Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the most legendary pieces of American writing as this sample essay will discuss. The novel tells the story of a horrible example of racism and a miscarriage of justice in the South.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Justice is blind in the eyes of a child. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the reader witnesses a scene in which Scout holds a lynch mob at bay in front of the courthouse. The scene itself is illustrative of the kind of perverted justice and manipulations of law so relevant to pre-Civil Rights era American History. Acting inadvertently as a mirror, Scout reflects the reality of the injustice the mob sought to bring upon Atticus and Tom Robinson.
Once confronted by this reflection of truth, the mob dissipates because Scout has unconsciously shamed them through an act of genuine kindness, which itself happens to effectuate the ends of justice. Accordingly, the scene in question makes clear that Lee intends for Scout to function as a vehicle by which justice might be done, despite those who would misappropriate the law to suit some unjust outcome.
As a child, Scout is incapable of assessing her actions in terms of their fundamental value. Although her conduct is inappropriate in that no child should inject him or herself into a crazed mob scene, Scout is unaware of the extent of her fearlessness or of the fact that she has exposed herself and her family to physical harm in exercising it. Although she does act alone, Scout creates these volatile conditions by running to Atticus’ side as the angry mob begins to form around him.
Racial injustice in the novel
Atticus insists that she and the boys go home, but Scout’s defiance, along with that of Jem and Dill, lands them squarely in the midst of the mob and within the tradition of those who seek truth and justice. In order to achieve these ends, Scout mustb disrespect her father and even embarrass him—in disobeying him, Scout makes Atticus appear as though he lacks all control over his children, ironically mortifying Atticus, who himself values order and obedience above all things. Scout’s act of defiance simultaneously harms Atticus’ credibility as someone capable of attending to the volatile matter at hand, while also serving to diffuse the matter. This is proof Lee understands her characters.
In contemporary society, Americans aspire to uphold our most valued ideals: the primacy of equality and the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. In some cases, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, pockets of society that subscribe to different modes of thinking privilege their personal views over the guarantee of justice for all. This selfish practice risks the effectuation of justice; when groups of people interpret and administer the law solely in order to suit a personal value system that is inconsistent with that which is required in order to further the collective good of society, justice loses. Indeed, Scout’s decision prevents a lynching at the doorstep of justice, as symbolized by the courthouse.
Scout’s decision to inject herself into the lynch mob affair is rendered all the more extraordinary by the fact that she is a female child. During the era, children were to obey their parents and elders, especially as applied to young girls addressing grown men. As an extension of the parental unit, children were to act in a manner that demonstrated an orderly upbringing. In order to bring order and justice to the setting, however, Scout must essentially bring shame upon her family in this regard.
Indeed, while Scout preserves justice at the courthouse on the day in question, she does so at the expense of Atticus’ reputation, furthering the impression of him as a father who allows his children to run roughshod over all, going so far as to address grown men as equals despite that she is but a little girl.
Equality in To Kill A Mockingbird
In not only addressing grown men as an equal, but also making public reference to their private circumstances, Scout engages in just one of the array of instances in which she violates societal norms, furthering the general impression of their having never been enforced in her household. Although Atticus is proud and supportive of his children, he enables their misbehavior, especially as applied to Scout; a girl of the time was expected to behave in ladylike fashion, though Scout is barely capable of behaving in civilized fashion.
As such, in To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee suggests that there is a point at which acceptable and civilized behavior must be subjugated to the general needs of justice and order; qualities far more important to a functioning society than social niceties. Scout’s conduct places her squarely without the tradition of social propriety, but squarely within the tradition of those who take it upon themselves to enforce the ends of justice required in order for an organized society to proceed according to their valued traditions of social propriety.
Lee generally suggests an extent to which social constructs must be overcome by the enduring human impulse toward equality of man and justice for all. While Atticus is ridiculed for failing to conform his parenting practices to those most often employed, according to societal norms, it is his daughter, Scout, who emerges as the only child capable of not only comprehending the interests of justice, but also of speaking to them in such a way as shames those who do not so comprehend.
In so doing, it is Scout who preserves the socio-political and cultural order that she and Atticus are perceived as violating. Ultimately, the fact that Scout’s mimicry of masculine behavior somehow serves to prevent a grave injustice amounts to a redemption of the father she has inadvertently embarrassed; the reader perceives that Atticus’s parenting habits are somehow no longer in question after Scout’s performance.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee presents a world in which justice and the order of law cannot be preserved by playing nicely according to societal norms and traditions. In order to preserve the cherished customs, Scout must essentially violate their principles in disobeying and disrespecting her father at the courthouse, while also addressing men directly, further shaming her family through her unruly behavior.
As such, Lee seems to suggest that a bit of unruliness is sometimes necessary if justice and order is to be achieved and maintained. Indeed, for Lee, a little unruly girl at the doors of justice is all that stands between the kind of injustice that threatens to eradicate the foundation of values that form the basis of the societal traditions we cherish.
Dimock, Wai-chee. Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California, 1996.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960.