An Analysis of Justice in To Kill a Mockingbird
Academic Discipline: English
Course Name: Modern English Literature
Assignment Subject: The Theme of Justice in To Kill a Mockingbird
Academic Level: Undergraduate
Referencing Style: MLA
Word Count: 2,014
“Remember, it’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird”:
An Analysis of Justice in To Kill a Mockingbird
In 1960s America, racial tensions and divisions dictated the norms of society. It is this society in which Scout, Jem, and their father Atticus live in To Kill a Mockingbird. The story centers around Atticus and his children, as they cope with the backlash from Atticus’ legal defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman. The concept of justice, racism, and equality in this novel have been one of the most timeless representations of the theme in classic literature within the last century. Lee’s symbolism of the mockingbird as the representation of innocence has been utilized repeatedly in popular culture and literature to this day. This image of the mockingbird represents the end of innocence, as to kill a mockingbird would mean destroying innocence and, subsequently, justice. In this story, some of the characters could each arguably be the mockingbird, such as Tom or Boo Radley, and their positions in society showcase just how harsh the reality was for those who were not considered part of the accepted norm. In Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the theme of justice is shown in three major parts of the storyline: the discrimination against Boo Radley, the treatment of Atticus’ family while he defends Tom, and the nature of Tom’s trial.
Boo Radley is a character that represents the injustice that many people suffer simply because they are misunderstood by society. In a world where people are quick to judge one another based on superficial circumstances, people are quick to discriminate against people who are different than the norm. To Kill a Mockingbird showcases this as the society in the novel makes Boo out to be a monster who hides in his house because he is too scared to show his hideous face. Throughout the story, Boo fascinates Scout and Jem, as they have heard rumours about him and how terrifying he is. In reality, Boo Radley is simply misunderstood and the town has made up judgements about him because he is a recluse who stays in his house, afraid of the outside world. Boo Radley has a mental disorder and has been confined to his home for decades (Orsborn 1139). At this time, the majority of American society did not understand what mental illness was, or how to deal with it. Thus, many people who suffered had to do so in silence and were not taken seriously, repressing their true issues and creating cause for prejudice and discrimination. Boo is suffering from these ideals because his parents have decided that the best way to deal with his mental illness is to lock him up in their home for his entire life, which inspires the idea that he is a terrifying, ghost-like monster that haunts the neighbourhood. However, this backfires because Boo simply becomes a recluse who does not function like a regular adult, and instead he watches the children to experience life through them. Boo connects with Jem and Scout to the point where a relationship and understanding is formed, and by the end of the novel Scout begins to realize that Boo feels protective over the children, perhaps thinking of them as his own children. He leaves little presents for the children and secretly gives Scout a blanket when they are outside in the cold one night. Ultimately, the children come to trust him and treat him like a regular person, and in turn he helps to protect them from harm, thus showing the true reality that he is a good person and has simply been the victim of unjust attitudes. Boo Radley is the one who saves Jem and Scout when they are attacked by Bob Ewell. Scout states, “he gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives” (Lee 373). She is expressing the fact that Boo has given them these gifts, including the gift of saving their lives, and that he is not evil after all. The night after the attack happens, when Atticus is putting Scout to bed and she is sleepily recounting the story he has told her, she comments on the main character turning out to be nice and simply misunderstood. Atticus responds, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them” (Lee 376). In this last piece of dialogue, Atticus’ words sum up the way that Boo Radley has been wrongly perceived, the victim of a discriminatory injustice.
Atticus receives a significant amount of harsh treatment by the white members of the public because he is defending a black man during a time of racial segregation, and they do not agree with him despite the fact that he is a court-appointed lawyer. People in the town continue to judge Atticus because of his position, and they lose their respect for him because they do not believe that a black man should be considered innocent at all. In addition, Scout and Jem become outcasts due to their relation to him, as they begin to notice that the townspeople are treating them differently. However, they are children who love their father, and they do not understand what is going on to a full extent. During one part of the trial, Scout is attempting to figure out this situation as she learns that he has not chosen to defend Tom, but that it is his job. She states, “the court appointed Atticus to defend him. Atticus aimed to defend him. That’s what they didn’t like about it. It was confusing” (Lee 218). Her innocent mind is attempting to figure out why the people are angry with Atticus, and she does not fully comprehend the racist attitudes that are responsible for this treatment. She is attempting to comprehend racism, but since she does not see the world in that way, she is having a hard time figuring it all out. After the trial is over, Jem and Scout are outside their home when Miss Rachel tells them “there’s danger a’comin’” (Lee 290). Scout soon finds out what the danger is: “this morning Mr. Bob Ewell stopped Atticus on the post office corner, spat in his face, and told him he’d get him if it took the rest of his life” (Lee 290). It is in this moment that Scout and Jem truly realize how hateful people are, and how there are real threats to their lives because of Atticus’ determination to prove Tom’s innocence. Bob calls Atticus a “nigger-lovin’ bastard” (Lee 291) and hates him because he was defending a black man against him. Despite the fact that Bob is actually the one who beat his own daughter, he refuses to let go of the fact that Atticus defended Tom; losing the trial would have meant that Bob lost to a black man, which would mean he is a disgrace from society. Bob is defensive because he feels that Atticus’ defense against him has threatened his family’s position in society (Osborn 1140), despite the fact that this family is in a low position to begin with. At the end of the novel, after the trial has ended, Bob attacks Scout and Jem because they are Atticus’ children. Bob is the representation of pure evil- the fact that he is described as a “hulking figure” showcases Lee’s association of him as a lesser-than-human character (Murray 79). By describing him in this way, she de-humanizes him and makes him appear monstrous (Murray 79), displaying the idea that he has been evil the whole time, and that evil has supposedly triumphed over good thus far. His intention is to kill them with a butcher knife, but Boo Radley saves them. Despite the fact that the children have done nothing wrong, they are associated with their father, and the negative treatment Atticus has been receiving now spills out onto his innocent children.
Tom’s trial is extremely significant in representing the theme of justice because the entire storyline surrounding Tom is based on the injustice he is suffering due to racism against him, as well as his quest to seek justice in court and prove his innocence. However, because he is a black man and the situation happened with a white family, the entire white population of the town assumes that he is evil and has committed the crime. This is due to the negative views of African Americans that the people had during the 1960s, and the racial divisions that occurred. When Scout and Jem find out that Tom is likely going to receive a death sentence, despite not killing anyone, they are outraged. Atticus tells them, “Tom Robinson’s a colored man, Jem. No jury in this part of the world’s going to say, ‘we think you’re guilty, but not very’ on a charge like that. It was either a straight acquittal or nothing” (Lee 294). At this point in the story, the children are learning that racial divisions have left Tom without a chance of proving his innocence because of the prejudice in the minds of the townspeople. Simply put, black men were never given the benefit of the doubt and were always considered guilty, despite evidence to prove otherwise. He continues to explain, “in our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins” (Lee 295). This can be taken as a social commentary on the injustice of the time, especially given the fact that Atticus is acknowledging it is wrong, yet he cannot do anything about it. It is arguable that Atticus himself is a symbol of justice because he defends Tom, despite the repercussions that occur, because he knows that Tom is innocent. Atticus is a person who truly believes in justice, no matter the consequences, and he tells Jem:
“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it- whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash” (Lee 295)
Despite everything, Atticus believes that racism is to blame for the injustice in the world, and he is raising his children to understand this so they can continue to be good people. Tom ends up being convicted, despite the fact that “the story told by the prosecution is absurd, and Atticus rips it to shreds” (Osborn 1141). This is because racial bias has won; the jury is comprised of all white men, who side with their fellow white man instead of the innocent black man. In fact, many of the white men who sit on Tom’s trial had previously been involved in a racist lynch mob (Murray 79), and therefore the odds had been stacked against him the entire time.
The theme of justice is shown in To Kill a Mockingbird through Boo Radley, threats to Atticus’ family caused by racism, and Tom’s quest for justice through his trial. Racism and discrimination are the causes of injustice in the novel, and the negative attitudes of the people in the town are representative of the people who lived during this time in the United States. Lee’s utilization of the mockingbird as a symbol of innocence proves the point that, if one continues to silence the voices of those who are truly good or innocent, the concept of innocence will die and evil will win. Through her representation of various storylines as the ultimate idealization of justice, Harper Lee demonstrates that, in a time of racism and divide, black Americans were the victims of severe injustice and bias. The fact that Tom was wrongly accused, but convicted simply because the jury was made of all white males who had already been known to be part of a lynch mob, demonstrates the stacked odds of the time. By bringing these issues to light, Lee plays a significant role in shaping the history of racism in America and the origins of the ideas of the Civil Rights Movement that would soon take place.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1960. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010.
Murray, Jennifer. “More Than One Way to (Mis)Read a Mockingbird.” The Southern Literary Journal 43.1 (2010): 75-91.
Osborn, Jr., John Jay. “Atticus Finch- The End of Honor: A Discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.” The University of San Francisco Law Review 30 (1996): 1139-1142.Share: