There are two radically different and competing versions of family and community in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. One of these is the semi-feudal status quo of rigid divisions by race, gender, caste and social class and the other a more democratic, integrated and humane community of the future symbolized by Atticus Finch, his children and supporters. Broadly speaking, these two conflicting ideologies are not simply taking place in the small, fictional community of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. They are in conflict throughout the entire country and perhaps the world, and are not confined to one particular time or place. In the world of the 1930s, the old type of community won out, given that Tom was lynched at the end of the story, yet Lee holds out hope that this will not always be the case in the years ahead. The characters are brought together and challenged in ways that prove that family and community mean something more than just blood relatives or those of the same color and social class. Over the course of the novel, the real community of Atticus and his children comes to include other characters that support them in their efforts to fight the injustice and oppression against Tom Robinson and his people. Among these are Boo Radley, Braxton Underwood and even the poor white farmer Walter Cunningham. From the start, Scout, Jem and Dill are all united in opposing the treatment of Tom, and even though they remain in the minority others join their ‘family’ as well. On the other hand, blood relatives like Aunt Alexandra continue to represent the rigid racism and social class prejudices of the Old South. Scout is the narrator of the novel, which is told entirely from her point of view, only as an adult relating the story in flashback, and her liberal sympathies are clear from the outset.
Poverty in the South from the time of the Civil War to the Second World War made both the class and racial caste systems even more rigid, and even though the Finches were part of the white elite, they had high social standing but little money. At the opposite end of the white social scale are Bob Ewell and his family, who have been “the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations” (Lee 37). Their only real advantage in life is that their white skin gives them certain privileges that Tom and other blacks will never have. Aunt Alexandra, the sister of Atticus, is a blood relative “typifies the family-oriented aristocrat of the Old South”, including the genteel poverty so common for decades after the Civil War (Bloom 26). She also instructs Atticus to inform the children about their family history “and what it’s meant to Maycomb County throughout the years, so that you’ll have some idea of who you are, so you might be moved to behave accordingly” (Lee 136). Like all middle and upper class whites, this is a reflection of fear and insecurity, and the danger of slipping down into true poverty like the white farmers and black sharecroppers.
Nevertheless, the children know that they are related to almost all the other families in the county by blood and marriage, and that many of them even resemble each other. Atticus is skeptical of the family and community values of the Old South symbolized by Alexandra, and her rigid ideas about race and class. He believes that this ideology of Old Families is “foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s” regardless of color, religion or ancestry, and the children agree that “there’s just one kind of folks” (Lee 259-60). She tells the children that they should not associate with Walter Cunningham “because-he-is-trash”, and no amount of washing, polishing or education will ever change that fact (Bloom 27). Scout, Jem and Dill have far more moral clarity than most of the adults of the story, and “never waver in their horror at the injustice done to Tom Robinson” (Lee 24).
Atticus is hardly a radical, but rather by his own admission a conservative man who also believes in justice and fair play for blacks. He hardly questions the system of segregation that exists in the South of the 1930s, but simply by believing a black man instead of a white woman and her father “many peoplefeel that he is undermining the system that keeps whites on top of the social order” (Lee 21). As a man of conscience, he simply would not be able to live with himself if he refused to defend Tom, even though he knows perfectly well that a black man accused of raping a white woman in the South is certain to be lynched or executed. These are the values he instills into his children, and into the all others in the community that he has influenced. Most of the people in Maycomb are disabled and disadvantaged in one way or the other, physically, psychology or by their fears and prejudices. Symbolically, Jem’s disabled left arm also connects her to Tom since he has also lost the use of one arm, while Scout also resembles Mayella Elwell, who violated the ultimate boundary in the South by being attracted to a black man. All the Maycomb County residents are linked, in fact, through incest, inbreeding and common bloodlines, whether they want to acknowledge such connections or not. Not only do they resemble each other, they all share the common experience of living in a backwater Alabama town on the margins of modern society.
During the course of the novel, several white characters unexpectedly join Atticus and his children in opposing the Old South social order, at least to some degree. One of the most surprising additions of this larger family was Braxton Bragg Underwood, the editor of The Maycomb Tribune, who hates blacks yet nevertheless stands with Atticus when the lynch mob attempts to break into the jail. Scout and the other children also join in preventing the mob attack on the jail, which causes Atticus to observe that “maybe we need a police force of children” (Lee 168). Walter Cunningham, the poor white farmer so despised by Aunt Alexandra, actually ties up the jury for hours and deadlocks it while the other eleven men are eager to convict Tom. Finally, Boo Radley, the mentally disabled recluse who has hardly been seen in public for thirty years, also becomes part of the extended family, when he saves the life of Jem and Scout at the end of the story by killing Bob Ewell—the true villain of the novel. In this way, the alternative community of whites, even though they are a minority, can at least unite around the idea that the obvious injustice and brutality being committed against Tom is simply not permissible.
Bloom, Harold. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Infobase Publishing, 2007.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. HarperCollins, 1960, 1988.