To Kill a Mockingbird:

  • Question: Analyse how cruel or kind behaviour was used to show one or more ideas in the written text(s). Note: “Ideas” may refer to character, theme, or setting.

The text, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written by Harper Lee, is a fictional novel set in southern America during the 1940’s. The main part of the novel is set around the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson; the text is narrated by Scout Finch the daughter of Atticus, Tom’s defence attorney. In this essay the reader will see the cruel and kind behaviour of people, and how it leads to the far more sinister events that appear during the trial for a man’s life. In this text there are themes such as cruelty, and power brought about through violent acts, whether they are done overtly or by more subtle means.

During the text, guns are mentioned only a handful of times, each with either admiration of skill, or bearing bad news. Guns, according to Atticus, do not symbolise man’s bravery but a ‘false strength.’ He allows his two children to have guns but refuses to teach them how to shoot, and also never tells them of his own incredible ability with a gun. Atticus does not want his children seeing him as more of man with a gun in hands. What Atticus seems to wish to impart is that there is more to being a man than being strong and cruel, and that it is sometimes better to be seen as “weak” and kind without the need for unnecessary violence. Atticus even reprimands Scout for pointing her gun at Miss Maudie: “don’t you ever let me catch you pointing that gun at anybody again.” This shows Atticus staunch attitude with the use of weapons. Atticus sees them as a tool, and maybe even an unnecessary one. Atticus’ dedication to this idea is exhibited when he stands guard outside Tom’s cell, defenceless ( he is unarmed); Atticus chooses to use his words, rather than turn on another using such a deadly force.

The next time a gun is a significant aspect of the text is in the shooting of Tom Robinson. Tom is shot seventeen times through his chest while trying to escape prison. His death is done with immense brutality and without an ounce of respect for the body of the man who would have been stopped with the first shot. The way guns are used and talked about in this sense is with the power they give: power brought about through guns as a tool of violence. This use of guns is seen far too often in modern news and media, more often than not as a reflection of the events of Tom’s death. Young black men, in America, are shot down without warning by white cops. Deaths such as Alton Sterling, shot twice in his car on July 5th 2016, and Michael Brown shot August 9th 2014, for the accusation that he had a gun (he did not), show how armed officers in America are taking their cruel intentions and using guns in situations where they have the power to unnecessarily take a person’s life. Just like with Tom Robinson, cruel behaviour by people in the text and in the real world show how guns are simply abused as a tool to bring about power through acts of violence on another human being. As Mahatma Gandhi once stated, “non-violence is a weapon of the strong.”

Throughout the trial we see the power play occurring through multiple characters: Atticus, Bob Ewell (the father of said rape victim Mayella Ewell) and Mr Horace Gilmer, the prosecutor in the trial. How each of the men treat this grapple for the power of the court is different, and these acts show more to reader of who they are as people. For example Bob Ewell attempts to grab for power during the trial, through violent attention-seeking acts. Bob Ewell is the most likely candidate to have actually beaten Mayella. We see him in the trial asserting his dominance over her with subtle threats seen in this quote here, “Mayella looked at her father…He sat straight up and waited for her to answer.” This proves to the characters unblinded by the facade Bob Ewell has built, presenting himself  as an outstanding citizen, that he is indeed implying a threat towards Mayella in the courtroom and may have done so in the past. The Prosecutor, Mr Gilmer, is far more sophisticated and subtle with his cruelty, so that only the innocent children of the court refuse to ignore his bias. His word choice is obviously demeaning towards Tom, mocking him by calling him ‘boy,’ treating the accused as less of a man than himself and presenting Tom as less of a man to the court. “The way that man called him ‘boy’ all the time an’ sneered at him, an’ looked around at the jury every time he answered-” This quote from an inconsolable seven year old Dil shows the impact of what Mr Gilmer does to Tom, in comparison to how he treats the Ewell’s and other white witnesses. Mr Gilmer asserts his dominance through the power that he has been given in the form of white privilege. This kind of behaviour can be seen in other texts, such as the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ where the three main black female characters are called girl and have to fight on a day to day bases to been seen for the worth they give towards the company, where they are employed. They are questioned as to whether they deserve a job that is handed to others:” If you were a white man would you wish to be an engineer?.. I wouldn’t have to wish sir, I would already be one.” This quote from one of the women illustrates my point on how people from the 1960s, were still so disadvantaged in comparison to their white counterparts. Every aspect of their lives and careers, is affected by the prejudice of those in their communities. In the 21st century western countries  we choose to believe that behavior such as Mr Ewell’s and Mr Gilmer’s  is in the past but this is not the case. Violence is probably used more in the world today as a form of power, whether it is through creating more arsenal and larger armies or through the bombing of hospitals and schools, simply to prove one’s violent capabilities. In our modern world violence has become the only way to power; this is shown in the text through the cruel behaviour of Bob Ewell and Mr Gilmer. Both men go for power differently but are essentially fighting for the same team: one where men can wear suits and call themselves a gentleman while calling for the slaughter of innocent men.

Atticus, unlike other members of the court, treats everyone with the same level of care and respect. His behaviour is never cruel, but kind, especially to those he questions. Atticus is patient, calm and collected. This can be seen in the quote, “nobody had thundered, there were no arguments between opposing counsel, there was no drama.” His power in the courtroom comes from his ability to command attention and to lay out facts in their simplest form. He allows the majority to understand his points, through precise plans and by building up the story of the Ewell’s home life. As the children say, Atticus doesn’t show off or dramatise the case: “With his infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas, he could make a rape case as dry as a sermon.” Unlike Bob Ewell he doesn’t try to get a rise from people, or make a spectacle. Atticus is there to do his job and to treat this case the same as any other, rather than give in to the town’s idea of a show down between two men bent on winning.

Against Atticus’ best efforts, the town wants a conflict, they want a spectacle. The men of the jury, and most of the people of Maycomb prove themselves to be cruel enough to send a man to his death, rather than face the evidence against one of their own. Even if Bob Ewell is trash to Maycomb, he is white trash and that in the end is what makes the difference in a trial of life and death. Nothing Atticus could do or say would sway the whole court, and those he did sway did not have the courage to speak up. An example of an individual’s kindness losing to cruel behaviour can be seen in the 2016 American elections. Donald Trump, the new American president, won the 2016 election through showboating and rash behaviour. He said terrible and stupid things, such as “I could stand in 5th avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters,” but he won nonetheless. His actions were appallingly cruel towards minorities, calling them criminals and rapist at his rallies. However, Donald Trump’s competition was a woman, and America was apparently not ready to have its first female president. Hillary Clinton was his competition, a woman, well spoken and one that stuck to her campaign faithfully. Like with Bob Ewell and Atticus, one man is loud and aggressive, the other calm and reserved. One is obviously lying, as their stories don’t match. They yell when faced with conflict; the other presents the supported evidence and remains patient under the pressure of unapproving eyes. Much like with the election, and with the trial in the text, these opposing characters go head to head in a competition that one tries to keep civil, while the other tries, and not in vain, to gain attention. Bob Ewell can be seen in Donald Trump, and Atticus in Hillary Clinton in this situation. As a whole we, the reader, the people of Maycomb, the citizens of America, know who is the right choice. Sadly the characters that are often chosen for leadership, or win the case, tend to be ones that are perceived as powerful and dominant. This subconscious behaviour of our own human nature puts men of violence into places of power; it allows them to win trials and to sway the vote in their direction, because when faced with a struggle, humans will fall back in line behind whomever is most powerful. This is what lead to Donald Trump’s triumph, lead to Bob Ewell’s win, lead to the death of freedom for more than just Tom Robinson. Ultimately the neglecting of kindness allows cruelty to prevail, leading onto how power in the text and in our own lives allows for its gain through violence and cruelty.

The text, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is reflection to the readers of their own behaviour or attitude towards people, times, or actions that they have taken or could take. The character’s actions show the effects of ignorance and cowardliness in the face of conflict. It shows how the kindness of one person can sway some,  but the majority is needed to make any significant ripples in the water. We acknowledge the poor actions of the accusers, and the way in which others flock to the idea of guilty until proven innocent, even where the opposite approach is more fair and more morally right. The town of Maycomb and many people in our own lives look for the bad in everyone first. Some people, such as Atticus and children, firstly look for the good in others. They choose to believe in the good man until that idea is no longer the truth. They give those that may not deserve it the benefit of the doubt. For example Atticus takes no precautions for his children’s safety after he is attacked by Bob Ewell. Scout although never having met Boo Radley treats him as a friend. This show of kind behaviour is rare in the text, struggling against cruelty in its most subtle and extreme forms. However, kindness is present in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as it is present in our everyday lives: “When you choose to see the good in others, you end up finding the good in yourself.” – unknown.  Kindness is a virtue, found few and far between, but we must be like Atticus if we want fairness, to become an example of how we want our society to treat others. Cruelty of the masses wins out in the text, it doesn’t have to in life as well.

 

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