Family life

There are several families in To Kill a Mockingbird and all of them are very different. Harper Lee makes it clear that the Finch family is the family she most identifies with and the one she thinks others in the neighbourhood should aspire to be like. As a father, Atticus is an ideal role model. He is just, tolerant, forgiving and fair. He treats Jem and Scout as equals and with maturity and in return they call him by his name rather than calling him Dad. This represents the fact that Atticus values their opinion as equals. He wants to show them that he will treat them as young adults. He encourages them to behave in a mature manner and to react to events in the way an adult might. Even when he is tired he always has time for them, such as when he teaches Scout to read, I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory...

Atticus does not gossip about Boo in the way that the other Maycomb inhabitants do and he tries to instil in Jem and Scout the need to leave Boo alone. Atticus spends as much time with his children as he can and tries to teach them racial tolerance through his treatment of Calpurnia, who is seen as very much one of the family.

Many families have lived in Maycomb for decades and Aunt Alexandra is particularly interested in tracing people’s heritage. Unlike her brother Atticus she does not believe in judging a person on their own merits and instead judges them on their ancestors’ behaviour. As the reader is told by Scout, Aunt Alexandra, in underlining the moral of young Sam Merriweather’s suicide, said it was caused by a morbid streak in the family. It is almost as if Aunt Alexandra believes Sam Merriweather was bound to kill himself simply because the rest of his family had always been gloomy and depressed.

It is also believed by some people that members of the Ewell family will always be untrustworthy. This makes it very difficult for individuals to break free from their family connections and be seen as individuals in their own right. It has also resulted in many residents of Maycomb becoming narrow minded and prejudiced and unable to see the world from a wider perspective. They have become inward looking and see Maycomb with its racist tendencies as the centre of their universe. People tend not to move away from Maycomb and so the same ideas and prejudices are passed from generation to generation. This is why Scout tells the reader at the start of the novel that Maycomb County had recently been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

curriculum-key-fact
This is an allusion to FDR’s first inaugural address in 1933 in which he tried to reassure America that the country could turn things around. The reference to fear is important given what happens in the novel: fear of what we don’t know is a driving factor in many prejudices.

Families like the Finch family and their neighbours such as Miss Maudie and Aunt Rachel are seen as middle class but the Ewell family are regarded as white trash. The term white trash refers to white people, particularly those living in the southern states of America, who are poor and who have a poor standard of living. The term was first heard in 1830 and was initially used by black slaves to describe poor white people. Rich white people then began to use the term to describe those white people who they felt were socially inferior to them.

The Ewells live near the town dump and Bob Ewell, who is the head of the household, cannot keep a job for very long. Instead he lives on handouts from the state, money which he selfishly spends on alcohol. This leaves his children starving and it takes Mayella Ewell a whole year to save enough money to afford to buy each of her brothers and sisters an ice cream cone. The children are dirty, illiterate and covered with lice. Through them Harper Lee presents the reader with a less than ideal family.

Dill on the other hand is well dressed and well cared for but there is still a sense that he is unwanted by his family, particularly when his mother remarries. His step-father promises to do lots of things with him but little of it comes to fruition, ...they just wasn’t interested in me. During the summer he prefers to stay with his Aunt Rachel in Maycomb.

At the Sunday service at Calpurnia’s church we see how the black families work together and help each other out. They contribute money to help Tom Robinson’s wife Helen during Tom’s trial and show how wrong those who are prejudiced against them actually are.

How is the theme of family shown in the novel?

In To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee shows the theme of family through:

  • Atticus’ treatment of his children
  • family heritage
  • the help Helen Robinson is given by fellow black families

Atticus’ treatment of his children

How does Harper Lee show this?

Atticus treats his children as mature individuals who must learn respect. When they do something wrong however, such as when Jem breaks off the heads of Mrs Dubose’s camellia bushes, Atticus does not shy away from teaching Scout and Jem a valuable life lesson. He believes this is the correct way to show that he loves them and wants the very best for them.

Evidence

There was no point in saying you were sorry if you aren’t,” said Atticus. “Jem, she’s old and ill. You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does. (Atticus to Jem)

Analysis

Atticus makes Jem face his punishment for damaging Mrs Dubose’s flowers. He does not allow him to use the fact that she was criticising Atticus as an excuse. Instead, he teaches him an important lesson about courage when Jem learns about Mrs Dubose’s addiction to the painkiller morphine.

Family heritage

How does Harper Lee show this?

Aunt Alexandra is especially concerned with family heritage. She believes an individual is only as good as their ancestors were and this allows very little scope for anyone to change and grow or to be themselves.

Evidence

Let a sixteen-year-old girl giggle in the choir and Aunty would say,It’s just goes to show you, all the Penfield women are flighty.Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak: a Drinking Streak, a Gambling Streak, a Mean Streak, a Funny Streak. (Scout as narrator)

Analysis

Many residents of Maycomb never leave the town, instead they stay close to other family members. In this way, attitudes fail to broaden and generation after generation remains as prejudiced and bigoted as their ancestors.

The help Tom Robinson’s wife Helen is given by fellow black families

How does Harper Lee show this?

Many of the white residents of Maycomb believe that their black neighbours are ignorant and uncaring. However, Harper Lee reveals how incorrect they are when she shows how the local black families contribute as much money as they can to a fund to help Helen Robinson feed her family when Tom is in jail.

Evidence

Helen can’t leave those children to work while Tom’s in jail. If everybody gives one more dime, we’ll have it. (Reverend Sykes to the black people in his church)

Analysis

The fact that the members of the church are willing to keep giving and giving until an adequate amount of money has been raised, is indicative of just how generous they are. Harper Lee wants the reader to understand that the black people living in the community were respectful and honest people.

Question

How does Harper Lee use the theme of family in her novel?

To show that the Finch family is a good example of family life.

To show that not all families are the same.

For example the Ewell family have hard lives due to the selfish behaviour of Bob Ewell, the head of the household.

To show that in narrow minded Maycomb it is almost impossible to leave family history behind.

To show that regardless of what prejudiced white people think, the black families in the community care about each other.