassment every time they pass Mrs. Dubose’s house. One of their neighbors, Mrs. Dubose is an old woman who is clearly a racist. Every trip past her house results in a condemnation of their father and his efforts to defend Mr. Robinson. Even though Jem is older than Scout, he finally decides that he has had enough. No longer able to take Mrs. Dubose’s harassing ways, he decides to act out; he tears flowers from her camellia bushes.
When Atticus learns what Jem did, he decides that Jem must visit with Mrs. Dubose each afternoon, and while he is there, he has to read to her; Scout accompanies Jem on his daily visits. Initially, Mrs. Dubose acts strangely and cuts the reading time short when the kids visit; however, over time, the strange acts fade, and she allows them to stay longer. It is not long after their visits to Mrs. Dubose’s house end, Mrs. Dubose suddenly passes away. Mrs. Dubose had left a single camellia flower for Jem; incidentally, it was white. Although Scout and Jem did not realize it, Mrs. Dubose had suffered from an addiction to morphine; Atticus proudly told his children that their reading visits had assisted Mrs. Dubose in kicking her drug habit prior to her death. Despite the fact that Mrs. Dubose was unkind to Atticus as he defended Mr. Robinson, Atticus was not swayed by that. In fact, she went so far as to ridicule Atticus; nonetheless, he still respected Mrs. Dubose and called her the most courageous person he had ever met.
As Atticus told his children, she knew that she was beaten, but she still found it within herself to fight no matter what. Atticus used Mrs. Dubose’s battle with her drug addiction to teach a very important lesson to his children; he was able to use her battle to illustrate courage and dignity. As Atticus readily admitted to his children, she was prejudiced; however, she was still courageous. He also credited her for the fight against the morphine addiction; as he explained, she knew it was a lost cause, but she still persevered and fought the good fight. It is through this lesson that Atticus hopes that Scout and Jem will come to learn that courage cannot be defined as the ability to use a gun, and it cannot simply be defined by strength. Instead, he wants them to see courage as the ability to stand up for what they see as right, and they continue to take that stand no matter what happens.
When Atticus has to be away from home, Calpurnia, the Finch’s cook, takes charge of the kids. One Sunday while she is in charge, she invites Scout and Jem to church. Calpurnia attends an all-black church, and the congregational members all joyfully welcome Scout and Jem. Well, that is all but one congregation member; Lula actually expresses anger because she does not approve of Calpurnia brining the Finch children to their all-black church because they are white. Lula’s anger is just another instance of prejudice in Maycomb. This instance of prejudice is used to show that all forms of prejudice are bad. Lula does not appreciate how blacks are treated throughout Maycomb; as a result, she does not trust white people. Believing that the all-black church was a safe place for blacks, she did not like the idea of white people entering the church. In her mind, she sees that all of the power in Maycomb rests with the white people. She recognizes that white people are powerful and black people are powerless.
As the church service continues, the congregation takes up a collection for Mr. Robinson’s wife, Helen Robinson. Suddenly, it dawns on Scout that Mr. Robinson is the gentleman that her father is defending. With that realization, she turns to Calpurnia and questions what Mr. Robinson had done. Calpurnia explains that Bob Ewell accused Mr. Robinson of raping Mayella, his daughter. Although she does not understand the meaning of rape, Scout is in disbelief when she hears that people would trust any members of the Ewell family. As the head of the indigent Ewell family, Mr. Ewell is a malicious man; he also does not provide the care his children deserve. For example, he let his children go without food to purchase alcohol for him to drink. Despite the racism in Maycomb, Scout has not let it impact the way in which she views the world because she is a child and the daughter of Atticus Finch who has fought so hard to ensure that his children always treat everyone with dignity and respect. When she reveals her astonishment that anyone would believe Bob Ewell, she indicts people in Maycomb for believing Mr. Ewell purely because he is white.
When the Finch kids get home church, they are greeted by Aunt Alexandra; she is going to be living with them so that Scout will have a female perspective in the household. In moving into the house, Aunt Alexandra is displaying a form of prejudice; since she is worried that Scout is not feminine enough, she engages in gender prejudice.
Once she moves in with Atticus and the children, Aunt Alexandra begins socializing in Maycomb; she enjoys the social status that the Finch family has developed over the years. Scout recognizes that Aunt Alexandra has a different belief when it comes to people. While Scout has always thought that good people are the people who use what they have bene given and make the best of it, Aunt Alexandra, on the other hand, believes that family’s with a rich and old family history are superior. While staying with them, Aunt Alexandra pushes Atticus to start teaching the children about the Finch family history. When Scout sees Atticus making this odd change, she cries. When Atticus sees that it moves Scout to tears, he readily gives up. Despite putting forth her best analytical effort to understand Aunt Alexandra’s thinking, Scout just cannot understand the importance of social class. Again, this is just another one of the many example of prejudice portrayed in the movie.
One day during the summer, Scout hears someone use the word rape. When she hears the word again, she wants to understand what it means; thus, she asks Atticus to explain it to her. As he always has been, Atticus remains true to his belief system, and he honestly addresses the question with Scout and explains the meaning of the word. In asking the question, the story about the visit to Calpurnia’s church comes up; as one might expect, Aunt Alexandra was appalled that the children went to an all-black church. It leads to an argument between Aunt Alexandra and Atticus; Aunt Alexandra makes a case to suggest that Calpurnia’s services are no longer needed. Again, remaining true to his character, Atticus refuses to entertain the idea. Instead, he makes it clear to Aunt Alexandra that Calpurnia is not just hired help; she is actually one of the family. This display from Aunt Alexandra is just another example of her racial prejudice and social prejudice.
A group of men show up at the Finch’s home; they want to speak to Atticus. After learning that Mr. Robinson is about to be transported to the jail in Maycomb, the men want to make it clear to Atticus that this will not be received well, and it could result in trouble. As the trial date gets closer and closer, the amount of prejudice around Maycomb continues to increase, and it ultimately ends with violence.
Finally, the day of the trial arrives, and Atticus heads to the courthouse; people are everywhere. The trial has attracted the interest and attention of people from all over Maycomb. For example, a group of Baptists are at the trial, and they pass judgement against Miss Maudie because she has a garden. Much like Atticus, Miss Maudie looks at life from a moral perspective; she actually recites a Bible verse to the Baptists to illustrate that God finds her garden beautiful regardless of what they think. In condemning Miss Maudie for having a flower garden, the prejudice is beyond ludicrous.
Despite their dad’s advice not to show up at the trial, Jem and Scout make their way to the courthouse. Arriving late, they have trouble finding seats; in fact, the only remaining seats are in the balcony, and those are the seats where black people are required to sit. While the black people open their arms to welcome Scout and Jem, the white people do not welcome the black to sit with them in the balcony. Rather, there is segregation in the balcony because of the prejudices at work.
During the trial, Jem gets excited when he realizes that Atticus makes a point by getting Mr. Ewell to write his name; when he does, it reveals that he is left-handed, and a left-handed person would normally hit somebody’s face on the right side. Jem’s childhood innocence is on display when he thinks that evidence alone will be able to acquit Mr. Robinson. Through his childhood innocence, Jem condemns Maycomb’s rampant racism.
When Mayella, the alleged victim, takes the stand, Atticus has her to identify Mr. Robinson. When she does, it becomes obvious that the accused has no use of his left arm; therefore, how would he have ever had the capability to beat and to rape Mayella? Using his best legal skills, Atticus asks Mayella a very direct and pointed question. He asks if it was, in fact, Mr. Bob Ewell who beat her? Suddenly, she was no longer so confident; now, she sat on the witness stand refusing to provide Atticus with a response. With clear-cut evidence now presented, the outcome should be clear. Mr. Robinson does not have the physical ability to batter the left side of anyone’s face. It becomes blatantly clear that there is one and only one explanation if the jury decides to find Mr. Robinson guilty and convict him. Whether it is an unconscious decision or a conscious decision, racism would be the only way that the jury could return a guilty verdict.
As the trial testimony comes to an end, Atticus prepares to deliver his closing remarks to the jury. He stresses the lack of evidence on the prosecution’s side. Atticus reminds the jury that a courtroom is one place in America—and perhaps the only place in Maycomb—where all men are equal. Then, he looks at the jury and asks them to their responsibility. Despite all of his personal beliefs and attempts to treat everyone with dignity and fairness, Atticus admits that courtrooms provide the only place to truly combat the problem of prejudice. After deliberations, the jury returned, but they would not look at Mr. Robinson. Even Scout knew what this meant—guilty, and it was. Despite his best efforts, Atticus watched as evil triumphed over good. Evidence took a back seat, and racism won that day in the Maycomb courthouse.
- Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M., & Sommers, S. R. (2016). Social psychology. Boston: Pearson.
- Kershaw, A. (2003). To kill a mockingbird. Princeton, New Jersey.: Films for the Humanities & Sciences.