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  • Ridhi Gupta

Maycomb: Where Persecution Comes from Prejudice

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit them, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” [1]


To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, is an American classic that is centered on the issue of racial discrimination. The Pulitzer winning novel, set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, brings to light the problem of racial discrimination prevalent in the United States of America, till as late as the 20th century.


Through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch, a young girl, Lee tries to create a picture of the Maycomb society in the minds of the readers. The story revolves around Jean, Jeremy Finch, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Bob Ewell and Tom Robinson. Atticus Finch, who is the father of Jean and Jeremy Finch, is the central character of the story. He is the defense lawyer of the Maycomb state and has been assigned the job of defending Mr. Tom Robinson, a black man, accused of committing the rape of a white girl. As the story progresses, one gets a clear picture of the Maycomb society, broadly divided into four groups: the Finchs, the Cunninghams, the Ewells and the African American men and women, referred to as the Blacks. The Finchs, are the respectable people of Maycomb, the Cunninghams are simple folk known for their peculiar habits, the Ewells are the rich and dominating ones, and the Blacks are  are treated as outcasts by the other three groups. These groups don’t mingle and often, remain confined to their own groups. The primary reason being, the unwillingness of the majority in fraternizing with any other group in Maycomb. This can be understood through various instances; in a dialogue between Jean and her aunt, when Jean asks her aunt why she can’t play with Walter Cunningham, her aunt replies, “Because-he-is-trash…I will not have you around him picking up his habits”. The Blacks, who are considered to be the root of all problems in the society are the worst affected amongst all.


Part I of the story deals with the inquisitiveness of Jean, Jeremy and their friend Dill about a mysterious man named; Boo Radley. The entire town of Maycomb has different views about Radley, while some consider him to be dead, the others believe him to be living in the Radley mansion. The three children are interested in this man as they believe that he is alive and if so, they wonder why he stays locked inside his house. This part of the book also introduces the readers to Atticus Finch’s difficult position as a defence lawyer for a black man, who without being proven guilty, has been assumed as the culprit by the society.


With Part II, begins the trial of Tom Robinson. During the trial Atticus cross examines each witness of the prosecution and digs out the loopholes involved in the investigation. He establishes before the Court that the medical examination of the victim was not done and the prosecution did not have any evidence against Mr. Robinson, except for the circumstantial evidence. When Mr. Bob Ewell, the father of the victim, is cross examined, Atticus brings to light the bad demeanour of the man and also the missing links in his statements. After Mr. Bob, Miss Mayella Ewell, the victim, comes before the Court and presents her narrative of the story. The story is good enough to deceive any man or woman and purport her as a real victim. However, her story falls flat during Atticus’ cross examination. Finally, Tom Robinson comes before the Court and tells the real account of that day. While being respectful, he explains to the Court that he did not touch Miss Mayella and rather it was her, who tried to create a physical contact with him, which he refused. Atticus rhetorically asks Robinson, “why did you run?”, “why were you scared?” to which the latter replies, “Mr. Finch, if you were a nigger like me, you had be scared too.”[2] Through his sharp wittedness, Atticus highlights the vulnerability of the black men and women in a society like Maycomb, predominated by the white. He lays it bare before the Court that the prosecution didn’t have any evidence against the defendant, the witnesses’ statements were flawed and thus, the Court had no reason to convict Tom.


After all this being established by Atticus in the court of law, any prudent reader would expect the Court to acquit Mr. Robinson. However, what happens is to the contrary and Tom is convicted for the offence of rape. The Court instead of upholding justice, upholds the legacy of discrimination against the African-Americans in America. The judiciary is an organ which is entrusted with the functions of maintaining equality and legal security, for the individuals living in a society. The principles like equality and the right to a fair trial, constitute the essence of a fair judicial system. However, what readers experience in this story of Maycomb, is the complete denial of these principles to the black men and women.


The sufferings of the African Americans living in the United States can be felt throughout the novel. They are associated with disrespectful words like ‘niggers’ and even Atticus, who tries to defend Tom, is bad mouthed by the society, which brands him as ‘nothing else but a nigger-lover’.  This shows how deeply entrenched this societal bias against the blacks existed in Maycomb. Atticus’ relatives also urge him to refrain from fighting the case of Tom Robinson, but he replies, “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand… I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town.”[3]


In a dialogue with his children just after the trial, Atticus Finch says, “They have done it before, they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”[4] This statement of Finch holds true even today as despite the contributions made by great civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, not much seems to have changed for the blacks in the United States of America and especially during the tenure of the last ruling government, the world saw several instances of racial discrimination.


The book also highlights the conflict between individual consciousness and majority public opinion. The town of Maycomb, is of the majority opinion that blacks are intrinsically different from the other groups and in a dispute between a black man and a white man, the former is presumed as faulty. The Courts in Maycomb have time and again upheld this majority opinion, without giving any regard to the natural principles of justice, equity and good conscience, which are the essential pedestals of the judiciary. Contrary to the majority opinion stands Atticus Finch, a righteous lawyer and a man of strong principles. In a dialogue, Atticus rightly says, “… before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”[5] A change in the society can be brought only when people like Atticus decide to stand against the unfair majority opinion of the society. This similar idea can be seen in Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which espouses the need to prioritize one’s consciousness over the arbitrary ways of the society or the laws.


Along with the issues of racial discrimination and unfair majority opinion, the book also highlights the hypocrisy that pervades many societies. In a classroom incident, a student asks the teacher about Hitler and his rule against the Jews. The teacher says, “That’s the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Over there we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Prejudice…There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.”[6] This statement leaves a question not only in the mind of little Jean, but even the readers, “how can she say she hate Hitler so bad and then turn around and be ugly about folks right here at home?”[7] Lee tries to show that while finding faults in other societies, a society often overlooks the problems and discriminations prevalent within its own self.


As the book concludes the children realise why Boo Radley stayed inside his house, away from the people of the society, it was in order to keep himself away from the discriminatory world of Maycomb. Due to the lucid depiction of the problem of racial discrimination, the novel has earned itself the status of a best-selling novel in the United States. Although, written in 1960, the book continues to remain an engaging tale even today. It captivates the interest of the readers from its very inception, till the very end.

 

[1] H. Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, 99

[2] Ibid, at 215.

[3] Ibid, at 98.

[4] Ibid, at 235.

[5] Ibid, at 116.

[6] Ibid, at 270.

[7] Ibid, at 272.


This book review has been authored by Ridhi Gupta, Associate Editor at RSRR


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