To kill a mockingbird by harper lee

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Individuals who are fearful of being overshadowed by others, according to Harper Lee in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, generate social disparity and oppression. Throughout her writing, she emphasizes that economically segregated ranking is a dynamic cultural problem that impacts everyone in a society. More importantly, she demonstrates how racial distinctions, especially between whites and blacks, were stressful in the 1930s. She highlights her theme in her book with numerous stories of Maycomb residents who not only judge one another but also discriminate against others who are different from them. To Kill a Mockingbird is “not only a coming-of-age tale but also as an illustration of Foucault's Panopticon as a model for today's society” (Best 541). According to the book, social inequalities and injustices do not only occur in the form of racism but also appear based on factors such as wealth as well as family background. In addition to this, “placing the story squarely in the Depression-era 1930s asks… novel readers of the early 1960s to consider the tightly bound relationship between race and class inequality in America” (Watson 441) which makes this an iconic novel. This paper is a presentation of the forms and examples of social inequality as presented in To Kill a Mockingbird and how the author was influenced by real-life events as well as how the historical events shape and connect to her theme of social inequality.

 The existence of social inequality

Family background was one factor on which the people of Maycomb based social inequalities.  As the story is set in the Depression Era South, even in the white community there is a definite distinction between “the haves” (the Finches and their neighbors) and “the have nots” (the Cunninghams, the Ewells and the Negroes). There is also an implication that among the poorer families in town, namely the Cunninghams, there is a bit of incest going on as recognized in the passage “the Cunninghams married the Coninghams until the spelling of the names was academic—academic until a Cunningham disputed a Coningham over land titles and took to the law” (Bloom 19). For instance, the author identifies Aunt Alexandra’s position on the importance on family background. Aunt Alexandra treated new people differently compared to those who had lived in the area their entire life. She is, as Bloom describes her, “the epitome of southern graciousness and hospitality” (17) but mixed in with that persona is a fair amount Southern pride which historically contains a mistrust of outsiders. This was the case, no matter the level of the wealth of an individual or as Bloom states, “what concerns her is propriety and background” (31). However, Lee indicates that it is not only this one character who judged people based on the background, but the whole society. Scout however disagrees with people who treat others unfairly as in the scene where Scout and Jem defend Tom Robinson, who is in jail awaiting trial, against a mob who has come to the jail to lynch him. Another character named Arthur “Boo” Radley is also considered crazy as early as during his childhood. For instance, he and his parents never attended church and at the same time his brother associated with the wrong crowd. This, in and of itself, ran counter to the southern way of thinking, or as Perrault states, “The principled self [of southern whites] … cannot find a home in a world characterized by the overt anxieties that dominated southern whites” (33), such as the anxieties of dealing with the Radley’s and their peculiar lifestyle. 

In addition, in the antebellum South, wealth is a major cause of social inequalities because Southern society is a class society where strict lines are drawn between individuals based much of the time on how much monetary wealth someone has (as in the “haves” and the “have nots” noted above). To illustrate the misunderstandings between the rich and the poor in Southern society, Scout tries to explain to her teacher why Walter Cunningham would not afford lunch, indicating that the boy was from a poor family. In Maycomb, the name Cunningham represented poverty and people who are less important. Besides, the town hated the Ewells, another poor family who live off welfare.  Bob Ewell for instance, is considered a bad citizen for the fact that he is the father of a family that lives off welfare, sends his children to school only on the first day, and hunts out of season (Lee). Contrary to this, the Finch family is highly respected by the town for various reasons, among them being the family’s long history in Maycomb County dating back to Atticus’ great-grandfather Simon Finch who settled in the area after “General Jackson” (Lee) chased the Creeks out of the area during the War of 1812 and, as Scout noted, “because of Simon Finch’s industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town” (Lee).

Notably, social inequality takes the form of racism because of the prevalence of segregation and the Jim Crow laws which separate almost everything into “whites only” and “colored only”. Racism is a two-way street in Maycomb because some of the blacks are racist to the whites. For instance, when Calpurnia took Scout and Jem to church with her, Lula, a black lady in the congregation indicates that whites should not go to their church since they have their own. However, she quickly, and sternly reminded by Calpurnia that “It’s the same God, ain’t it?” (Lee). Jem and Scout view this exchange between Calpurnia and Lula as a reason to leave but Calpurnia fiercely protects them and her decision to bring them which causes Lula to depart. This incident calls to light the fact that Scout and Jem largely do not understand the racism as noted in the following quote, “Scout is so childlike, in fact, that much of the racist status quo in Maycomb flies completely over her head” (“Rethinking Atticus” 1358). Racism is also depicted when Tom a black man is falsely convicted for raping a white lady just because he was black. Despite a strident defense by Atticus Finch, in which he proves that Mayella Ewell was attacked by a left-handed assailant and that Tom had a disabled left hand so that he could not have committed the crime, and the testimony of Tom Robinson that he did not commit the crime, the all-white jury still convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death “because it is a black man’s word against a white person’s” (Kasper 273).

 How do you think the author was influenced by real-life events when she wrote her work of fiction?

There were several parallels between the real-life Nelle Harper Lee and the fictional life of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch which Bloom points out in his book. To start with the author’s mothers name was Frances Cunningham Finch, three names of various characters in the novel, an indication that there was something personal about her book (Bloom 10). Also, in nursery school, Lee met Truman Capote, who would also become a celebrated novelist and essayist (Bloom 10), with whom she came to know and became great friends. Thus, she bases her character Dill on her childhood friend Truman Capote who were both were studious and small boys who wore glasses. Apart from these examples, Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown, had similarities to Maycomb, the town she sets her novel in (Bloom 10). First, the two were small towns with stately courthouses and both were towns which were small enough to ensure that neighbors knew each other and were familiar with everyone’s business, as is the case with most small American towns.  In addition to all this, Lee’s father practiced as a lawyer just like Scout’s father (Armstrong, 42).

In 1926, the year of Lee’s birth, her father had defended two black men Frank and Brown who were accused of murder. However, the two men were executed, leaving Lee’s father so disappointed at being a lawyer that he declined taking any other cases, much like what happened to Atticus in Lee’s novel (Bloom 10). Because of these things which happened when she was young, when Lee decided to write the novel, she was familiar with the plights of the blacks in the justice system (Armstrong, 46).

Adding to the similarities of To Kill a Mockingbird and her real life, in 1931, when Lee was around five years of age, there was a case that hit the headlines in Alabama. The case involved nine African-American males, later to be known as the “Scottsboro Boys”, who were “illegally riding the rails looking for work”, and were initially taken off the train for the misdemeanor charge (“Scottsboro Boys”). When the police got to the scene to make the arrests of the black men, they encountered two white prostitutes, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, who were coerced by the Scottsboro deputies into charging the men with rape to avoid being exposed for freely consorting with the men aboard the train (“Scottsboro Boys”). After trial, they received the death sentences for the crime they had been wrongly convicted of. The case became a spotlight for the early civil rights movement and all the men were exonerated in a later 1937 U.S. Supreme Court case, however, it took almost 20 years for all the men to be finally freed from prison (Armstrong, 48).

In addition to this case, in 1934, Lee heard the story of a poor white woman who claimed to have been raped by a black man named Walter Lett. At the time, Lee’s father was editor of the Monroeville Journal and was intimately familiar with the details of the case (“1934”). Following the case, there was fear that Lett was likely to be lynched. Therefore, several citizens in the town, including Lee’s father, petitioned the Alabama governor Benjamin Miller asking for clemency in the case.  Finally, Governor Miller commuted what was a death sentence to life imprisonment (“1934”).


 Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ presents some of the truths about social inequalities and injustices based on family background wealth as well as racism. Apparently, in her writing, Lee is influenced by some real-life experiences and historical occurrences. Her childhood friend, her father’s career, as well as various trials, influenced her experiences knowledge and perception about social inequalities.  Using her book, she presents various examples of the inequalities that perfectly connect to some of the historical events before the 1950s.

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Works Cited

“1934: Not Walter Lett, To Kill a Mockingbird inspiration.” Executed Today website. Accessed May 21, 2017.

This article tells the story of a black man, Walter Lett’s, real-life trial and conviction on the charge of raping a white woman, Naomi Lowery, in 1934 Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, which many attribute to the main subplot in To Kill a Mockingbird which Harper Lee reportedly drew upon for a basis for her character Tom Robinson in her novel. At the time of this trial, Harper Lee’s father was the editor of the Monroeville Journal and was intimately involved in reporting this most sensational story. This article was chosen for its straight-forward stating of the facts and its allusion to the case as the inspiration for Harper Lee’s novel. It tells the story of how Walter Lett was accused, tried, and convicted of raping Naomi Lowery. During the trial, it was alleged that Lett and Lowery were involved with each other and that Lowery had gotten pregnant by Lett causing her to level charges of rape against Lett to save face for being with a black man, which at the time was a serious social mistake.

Armstrong, Jean. "Themes and Issues." To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1987, pp. 42-52.

In this article, Jean Armstrong discusses the themes and issues which are covered in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Some of the subjects covered have to do with the real-life trials, the Scottsboro Boys and William Lett, which are believed to be the inspiration for Harper Lee’s trial of Tom Robinson in her novel. Armstrong follows these two cases in the article to indicate her hypothesis that Harper Lee was drawing on these two real cases for her portrayal. Armstrong gives facts and information relating to these two cases which strongly suggest that it was these two cases which came to be amalgamated into Tom Robinson in her work of fiction. In this article, Armstrong makes a strong case for her opinion and this article was chosen based on the fact that the case she made was so strong. Also, this article adds needed depth to the paper.

Best, Rebecca H. "Panopticism and the Use of "The Other" in to Kill a Mockingbird." Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 3/4, Summer/Fall2009, pp. 541-552. EBSCOhost, Accessed May 20, 2017.

This article by Rebecca H. Best, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explores the relationships between people and groups of people in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This article essentially examines the search for identity and the obstacles to it through the framework of the Panopticon and the Other that Michel Foucault sets forth in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison which take place in the pages of Harper Lee’s novel. Best explores the fact that “The children, [Scout, Jem, and Dill] still learning the rules of society and their own places in it, find their alien forces in social outcasts and people of other classes. The sense of the Other is apparent in the social development of Scout and Jem, in class, race, and gender prejudices and even in the children's fascination with Arthur "Boo" Radley.” The article explores a side of the novel that is not often researched.

Bloom, Harold. Harper Lee's to Kill a Mockingbird. vol. New ed, Facts on File, Inc, 2010. Bloom's Guides. EBSCOhost. Accessed May 20, 2017.

In his book, Harold Bloom studies the various aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird from laying out a biographical sketch of the author and her life followed by in-depth analysis of both characters and plotlines of the novel. Bloom then takes a look at the characters giving a brief description of each in order to give someone unfamiliar with the story a better overview of the novel. From this point, Bloom makes a detailed summary and analysis of the novel pointing out some of the more interesting aspects of the work. In the middle of his work, Bloom provides critiques of the novel from the point of view of eight researchers from Patrick Chura to Richard Armstrong and Robert Butler. To finish off the work, Bloom provides a list of Harper Lee’s other writings and an annotated bibliography covering the sources included in his book. This book was chosen for its overall completeness and wide-ranging analysis of Harper Lee’s novel.

Kasper, Annie. "General Semantics in to Kill a Mockingbird." ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 63, no. 3, July 2006, pp. 272-274. EBSCOhost, Accessed May 20, 2017.

This article is a scholarly piece by Annie Kasper, a student at the Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vermont from the perspective of how semantics is used in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. In this piece, Kasper explores the use of semantics throughout the novel. Kasper notes “The existence of

diverging perceptions and language arc explained through general semantics.

Two significant ideas of general semantics are non-identity and infinity of values.

Each of these ideas is manifest in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.” Kasper begins by drawing on the novel to explain the story of Scout, Jem, Dill, and Atticus Finch and gives the details of the storyline and how semantics plays a role in telling the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. Kasper explains that the limitations of language often derail the author from clearly expressing the real feeling or thought of the story they are trying to tell. This article helps in telling the story by reminding readers that semantics plays a big role in our understanding of works like that of Harper Lee’s.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Kindle ed., Harper Collins. 1960.

This is the original novel on which this essay is based. It tells the story of Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch and their lives in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama in Depression Era 1930’s. The narrator of the book is, of course, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a precocious 1st grader who is growing up in the Jim Crow South and learning, along with her older brother Jeremy “Jem” Finch and their friend Dill about living in the racially charged world of Alabama in the 1930’s. Along the way, Atticus is charged with defending a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell. The trial of Robinson takes up a good portion of the book and even though he ends up being found guilty and killed while trying to escape, it is Robinson’s story that draws the novel together. Throughout the work, Scout learns and grows as her various mentors including her father try to guide her through the life that she finds herself involved in.

Perreault, Jeanne. "Southern White Women's Autobiographies: Social Equality and Social Change." Southern Literary Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, Fall2008, pp. 32-51. EBSCOhost, Accessed May 20, 2017.

This article examines the struggle of three white women in the early 20th century who, like some of the characters in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, are trying to find their own form of equality in the Southern United States. The force of this article concentrates on “the lives of Belle Kearney, Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, and Lillian Smith, the writers upon whom this essay focuses, social reality is circumscribed by the fundamental principle of southern life from

Emancipation to the 1960s: the reality of social inequality based on race. Perrault uses the struggles of these three women and the overall fear that southerners had during the antebellum period because of their proclaimed equality with the blacks. This article is used to show the white race’s abject fear of the black race in many ways that are very pronounced in To Kill a Mockingbird. This article was picked to offset the racial opinions given in Harper Lee’s novel with the fears that whites of the period had of African-Americans.

"Rethinking Atticus Finch." Case Western Reserve Law Review, vol. 60, no. 4, Summer2010, pp. 1349-1367. EBSCOhost, Accessed May 21, 2017.

This article from the Case Western Reserve Law Review, Summer of 2010, gives an analysis of Atticus Finch as a lawyer and critiques how Finch would be perceived in real-life situations. The author is unknown but the opinions expressed give an all-around overview of what real lawyers think of the fictional character and how Atticus has been praised for his level-headed portrayal of a lawyer who is given an almost impossible task of defending a black defendant in the South in the 1930’s. The article opines that part of Atticus’ heroic persona may, in fact, be because of the lens through which he is seen, i.e. his daughter and narrator of the story, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. The article points out that although Atticus has his supporters and detractors in the real world, most securely believe that the job that he did in defending Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s novel was at least satisfactory. This article was selected for the unique perspective it brings to the analysis of this novel.

“Scottsboro Boys, Trial and Defense Campaign (1931–1937).” Black Past website. Accessed May 21, 2017.

This article, posted on the Black Past weblog, outlines the story of the nine African-American men who were charged, tried, and convicted of raping two white prostitutes in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The article shed light on the background which real-life author Harper Lee brings to the writing of her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The details of this trial and the defense mounted gives special insight into some of the influence that Harper Lee had to draw upon for the writing of her novel. The story of the Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be known in the media of the time, has its similarities to the trial of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s novel and it has been speculated by many in the literary world that this trial and others which occurred during Lee’s childhood influenced her writing of her novel. This article was chosen for the clear and concise way in which it relates this story.

Watson, Rachel. "The View from the Porch: Race and the Limits of Empathy in the Film to Kill a Mockingbird." Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 3/4, Summer/Fall2010, pp. 419-443. EBSCOhost, Accessed May 20, 2017.

This article by Rachel Watson of the University of Chicago, correlates primarily to the film based on Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird but it also has several insights which add context to the novel as well. For the most part this article speaks of limits of empathy felt by the white people in Harper Lee’s story of the trial of Tom Robinson and how those limits necessarily limit the emotional appeal of the work. The article mentions prominently that ordinary examinations of the film and the novel tend to concentrate on “the narrative of Horton Foote's screenplay and the character of Atticus Finch, but not on the visual logic of the film itself, implicitly assuming the film and novel to be essentially interchangeable texts. As a consequence, serious critical approaches to the film tend to consider it a cultural artifact rather than an aesthetic one, leaving the formal significance of the film virtually unexamined in favor of its historical occasion.” The article was chosen because of the comparison which is made between the novel and the film is important to an overall analysis of the one or both of the genres.

July 24, 2021

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