According to Atticus, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…” (p.35) How does Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, position readers to empathise with characters in the novel?
The iconic and Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, engages the reader through its poignant characters. Each character in the novel has been carefully constructed, enabling the reader to empathise with them. Set against the backdrop of an old farming settlement in southern Alabama during the 1930s, it allows the reader to recall universal themes of poverty, unemployment and strong racial discrimination. Combined with vivid and relatable characters, narration, imagery and symbols, Lee successfully brings a character’s point of view to the reader that enhances the ability to empathise. Through the voice of Scout Finch, the reader can empathise with two major characters, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.
The reader is taken through young Scout’s journey of self-discovery in learning new values, determining her morals and finding compassion, growing up in the traditional town of Maycomb. The use of the first person child narrator is to provide humour and enable the reader to feel a sense of security and trust, as innately children are more honest and inquisitive. As a child, her innocence and naivety is apparent. In the midst of a volatile situation, Scout being so unaware, blatantly begins a polite conversation with a mob, “Hey Mr Cunningham. How’s your entailment getting along?” (p.157) Scout changes perspectives as narrator from innocent child to insightful adult looking back on her life, allowing the reader two viewpoints when forming an opinion on Maycomb’s most notorious characters, mysterious Boo Radley and alleged black sex offender, Tom Robinson. The reader learns of prejudice and great oppression through her innocent eyes, as she symbolises the purity of children’s minds. As a result of the young narrator, the reader empathises more strongly and thereby becomes emotionally involved in the narrative.
It is a universal truth that small towns like Maycomb have conservative beliefs, with an emphasis on social status. Scout explores this through her insight into the widely known prejudiced opinions of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Both characters, although so different in circumstances, are similar in context and considered outcasts. Boo, because he refuses to participate in society and Tom due to the colour of his skin. Lee’s implementation of metaphors enables the reader to gain an understanding of Maycomb’s ignorant views. Boo is the object of rumours and childhood imagination and is described as a “malevolent phantom” (p.14) Creating a firm image of a ghostly, intimidating figure enhanced by the description, “Shutters and doors of the Radley house were closed on Sundays, (which was) alien to Maycomb’s ways.” (p.15) The use of the word ‘alien’ reveals how victimised and estranged the Radley family are. Tom Robinson’s inferiority is made evident through Scout’s recount of schoolyard bullying for her father’s legal representation of Tom. She recalled being told her “… daddy was a disgrace an’ that nigger oughta hang from the water-tank!” (p.82) The derogatory language reveals the widespread prejudice and attitude to Tom’s alleged sentence, because of his race. “To Maycomb, Tom’s death was typical…Typical of a nigger’s mentality to have no plan, no thought for the future…” (p.244) The 21st century reader is able to empathise with Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, as they are unjustly spoken for in the towns gossiping and rumours, without taking the time to “consider things from his point of view…” (p.35) For Boo, it was his unspoken voice, victimisation and alienation from a close-knit society, but for Tom it was more bigotry, as the reader recognises his bleak future, not only as an alleged rapist, but also for being ill fated in being born dark-skinned during the 1930s, a time of strong segregation. Through Lee’s presentation of societal norms and its consequences, the reader can feel empathy to characters that choose to be different or have no choice to at all.
Despite the character’s negative connotations, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are characterised as heroes in an isolating and judgemental society. Through Scout’s perspective, the reader learns of Boo’s protective instincts for her and Jem, despite the children making a mockery of him. “You were so busy looking at the fire you didn’t know it when he [Boo Radley] put the blanket on you.” (p.78) Likewise with Tom Robinson, as he realised in helping Mayella would lead to negative repercussions, yet he did so anyway. “Mr Ewell didn’t seem to help her none, and neither did the chillun.” (p.207) Symbolism enhances this notion through Atticus and Miss Maudie’s ideology of it being sinful to kill a mockingbird, aiding in the reader’s understanding of Boo and Tom’s purity. “Mockingbird’s don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (p.96) The mockingbird is a symbolic reminder that Boo and Tom do not cause any harm, but simply pour their hearts out to help others – it would not be just to damage their good nature. An empathetic response is created through the reader’s understanding that the magnitude of social and racial oppression does not hold one back from wanting to help out a fellow human being in need.
To Kill a Mockingbird explores the theme that the only way to understand a person is to “stand in his or her shoes” (p.283) and “consider things from his point of view…” (p.35) From the perspective of young narrator, Scout Finch, the reader gains a profound understanding of empathy, which resonates in its strong characterisation of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Harper Lee delivers a masterpiece, which questions society in its judgements and lack of understanding, a universal and ceaseless issue in humanity.
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