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Harper Lee's Kill a Mockingbird Theme

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To Kill a Mockingbird novel it describes the events that took place in a small, Southern town in Alabama through the perspective of a young girl, named Scout Finch. The award-winning novel tackles many issues that still plague society today and has been recognized for its many intertwining topics and themes, one of which being the law versus the popular sense of justice. This Kill a Mockingbird theme is particularly interesting because of the setting of the novel, and the time frame in which the storyline unfolds.

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Maycomb is a small town in Alabama during the Great Depression. The townsfolk are primarily white and Christian and they, like most towns at the time, are avid supporters of white supremacy. Racism and racial inequality run rampant through Maycomb and hate crimes are an everyday occurrence. However, the judicial system of the time does not recognize racism as a criminal offense and, more often than not, people of color tend to face the worst consequences for their criminal offenses by authorities or by the court, whose jury is almost always comprised of only white men. Maltreatment of African- Americans or colored folk, as they were called at the time, was extended beyond interpersonal racism and had seeped into the justice system, establishing the harsh reality of institutional racism remnants of which are still in place today.

Unequal treatment from the judicial system can be seen from the very beginning of the novel. In a crime that involved a member of the Radley family, a white family that lived across our main character’s house, the treatment from the justice system was much different from what it should have been. The perpetrator, Arthur Radley, had stabbed his father with a pair of scissors causing him a non-fatal injury in his leg, however, his punishment was not served as it should have been. Local authorities as well as the Radley family chose not to send him to prison so that he would not be in jail with “Negroes”. At the time this all took place, the prison was a place where most, if not exclusively, held people of color, most of whom were black. Instead, he was kept in the courthouse basement for a short period until his family vouched for him and took him under their protection. Arthur “Boo” Radley was never seen in public again from this time forth and was presumed to be locked in his family’s home across the Finch residence.

However, this system of incessant racism and hatred is finally challenged by Atticus Finch is one of the high-profile cases that shook the community of Maycomb and beyond. In an accusation of what appeared to be rape, Mayella Ewell, a white woman, accused a black man, of rape. Allegedly, Tom Robinson, the black man accused, had raped Mayella. Tom pleaded innocent to a court that would not hear his plea and to a community that had already deemed him guilty. Helpless in his struggle and with minimal rights, Tom was practically already doomed. Dumbfounded by the whole situation as well as the reaction that it incited, Atticus Finch decides to represent the otherwise lost man and attempts to build his defense.

The reaction to Atticus’ decision was imminent and fierce. The consequences extended beyond himself and his work into his family. However, this invigorated Atticus to win this case that was not just a white woman versus a black man, but rather the continuous oppressive system and the hatred behind it versus the law and justice. However, considering that this case is both legal and social, it does not take a long time for riots to begin. Having already declared Tom a rapist, a group of white men ignore the due process of law and attempt to lynch Tom through their riot. The consensus of the people requires Tom to die for what he is accused of without allowing the case to go to trial. Although the riot is prevented, its effects of it resonate throughout the county.

Finally, the case reaches the court. It is now that the accounts of both the plaintiff and the defendant should be recalled for the court and judged fairly by a jury of peers. However, in a white town deep in the racist American South in the 1930s, the jury that is supposed to decide on a black man’s innocence is completely white, biased, and racist. The judge is no different, considering that it is the same man who locked a white man in the courthouse basement so that he would not be with “ Negroes” in prison. Although the courthouse is beyond rigged and filled with prejudice, Atticus manages to gather a plethora of evidence that proves Tom’s innocence. Following the display of evidence, the witnesses are cross-examined, which only made matters worse since Mayella appeared to have had a mental breakdown and she implored the jury to not be cowards and charge Tom.

Beyond the overwhelming amount of evidence, the defense for Tom has one major fault which requires the people of the jury to completely alter their attitude towards “colored people”. The defense claims that it was not Tom who laid his hands on Mayella, but that it was her father. Atticus claims that Robert Ewell, embarrassed at his daughter’s actions, struck her across the face. His claim lies in the fact that Mayella has the right side of her face bruised and that Robert was the only one who could have hurt her since he was left-handed. On the hand, Tom’s left hand had been rendered useless by a cotton gin accident when he was young. Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence in their defense of Tom, the jury finally provides the court with a verdict, in which it concluded that Tom was guilty of all charges.

As the court’s decision makes the rounds of the county, the white people of the town felt that the sentencing was just and righteous since it represented their beliefs and perpetuated their ideology of black people. However, the colored folk of the county seems to disagree, showing their belief in Tom by thanking Atticus with food for his help. Despite these circumstances Atticus files for an appeal, keeping Tom from the electric chair for the time being. Despite the unjust decision for Tom from the justice system, Atticus is hopeful that a larger court will hopefully review the case otherwise. However, his hopes for the new trial are short-lived since Tom is found dead a short while later.

In what was labeled as an attempted escape, Tom had been shot numerous times by police in prison. Atticus believes that what had happened to Tom was completely unfair however most of the townsfolk feel that what had happened was to be expected. Most people believed that his death was not surprising and was expected of a black man one way or another. Beyond that, they are not moved by Tom’s pleas, or his attempt to escape and condemn his behavior, along with all other criminal behavior, as typical black person behavior, instilling their ideas of white supremacy even further than before. This repetitive system of racism and hatred toward black individuals created this perpetual system of condemning black people for crimes they had not committed and created a deep bias within white folk in America.

The time frame in which the Kill a Mockingbird theme is placed has long been criticized by many other literary works that follow a similar theme with similar takeaways. One very well-known novel that has a very similar topic is Of Mice and Men. In that novel there is a quote that summarizes the belief as well as the power of white women of the time which is “Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.”(Steinbeck, 120). Books like these have successfully reflected the American beliefs during the 1930s and by doing so, they have helped future generations understand the injustice that existed in the United States. “This, after all, is a book that helped to change the world”(Jordison, The Guardian) is a great quote that displays the great influence of the novel on its readers.

Even though the novel took place in such a different period and under very different circumstances, these life lessons and examples provided in the book are still alive and well today. People of color are still more frequently arrested by a much larger proportion for crimes they did not commit by as much as five times (NAAAP). Profiling and maltreatment by police are still very common and it is only very recently that these minorities have taken a stand against the injustice that is in place right now.

Groups like Black Lives Matter and NAACP have now more than ever focused their efforts to reduce police brutality and the wrongful incarceration of African Americans. Although these efforts and these movements show that society is finally able to tackle such a topic, it is worrisome that it took so long for such matters to be addressed. The parallels between Tom and many black men today are more frequent than one would imagine and the teachings and takeaways of the novel still resonate with people today. Because of these lessons, the novel still maintains its popularity in modern society and has become a necessary read for the modern individual.

In conclusion, To Kill a Mockingbird is such a successful novel and has reached so much critical acclaim for its ability to talk about and deal with problems that society has yet to solve, or even come close to solving for that matter. In addition, the novel’s many themes and sub-themes allow the reader to focus on the whole book beyond just its main ideas and gather a more in-depth understanding of the work as a total. 

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