Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird: Critical Analysis

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The novel explores timeless themes that relate to growing up in a confronting and confusing world

Discuss this statement with close reference to the novel

In the bildungsroman novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee explores timeless themes that relate to growing up in a confronting and confusing world. Lee uses Scout throughout the entire novel as a naïve narrator who was born and raised in the town of Maycomb. There are clear messages and themes within the novel that Lee explores such as empathy, developing understanding and acceptance, prejudice, white privilege and courage.

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Empathy is the theme that connects the characters with the reader. In the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee writes about the experiences which Scout and Jem endure in learning to be empathetic, such as learning to “Walk about in someone’s skin” is the main theme explored throughout the entire novel. Atticus; who is Jem and Scout’s father, educate his children on how to treat and comprehend other people. As Jem and Scout’s characters develop, they begin to comprehend this lesson and act upon it. Lee uses connotations of innocence to show that Boo Radley is not scary but rather naïve and innocent to the world, just like Scout. At the end of the novel, while Boo is standing in the Finch’s home, Lee is portraying to the reader and Scout how harmless he is. “He almost whispered it, in the voice of a child afraid of the dark.” As Lee wrote, “In the voice of a child”, it is evident that they’re showing Boo is guiltless and not a ‘malevolent creature’.

During Chapter twenty-three, while Atticus believes that he can win the trial, Lee uses tactile imagery of sickening declarative statement. “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance … whenever a white man does that to a black man … the white man is trash.”. Through this quote, the reader understands that Atticus believes everyone should be equal and it is ‘sickening’ for a white person to take advantage of a black person. Atticus shows empathy and respect towards all people of colour and visualises white men as trash if they undermine a black man. Lee uses a declarative statement to prove a point and has a strong message towards the reader. Through the entire novel, Atticus is seen to be the main hero of the story. Lee uses connotations to visualise courage such as Atticus confronting Bob Ewell and saying “So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody, and I’d rather it be me than that household of children out there.”. The connotations of Atticus being a hero tells the reader that doing the right thing isn’t always the easy option. Overall, empathy is the main message that teaches Scout and Jem to show respect to all people regardless of their race and to understand what it’s like to be in their shoes.

As people mature, we develop feelings of empathy towards others. In, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, hyperboles are used to create a view from the reader’s opinion of Boo Radley. At the beginning of the novel, Scout is a naïve narrator who has an uncomplicated sense of what’s good and evil. Scout begins by seeing Boo as an evil, malevolent creature. Through the novel, Scout’s perspective of the world was based upon the rumours of Maycomb. As Scout matures, she develops feelings for people and understands opinions based on her thoughts, not rumours. At the beginning of the novel, Stephanie Crawford begins to spread rumours about Boo Radley that are completely out of context. “Rumour has it that Boo Radley is a malevolent phantom that eats raw squirrels”. Rumours are spread through Maycomb that is exaggerated as Boo never comes out of his house. Lee puts this at the beginning of her novel to show the reader how Scout is a naïve narrator and is gullible. Lee uses figurative language through many metaphors which allows Scout to show empathy. Therefore, the reader understands the difference between young, naïve Scout and matured Scout by the end of the novel. Towards the end of the novel when Scout is contemplating the world from Boo Radley’s perspective; she at last realises the love and protection Atticus had for them when she declared “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough”. The blossoming of Scout’s ability to assume another person’s perspective of empathy is the development of Scout’s character.

Prejudging a person based upon their appearance is an inherent human trait. In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee uses many different examples of prejudice such as gender and racial discrimination. In the second half of the novel, during Tom Robinson’s trial, racial prejudice is explored a great deal. Although there was insufficient evidence to convict Tom to imprisonment, his skin colour and empathy for Mayella Ewell found him guilty by the court and sentenced to gaol. Jem can’t comprehend how this happened and says to Atticus, “…you can’t convict a man on evidence like that … you just can’t”. Repetition shows that there is a sense of urgency and frustration about the corrupted systematic American legal system. The children have not had a sense of the bigger world and do not understand the legal system; therefore, he was very upset and overwhelmed with the issue. Lee uses high modality, an exclusive language that suggests this is how the system works. “When it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s the white man always wins”. Exclusion of white men and back men further emphasises on segregation that Maycomb faced. Although there is a widespread of racial discrimination through the novel, gender discrimination is also observed. Aunt Alexandra’s vision for Scout is restricting her to only female activities. “Playing with small stoves, tea sets and wearing the add a pearl necklace.” The use of tri-colons and accumulation lets the reader understand that is how Scout’s auntie would like her to be portrayed.

Courage and bravery are defined as the ability to do something that frightens oneself. In the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird there are numerous examples of the characters displaying these traits. The characters are challenged to face danger and pain without fear. The courage displayed develops throughout the course of the novel. Lee uses formal language from Atticus’s perspective to show the reader that he is an educated individual. In chapter 9, Scout overhears Atticus talking to her uncle about Tom Robinsons trial. When Uncle Jack asks Atticus how the outcome of the case will eventuate, Atticus declares that it will be Tom’s word against the Ewell family’s testimony. “But do you think I could face my children otherwise? You know what’s going to happen as well as I do, Jack, and I hope and pray I can get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness and most of all without catching Maycomb’s usual disease.” A compassionate tone is used throughout the quote to display a sense of courage. Atticus has the bravery to accept Tom Robinson’s case instead of turning it down like most lawyers in Maycomb County would. Atticus wanted to show his children that doing the right thing when no one else will is displaying a sense of bravery. He wanted to teach Jem and Scout a valuable lesson by defending Tom, showing that not to be prejudice like the other people in Maycomb is the correct thing to do.

The theme of courage has a direct connection to the words said by Atticus. Through explaining to Jem that courage is not aggression, it presents this idea to him that courage is something that is of the utmost necessity within the town of Maycomb. “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know your licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she dies beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” This quote shows that Atticus wanted to emphasise that superficial and traditional views in Maycomb may not be subsided but Jem must be taught to see things through even though some things may not change. The tone of Atticus is very prominent and serious. It emphasises the moral sincerity of why Atticus wanted Jem to read with Mrs Dubose. Imagery is a strong technique used in this scenario. By explaining to Jem that courage is not a man with a gun in his hand, which emphasises that courage is not aggression but the power to oneself and the strength to see through the struggles until the end.

Overall, the novel, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee addresses many themes that relate to growing up in a confronting and confusing world. Scout Finch communicates to the audience on how to evolve during challenging periods, just as Scout learns that Boo Radley is nothing to fear. Scout also reminds her readers that your parents can be our greatest teachers when she reflects, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them”


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