It happened during those family reunions that took place in the holiday season. I would wander around, waiting for my favorite cousin to show up when a relative would walk up to me and start preaching about Christianity. I’d lose focus, tuning them out as the same conversations occurred every time my family visited. The experiences left me in a bad mood, the feeling of pressure creeping up my back. It was as if they were just reminding me that I haven’t converted yet and since everybody in the family is Christian, you should be too. That idea made me feel upset, causing me to reject the idea of God and only believing in science. But as I thought about the topic of religion, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t be mad at the fact that my relatives were just curious about my thoughts on the topic. I learned to keep the idea of a God open as a possibility; I wouldn’t immediately rule the idea out. I kept own beliefs but I understood the reasoning behind my relatives mindset.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, she introduces two characters, Jem and Scout, who face a similar pressure. They grow up living in an environment where everybody was so desensitized to the discrimination against the colored, it becomes normalized. The children also endure the prejudice applied to family names and their reputation as Finches. As they are exposed to reality, they develop their own priorities and perspectives that oppose societal norm. Harper Lee thinks that the innocence of children makes them more open-minded when confronted with situations involving prejudice, ignorance and societal pressure. Jem and Scout stay true to their own morals despite the pressure of societal norm by understanding different viewpoints. Atticus is a likeable character who holds a respectable position in society, yet he holds a mindset that differs from the ideas of most townspeople in Maycomb. Even against one of the most vicious monsters in the story, Mrs. Dubose, who would hound the Finches of being “nigger-lovers”, he “would sweep off his hat, wave gallantly to her and say. ‘Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening.’” He stayed civilized and composed, standing his ground while putting up with constant mockery, meaning even though he was pressured, his morality never wavered.
Atticus exposed Jem and Scout early on to his distinct perspective on the conflict between blacks and whites, developing their minds to stay open to the idea of the colored and whites being equal while they face ridicule from the locals. Jem and Scout innocently follow in Atticus’s footsteps without hesitation for their exposure to the adult world is not developed enough for them to question Atticus’s ways. Although Jem and Scout learn more about the toxicity of the town later on, they are able to stand by their father’s side while understanding the sense of reasoning behind his perspective. Dolphus Raymond shares similar views to Atticus and faces similar pressures of society, but he handles it a different way compared to the head-on, straightforward method Atticus uses. Mr. Raymond is introduced as a drunkard who sips on alcohol inside a paper bag, but it is later revealed in the text that Dolphus was pretending to drink whiskey to give the town a reason behind his marriage to a colored woman. It is so they can say “that’s why he won’t change his ways. He can’t help himself, that’s why he lives the way he does.” As cowardly as it seems, Mr. Raymond uses that to defend himself from the cruelty of the town and to still be able to be with the one he loves. Scout sympathizes with him for she understands the experience of being scorned for defending colored people. Raymond also sympathizes with Dill when Dill goes outside to “cry about the simple hell people give other people — without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too.” Mr. Raymond recognizes the unfairness of the treatment whites give colored people, which lets Scout know that she, Atticus, Jem are not the only ones who understand discrimination is not right. She becomes confident in her beliefs from knowing there are actual adults who can see past the rumors and social norms of Maycomb.
The monster figures present in the book symbolize ignorance in different forms and allow the kids to explore and discover the humanity behind the misunderstood. Boo Radley is the first monster to appear in the book. In the beginning, Jem described Boo to be “about six-and-a-half feet tall… There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.”(p. 13) He fits the description of a fictional monster, one who would usually scare children in their younger years. Jem and Scout themselves feared Boo for some time. Many rumors circulated around town about Boo Radley, causing everybody to stay away from the Radley Place. “A Negro would not pass the Radley Place at night, he would cut across to the sidewalk opposite and whistle as he walked… from the Radley chicken yard tall pecan trees shook their fruit into the schoolyard, but the nuts lay untouched by the children: Radley pecans would kill you.” The rumors became so well known, not even the children or Negroes went by the Radley Place. These rumors came alive when people noticed that “the Radleys, welcome anywhere in town, kept to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb.”(p.9)Nobody ever questioned how these rumors came about or if they were even real or not. Boo’s monster image is a product of the ignorance of people who judge before getting to know the truth, making quick assumptions based on shaky observations. Never having seen Boo before, Jem and Scout obtained all this information about him based on rumors. Even without showing his face to the world for fifteen years, it seemed like everybody already knew all about him and what he has done. But because Jem, Scout and Dill are children, their childish attributes like their innocence and curiosity causes them to be drawn to the mystery of Boo Radley. Over time, after getting more invested in seeking Boo out, they go through experiences that makes Jem begin to understand that Boo is an actual person behind his monstrous facade. Scout also gets a taste of how it feels like to not be understood and how it is like to be forced to face the consequences without being heard. During the holidays, Scout gets into an argument with her cousin, Francis, whom makes fun of Atticus for defending Tom Robinson. She ends up fighting him which causes Uncle Jack to punish her. She later explains to Uncle Jack that “you’d never stopped to gimme a chance to tell you my side of it..”
In the same position as Boo, people made assumptions about her before she was able to say anything and then got punished for what they assumed happened. Scout is exposed to a new perspective by experiencing it firsthand, deepening her true sense of the effects ignorance has on a person. These experiences opens Scout’s eyes to how you should take the time to understand someone before you make assumptions. A different form of ignorance is symbolized through Aunt Alexandra, who isn’t the subject of ignorance, but rather the ignorant person. For example, she enforces restrictions on who Scout and Jem are allowed to hang around based who their family was. “Aunt Alexandra, in underlining the moral of young Sam Merriweather’s suicide, said it was caused by a morbid streak in the family.” She was always quick to assume what a person was like before getting to know them out of ignorance. Scout especially had tension with Aunt Alexandra because she would not act proper or uphold the image of a perfect lady. Aunt Alexandra, whose ignorance only allowed them to see a person’s outside appearance, opposed Scout, who was able to understand the idea that people are people on the inside and that they deserved some awareness from the people of Maycomb. As a child, she had the time and curiosity to investigate deep into the heart of a person rather than judging from what you see on the outside.
Harper Lee’s usage of characterization applies to her message by emphasizing the prejudice people have in all sorts of groups and how the kids use their sense of justice instead of prejudice to make their decisions.
Though it may seem easy for the children to open up to new ideas after understanding other perspectives, society is harder to influence. Near the beginning, Scout immediately introduces the prejudice in Maycomb that revolves around family names. “Atticus urged them to accept the state’s generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous to jackass.” As soon as Scout starts in the topic of families, she hints at the prejudice people already have against the other folks in town due to their family name. The prejudice is common in all generations of Maycomb citizens. When Scout was in her first grade class, she explained to Miss Caroline, during a situation in which Walter Cunningham forgot his lunch and wouldn’t take Miss Caroline’s money, that he was a Cunningham and thought that was enough explanation. “I thought I had made things sufficiently clear. It was clear enough to the rest of us: Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day.”
Not only did Scout mention Walter’s full name, but she also goes on about how much Walter wouldn’t have a lunch because he was a Cunningham. This emphasized the fact that everybody assumed things about everybody based on someone’s family name. This is enough for people to be pressured to act a certain way because of who their family is. Aunt Alexandra even has Atticus explain to Jem and Scout about the important the image they portray is when regarding the fact they are “Finches”. “…You are not from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations’ gentle breeding…you must try to behave like the little lady and gentleman that you are. ” The fact that Atticus was the one to tell these things to Jem and Scout must mean that he was even pressured by the overwhelming idea of prejudice based on family names and its importance to Aunt Alexandra. Prejudice doesn’t just pass the point of skin color, but it is also present between the communities of whites. But, prejudice on skin color goes deeper than what family names does for you. In the trial between Tom Robinson and the Ewells, Harper Lee provides us with a lengthy description of the Ewell home. She characterizes the Ewells to be the most dysfunctional household in the town, using up about five paragraphs drawing an image for us to imagine how they held the worst possible reputation in Maycomb, yet they still win the trial against a respectable black man. Even when all the evidence pointed towards the Ewells, the adults on the jury couldn’t let go of their assumptions of Tom Robinson, compared to the children who knew something was wrong during the trial. Dill even had to leave the courtroom for some fresh air, for “the way that man called him ‘boy’ all the time an’ sneered at him, an’ looked around at the jury every time he answered…” made Dill sick. He noticed the subtle way the prosecutor made Tom seem suspicious, so much he was physically affected. Not only Dill but Jem was impacted as well by the result of the trial. “His face was streaked with angry tears as we made our way through the cheerful crowd.”
Opposed to the crowd of happy civilians, Jem understood how biased the jury was when making their decision. Comparing the adults and children in the story, the children act more open and understanding of the different perspectives that they face in the occasions of prejudice, ignorance and societal pressure. The situations in which the kids used their ability to see past the facade of a person is not easy and only exclusive to kids because of the ideas set in stone in the adults brains that affect their decisions and actions. The pressure Jem and Scout go through makes them stronger in a way because they kept their mind open to other viewpoints that contrasts the constant nagging of plain racism and how they were shameful for defending a black man. The kids’ innocence and curiosity paves a path through the ignorance people have when making assumptions about others and not taking the time to consider what is real or not, allowing Jem and Scout to see past the cloud of rumors that spread throughout Maycomb.
The adults of Maycomb are far more in over their heads about predetermined assumptions on someone based on their race, family name or otherwise compared to the kids, who even though know about the prejudice people have on other people, are more justice and fairness prioritized when making decisions. Harper Lee thinks the innocence of children makes them more open-minded to different perspectives in situations that involve prejudice, ignorance and societal pressure.
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