In the novel “To kill a mocking bird” by Harper Lee, the author has done a wonderful job of emphasising the ever present them of prejudice, using symbolism, and setting to grip the reader’s interest. The novel is set in the time of the great American depression in the nineteen thirties, in a “tired little town” called Maycomb, situated in the American Deep South. In this time period (just after the American civil war) a great deal of prejudice exists. This prejudice exists in many forms including the white communities reluctance to adhere to the equal opportunities policy laid down by the “Yankee” government.
Fuelled by their feeling of superiority over those of African-American descent. Prejudice also festers in the form of persecution against anyone against the norm, with this being apparent in the town’s view of “Boo Radley”, and his consequent label of “freak”, given in ignorance by his fellow town members. Maycomb is a very deprived town, badly crippled by the poor economical goings on of the financial market, and damaged by its hierarchical social structure, and sheer ignorance of those in the minority.
The setting itself provides a great deal of fuel to the furnace of prejudice that is a core theme of the novel. With the book being set in this time of heated anger where the rich are poor, and the poor even poorer, and where the gaps in society (both social and economic) are wider than ever before. This in turn with the deeply anti-Yankee policy adopted by the state of Alabama, contributes greatly to the prejudice theme. With the stage being set in such a dramatic way it is the perfect setting for such a hated emotion as prejudice to thrive.
The issue of racial prejudice is a core theme in this book and is identified early on in the book, setting is used to great effect, because of the town’s people’s reluctance to accept the “niggers” as equals. Without the setting the racial tension the theme would not be nearly as heated as it is in the novel. This small “tired-old town” creates a hierarchical social status where anyone against the majority suffers. A great amount of prejudice is seen in the form of Mrs Duboose, she is a woman deeply tormented by cancer, and an uncontrollable morphine addiction.
The courage that the woman shows throughout her painful experience (heightened by her decision to give up the morphine), shows a great deal of courage living with the pain as she has. With the society being the way it is, her spells of coldness, and sharp tongued anger, fuelled a prejudice unjustified for her immense bravery. The incident when she is sharp tongued to the children shows the amount of pain she is dealing with. Not until her death is the true extent discovered, unfortunately another case of prejudice gone wrong.
In the early stages of the book it becomes increasingly apparent that prejudice is a major contributing factor in the theme of the book. The theme of prejudice, is most emphasised by the persecution of “Boo Radley” The social conflict in the town is first shown when The Radley’s are first mentioned. “The Radleys, welcome anywhere in town, kept to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb (p. 13). ” The use of the word predilection clearly shows the nature of Maycomb society. Scout and Jem’s fascination with Boo Radley is clearly apparent right form the start of the novel.
The sheer mystery of his character greatly increases the children’s desire to see and talk to him. The children are told many stories about boo, many fabricated by the higher end of the social spectrum, fuelled by a bitter ignorance. It was said, “when peoples azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them”(p. 14), and also “Radley pecans killed you”. This popular myth, a cruel, callowness creation of the unknowing children, and greatly influenced by the somewhat childish ignorance of their elders.
It was facts like these that lead the children (and for that matter the entire town) to believe that Boo Radley was something he truly wasn’t, a rumour making the kids think of “… making Boo Radley come out. “(p. 14). Jem, scout and dill were to find out that the rumours were not to be believed, and this was their first taste of prejudice, and how it can be horribly wrong. The children devised a number of ways of “making boo come out”, picking the most inconspicuous ways possible, fuelled by their so-called knowledge of his character.
These included several approaches to the “Radley place”. One particular time that they decided to investigate was one night when they entered the Radley property, during all the commotion gunshots were fired and, jem unintentionally lost his “pants” in the Radley fence. Only the next time they go near the place, he discovers his ripped pants, sewn, and repaired, just sitting they’re “expectin’… “(p. 64) him. This is the first sign we see that possibly boo, maybe isn’t as horrible as he is first made out to be, a first indication of the bitter irony of the prejudice of Boo Radley.
The second of such encounters occurs over a period of time when the children start to receive little present in their “knot hole”. When Mrs Radley passes away and the doctor confirms a death due to natural causes, this still causes scout and Jem to be “disappointed” with the outcome, as they still firmly believe despite Mr Radleys kind gestures, that he “got her at last”(p. 70). Then next gesture that boo Radley performs is no less, secretive or kind-hearted as the previous. During the night of the incineration of miss Maudies residence, in all the commotion jem and scout sit regardless watching the events unfold.
In this time period boo covers scout with a blanket another example of his good deeds, and now the children seem almost convinced with boo’s real personality, this penultimate encounter really setting in stone how they truly see him. Finally the children encounter an enraged Mr ewuel, where boo comes to their aid, saving their life an ultimately killing the deserved bob ewuel. Although in this fearless act of bravery not only does Arthur kill the evil that exist in the physical form of Mr ewuel, but also the even grater mental evil that is prejudice.
Now Arthur has managed to shed the shackles of his “freak” label, and prove his true character and personality. The setting plays a big part in the development of boo because in other settings, his behaviour could go unnoticed, but in a society where a “closed doors ment illness and cold weather only” (p. 15) his behaviour was noticed and commented upon, this allowing the theme of prejudice to be explored. Also symbolism plays a big part in the ongoing theme of prejudice with Mr Radley and others being indirectly compared with mocking birds.
In the same way that ” mocking birds never harm anyone… “Boo never harmed anyone, because “… all they do is sing”, and all Boo did was keep himself to himself, because of his shy nature. Scout herself finally realise this when she wonders what it must be like to “stand in his shoes and walk about in them”, she has over come the prejudice, and understands his ways. So in conclusion, throughout the course of the novel the theme of prejudice is explored in great detail, being interwoven into the plot with extensive detail using setting and symbolism to astonishing effect.
The use of setting is extensive, and essential to the story as it provides a solid foundation for the writer to build the theme of prejudice on, and through extensive use of symbolism she expands and elaborates on the theme to create a very, deep and thought-provoking novel. Not only do the characters show the power, and evil that prejudice can bring, as well as its devastating effect, but also how it can be conquered. The way, in which Boo Radley proved his worth and showed the whole town, really does prove that prejudice is ignorance.
It also shows that as atticus stated to get to know someone truthfully, extensively, and fully, your really need to “climb into they’re skin”. Although the literal has little meaning, the hidden message says, we all deserve to be treated the same, but let everyone live their life how they want to. It also shows that not through prejudice, but understanding and compromise can we create a better society, backed by the words of a great prophet, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it”.