From racism to gender roles, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee comments on the prejudices intertwined in the fabric of Southern society in the USA during the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. This iconic novel is celebrated even today as an example of great American literature. Lee creates characters brimming with complexity, personality and most importantly, human flaws and struggles.
The main character around which the novel revolves is a six-year-old girl: Jean Louise Finch, mostly known as Scout. Scout grows up in the small town of Maycomb, a fishbowl where everyone knows everyone and privacy and secrets are unheard of. She is a ‘tomboy’, always in overalls and muddy shoes, spending the majority of her time playing with her older brother, Jem, and friend, Dill.
She is fierce and tough, and sees the world in black and white. Jem, four years her senior, is more adept at spotting the grey areas. Both children have been raised by their father, Atticus, a forthcoming lawyer with a strong sense of morals and great respect for his two children.
When I read the novel for the first time, I was immediately intrigued by Lee’s depiction of gender roles and gender prejudice within Maycomb’s society. The story is narrated by both young Scout and an older, more mature Scout reflecting on her childhood. It covers a span of three years and follows the children through turbulent and confusing times in their lives.
Accustomed to a quiet and relatively monotonous routine, Scout finds adjusting to the changes in the world around her based on new events in Maycomb difficult. This bildungsroman, a coming of age novel, makes interesting observations about many aspects of Scout’s life and surroundings, but perhaps the most astute are about her existence as a young girl expected to conform to societal standards for women. These standards are best illustrated by the personalities and behaviours of the women in the novel.
Scout is used by Lee to demonstrate how societal expectations of feminine behavior are pushed upon girls right from a young age. She is described as a tomboy, and does not fit the stereotype for young, gentle and petite girls. She is tough and playful and spends her time outdoors instead of behaving in the expected ‘ladylike manner’.
She initiates brawls, curses with excitement and makes curt and sarcastic comments about adults. All in all, she comes across as a likeable and high-spirited character, who readers can easily empathize with.
Scout is used by Lee to demonstrate how societal expectations of feminine behavior are pushed upon girls right from a young age.
Scout doesn’t conform to gender roles, and is upset when she is made to. As she grows up, she has to begin attending the local school. On her first day of school she is forced to wear a dress, much to her displeasure. She feels uncomfortable in it, and unlike herself. However, she has no choice as it was deemed the appropriate clothing for girls.
She is always in the company of Jem and Dill, and as the children grow up, she finds herself on the receiving end of comments from the boys such as, “Scout, I’m telling you for the last time, shut your trap or go home-I declare to the lord you’re gettin’ more like a girl everyday”. When she warns her brother against sneaking out at night and accepting foolish dares, he retaliates with comments such as the one above, fueled by gender prejudices insinuating that girls are weak and easily scared.
This ensures that she is silent and doesn’t voice any more concerns lest she is forbidden from joining their adventures in the future. Over time, she is distanced from the two boys, who begin to exclude her from their games and spend their time together. This brings her into closer contact with the other strong female character of the book, Miss Maudie Atkinson.
Miss Maudie is the Finch’s neighbour, and becomes Scout’s friend when she is left out of games by Jem and Dill. Miss Maudie is continuously optimistic, and sees the bright side of every situation. When her house is half burnt down in a fire, she comments, “Always wanted a smaller house, Jem Finch. Gives me more yard. Just think, I’ll have more room for my azaleas now!” She faces every situation with practicality and unwavering positivity.
When she is insulted by foot-washing Baptists for gardening, she quotes the Bible right back at them and wears a “grin of the uttermost wickedness”. She is a strong female figure Scout respects and trusts for advice, unlike other ladies in the town, who spend their time discussing others’ lives and problems.
Lee does not give her a husband and children, which adds to her independence and confidence as an individual, instead of as a character in a familial setting. Throughout the novel, she helps Scout understand their world better, and does not treat her as a naïve child. When discussing religion and Christianity with Scout, she tells her, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of – oh, of your father”.
Scout confides in her and values her opinions, and Miss Maudie is almost a mother figure in Scout’s life. Scout reflects upon her relationship with Miss Maudie, saying, “She had an acid tongue in her head” but “Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie” as “she was our friend”.
While being optimistic and kind, Miss Maudie is not afraid to voice her beliefs or move against the tide of popular opinion. At a ladies’ tea, she is upset by the women being intolerant and racist towards their black help, and snaps at one of the women complaining about her cook.
Scout recollects that, “When Miss Maudie was angry her brevity was icy. Something had made her deeply angry, and her grey eyes were as cold as her voice”. Miss Maudie is disgusted by the prejudiced opinions of people, and does not subscribe to them. She also supports Scout and helps her to stand up against forces that try to push Scout into stereotypical assumptions and judgments about others.
In contrast to Miss Maudie, Scout’s Aunt Alexandra represents the ideal Southern family-oriented woman. She is at the other end of the spectrum, with her conventional beliefs and constant disapproval of Scout’s tomboyish behavior. She complains about Scout wearing overalls to Atticus who is frustrated by her frequent criticism, and Scout describes the exchange as “The only time I ever heard Atticus speak sharply to anyone”.
Scout does not understand her Aunt’s obsession with her clothing. Aunt Alexandra repeatedly tells her that she cannot be a lady if she does not dress like one, and that she should engage in more ‘girly’ activities. Aunt Alexandra also says that as a girl, Scout should “be a ray of sunshine” in Atticus’s life, reinforcing the patriarchal expectation that all girls must be positive and happy continuously and brighten up the lives of their husbands or fathers.
Aunt Alexandra repeatedly tells her that she cannot be a lady if she does not dress like one.
She enforces this and tries to get Scout to conform to gender roles despite seeing how resistant she is to them. She takes part in all the ‘right activities’, such as hosting missionary circles, joining clubs and gossiping with a passion. She is portrayed as judgmental and is quick to create prejudices in her mind about others.
Scout reflects upon her Aunt’s attitude and says, “When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning”. Aunt Alexandra takes it upon herself to exert a ‘feminine influence’ on Scout’s life as she grows, and Scout resents her interference. She does not support or guide Scout as Miss Maudie does, and tries to make her change.
While Scout tries to remain indifferent towards her Aunt and her efforts, at a point in the novel, she begins to respect her. When dealing with a crisis during her ladies’ tea, Aunt Alexandra regains her composure and handles it gracefully, resulting in Scout remarking, “If Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I”.
As we watch Scout mature and gain a deeper understanding of the adult world, we see how her environment influences her opinions. The roles of Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra are the most significant in Scout’s upbringing and perspective of the world. To Kill a Mockingbird covers several themes that are challenging and often uncomfortable to encounter and explore, such as racism and loss of innocence.
However, it is regarded as timeless for a reason- Lee’s skilful character development and narration creates a powerful and relatable story, one that is both informative and thought provoking. As a feminist, seeing its depiction of sexism and gender stereotypes was interesting as it helped me gain a better understanding of the manifestations of conventional ideals in a young girl’s life.
Featured Image Credit: Adarsh Badri