Prejudice is displayed by several characters throughout the duration of the novel. Many people who live in Maycomb are racists and prejudiced against black people. For example, Tom Robinson is assumed to be guilty of sexually assaulting Mayella Ewell simply because he is a black man and she is a white woman, even when the evidence points to him being innocent. The court is astonished to hear that he felt sorry for Mayella,
You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her? queries Mr Gilmer, the lawyer charged with proving Tom’s guilt. Many white people at court are shocked by Tom’s temerity in feeling sorry for a white person and from that moment on his guilty verdict seems inevitable.
Atticus believes in tolerance and equality, an attribute he would like Jem and Scout to inherit. However, his sister, Aunt Alexandra is different. The reader sees this in the way she treats Calpurnia. When Aunt Alexandra arrives at the Finch house to help take care of Jem and Scout whilst Atticus is busy with the trial, she tells Calpurnia to take her suitcase upstairs which is something Atticus would never do. During Aunt Alexandra’s missionary tea, the ladies of Maycomb feel pity for the Mruna tribe in Africa and show sympathy towards them but they later condemn the black people in their own community. This is severely prejudiced and hypocritical.
The Mruna tribe never actually existed. Harper Lee created the tribe in order to use it as an example of how hypocritical women like Mrs Merriweather can be. She is capable of showing sympathy towards the Mruna people for what she believes to be their
squalid lifestyle but is unable to feel any sympathy for the black people living in Maycomb. Instead she claims the black people of Maycomb are
sulky and does not understand their heartbreak at the result of Tom Robinson’s trial. Mrs Merriweather is more interested in the Mruna tribe as they are not Christians and believes white missionaries can save their souls by turning them into Christians and introducing them to the Bible.
Dolphus Raymond pretends to be continually drunk in order to avoid questions about the choices he has made in life. He is in a relationship with a black woman and has several children with her but he knows this would be severely frowned upon by others. He and his family are treated as outcasts. As Jem says of Dolphus’ mixed race children,
They don’t belong anywhere. Coloured folks won’t have ‘em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ‘em ‘cause they’re coloured... When talking to Scout, Jem and Dill during Tom Robinson’s court case Dolphus admits that he only actually drinks cola, commenting,
I try to give ‘em a reason, you see. It helps folks if they can latch on to a reason. If the people of Maycomb think he is drunk, Dolphus believes they will leave him alone to lead his own life, however awful they feel it to be.
However, racial intolerance is not the only prejudice to be included in the novel. Many residents of Maycomb are presented as being narrow-minded and intolerant of anyone who does not conform to their expectations. Boo Radley is persecuted and gossiped about because he has not been seen outside his house since he was a teenager. Several of his neighbours believe he is a shadowy figure who only leaves his house after dark and neighbourhood gossip has resulted in Jem picturing Boo as a monster,
Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging by his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were blood stained...
In To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee shows the theme of prejudice through:
It is evident throughout the novel that the trial is a formality only and that Tom Robinson will be found guilty.
In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life. (Atticus to Jem)
Atticus’ words reveal that the courts were always biased against black people. No matter how much evidence proved their innocence, if they had been accused of a crime by a white person they would always be found guilty.
During Aunt Alexandra’s missionary tea the white middleclass ladies discuss the awful living conditions of the women and children of the Mruna tribe in Africa. However they are far less sympathetic to the black people living in Maycomb.
Gertrude, I tell you there’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky. Their mouths go down to here. Just ruins your day to have one of ’em in the kitchen. (Mrs Merriweather to Mrs Farrow. Mrs Farrow is one of the white ladies at Aunt Alexandra’s missionary tea)
The use of the word
darky shows the lack of respect these women have towards the black community. They are not worried about the feelings of the black people who work for them or why they might be unhappy only that they themselves find it irritating. This shows how prejudiced some of the white women are.
Many inhabitants of Maycomb see Boo Radley as a threat to their safety and as an object of gossip. Very few of them consider why he stays in his house. Only Atticus and Miss Maudie believe he should be left alone in peace and feel he should no longer be a figure of speculation and gossip.
No, child,” she said, “that is a sad house. I remember Arthur Radley when he was a boy. He always spoke nicely to me, no matter what folks said he did. (Miss Maudie to Scout)
Here we see that Miss Maudie, just like Atticus, chooses to reach her own conclusions about people based on fact instead of listening to idle gossip which, in Boo Radley’s case, is always greatly exaggerated.
How does Harper Lee use the theme of prejudice in her novel?
To show how narrow minded and bigoted some of the inhabitants of Maycomb can be.
To highlight the differences between the characters who are racists and Atticus, who is presented as a sympathetic and tolerant character.
To reveal the negative effects prejudice can have on a community.