Title: Themes In To Kill A Mockinbbird by Harper Lee
Author: Rich Christie <RichChristie@ChristieComputer.com>
Tolerance and acceptance are two of the most prominent themes in the novel To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Through the use of a first person narrative style and in depth character development, Lee portrays the themes in a way she feels will evoke both sympathetic and empathetic feelings within the reader. Three of the most critical characters used by Lee to demonstrate tolerance and acceptance include Tom Robinson, Dill, and of course, Atticus Finch.
Tom Robinson is a prime example of a compassionate and tolerant human being. Tom Robinson was also an honest hardworking man, and despite the fact that he was at a disadvantage in society and was wrongly convicted by an unjust court ruling, he died knowing that he was innocent. Scout Finch, the character whose perspective the novel is narrated from, is only a small child and yet even she observed Tom Robinson's exemplary etiquette when she mentions "It occurred to me that in their own way Tom Robinson's manners were as good as Atticus's" (Lee 195). This simple observation says very much about Tom Robinson, not to mention what it says about Scout. First, it says that even though Scout is merely a small child who is unlearned in the ways of the world she is still able to recognize Tom's mannerism, who was a poor and uneducated black man with her father's who was a highly respected white lawyer. Scout was able to tolerate and accept Tom Robinson based on this simple observation. However, she would never have been able to do so if Tom Robinson had not conducted himself in such a way to promote this feeling, which is the second half of the conclusion that Scout's observation was important to the theme of tolerance and acceptance. Tom Robinson's mannerism is extremely important in the novel To Kill A Mockingbird because while he is on display in the courtroom, he is more than just an object of onto which hatred and prejudice is spewed, he is an honest, hardworking, sympathetic man who is able to conduct himself properly according to standards in society. Had Tom Robinson been white, his mannerism would have been commended, but due to the fact that he was black it seems expected. In a sense, Tom Robinson could be responsible for altering the opinion that many of the people in his society had that all blacks were savages and were of a lower class than whites; even if the one person changed by his mannerism was Scout.
Scout was not the only person to recognize Tom Robinson's excellent personality attributes. Mr. Link Deas, Tom's employer, also thought that Tom Robinson was a good human being and felt so strongly about it that he voiced his opinion in the courtroom during Tom's trial. "I just want the whole lot of you to know one thing right now...", Link Deas stated, "...that boy's worked for me for eight years now an' I ain't had a speck o' trouble with him. Not a speck!" (195). This outburst by a white man is important to the theme of tolerance and acceptance because it shows that there are white people who are not prejudice and that will come to the aid of justice and do what is right, even though it may be against popular opinion. In Mr. Link Deas's case, he was thrown from the court session.
The character who is best able to show Tom Robinson's critical role in the theme of tolerance and acceptance is, of course, Tom Robinson. The only glimpse that the reader is given into the perspective of Tom Robinson is during the courtroom scene. Perhaps one of Tom Robinson's most astonishing lines is "I felt sorry for her, she seemed to try more 'n the rest of 'em" (197). In that quote, he was referring to Mayella Ewell who was his accuser, and despite it's short length it says very much about Tom Robinson and is based on the major themes of the novel; tolerance and acceptance. Tom Robinson, at a superficial glance, should have been the one that Mayella felt sympathy for: he was a poor black man who only had the use of one arm, and due to his color he was judged and segregated, and had led a very difficult life. However, the reality is that despite the disadvantages that Tom Robinson faced, he was still willing and able to make an honest living as a good man who felt compassion and was still able to be respected. Mayella was a lonely young girl who was raised savagely, her home life was nothing short of wretched with a lazy alcoholic father, and her personal values are very distorted. Mayella is also obviously very afraid and unhappy. The flowers Mayella planted serves as an example of evidence that Tom Robinson spoke of when he said "...she tried more n' the rest of 'em" (197). Tom's compassion for Mayella was ironic, but it was certainly well founded. Not only was he tolerant and accepting of her by recognizing her situation and trying to help, but also by openly admitting it he showed that he has a genuine compassion for her, not a superficial sympathy.
Tom is also very tolerant and accepting of the ignorance of others, such as that of the prosecuting attorney Mr. Gilmer, who always referred to Tom as "boy" (196). On the contrary, it is Tom Robinson who addresses everyone with respect when he speaks to them and constantly addresses men such as Atticus as "suh" or when he refers to Mayella he calls her "Miss Mayella" (190).
Another one of Tom Robinson's contributions to the main theme is the acceptance of himself and his place in society. Whether his acceptance of himself as a "nigger" is right or wrong, it does help him convey his perspective when he responds to Atticus on why he ran from the Ewell's home (195). He made a sacrificial compromise in society; he chose to accept the position that black people were given in exchange for him being able to lead a quiet life as a hardworking honest man, yet the compromise was shattered with the injustice that the Ewell's brought against him. Even when Tom Robinson was found guilty in the court of law, he kept his finesse and accepted his fate and tolerated the hateful ignorance that had convicted him.
Atticus Finch could quite possibly be the most critical character that conveyed tolerance and acceptance in the novel. As a respected lawyer in a small county, Atticus spoke with a voice of both authority and dignity. His decision to represent Tom Robinson infuriated the bigots and tyrants, and with good reason; Atticus is a man of high caliber and an excellent attorney who had a genuine interest in upholding justice. The mere thought of that would be enough to chill the bones of anyone who advocated hatred and prejudice. Even though Atticus loses the case and Tom Robinson is found guilty, he is still given an intense moment of respect for his fight for justice, tolerance, and acceptance. This is illustrated after court when he receives a standing ovation and Reverend Syke's says to Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, Stand up. You're father's passin'" (211).
The courtroom is not the only environment that Atticus contributed tolerance and acceptance to. In fact, the courtroom is only a small microcosm of his life where he was a just human being striving to instill tolerance and acceptance, among other qualities, into his children. As a single father, Atticus's efforts to teach his children the right way to live is extremely prevalent. Scout, as a young and rebellious as she is, seems to be very hesitant to really learn or accept anything from her father but proves that she actually does listen to her father when she recites one of his teachings "Atticus says cheating a colored man is ten times worse than cheating a white man" (201). The significance of this quote is quite clear; it is ten times the sin to cheat someone who is already at a disadvantage, that would be like killing a mockingbird who is without wings.
Though not an active participant in the fight against injustice like Atticus, Dill is a very significant character for demonstrating tolerance and acceptance in To Kill A Mockingbird. His most prevalent contribution would be during the cross examination of Tom Robinson. In the courtroom when he began sobbing and had to leave, which is highlighted by the conversation between him, Scout, and eventually Dolphus Raymond where Dill says "...it ain't right, somehow it ain't right to do 'em this way. Hasn't anybody got any business talking like that - it just makes me sick" (199). Dill, while still young and uncorrupted by the evils of hatred and judgment, detests the actions of Mr. Gilmer, and ultimately those of society in general. Dill contributes to tolerance and acceptance by not becoming part of the prejudice and injustice that he has witnessed in the courtroom. Even Dolphus Raymond, another accepting individual, understood how Dill felt and empathized by asking "...it makes you sick, doesn't it?" (199).
To further illustrate Dill's role in conveying the theme of tolerance and acceptance, it may be beneficial to examine what he says throughout the story, or actually what he does not say. Not once does Dill make reference to blacks as "niggers" or any special reference toward them whatsoever, which would suggest that he accepts blacks as ordinary people, just as he would think of a white person. When other white people, including children and adults, ridicule Atticus and/or his children for defending Tom Robinson by shouting such derogatory terms as "nigger lover", Dill never mentions it. While it is possible that he just might be preoccupied with his own thoughts and fantasies, or even that Harper Lee did not feel the need for Dill to have any view on it, it is much more probable that his opinion is suggested by his silence on the matter; he knew it was Atticus's duty to represent people who were accused of crimes, and felt that blacks were included in those people as well as whites. Dill was neither in opposition nor agreement to Atticus's defense for Tom Robinson based on his color, as that should be irrelevant anyway, and that justice should prevail regardless of skin color, and that is the crux of tolerance and acceptance.
Tom Robinson, Dill, and Atticus are three of the most critical characters in To Kill A Mockingbird that contribute to the theme of tolerance and acceptance, but each character adds his or her own little block to build an entire foundation for which the entire book is about.
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