[A Marxist Reading of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird]
According to Leonard Sidney Woolf, “there is nothing to which men cling more tenaciously than the privileges of class” (Russo). Marxist critics would agree with this statement, but they would also try to correct the false consciousness it represents. Why do men cling so tenaciously to their class? Tyson points out that, “classism is the belief that our value as human beings is directly related to the social class to which we belong” (Learning 54). Therefore, those in the higher classes are “by birth, more intelligent, honorable, energetic, and dependable” while those unfortunate enough to be born into the lower classes are “slow-witted, dishonorable, lazy, and undependable” (Tyson, Learning 56). An important goal of Marxism is to demolish classist ideologies, and a goal of any Marxist literary critic is to look for ways a text promotes or criticizes the Marxist way of thinking. Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird promotes Marxist ideology in three distinct ways. First, the text portrays those who seem to embrace the classist and racist ideologies as an ignorant and mean-spirited community. Second, the text shows Atticus Finch, the main advocate for a Marxist agenda, in the most favorable light of any character. Third, though Atticus is a representative of the anti-classist, anti-racist sector, the rest of the Marxist-acting townfolks still depend on him to be their hero in more than one situation. Although the text demonstrates the ideologies of classism and racism in a variety of ways, it effectively determines that these views are only harmful and demonstrate ignorance and inhumanity on the partakers.
According to Tyson, “from a Marxist perspective, differences in socioeconomic class divide people in ways that are much more significant than do differences in religion, race, ethnicity, and gender” (Critical Theory 50). Tyson also claims that, to Marxists, ideologies are merely a product of social conditioning (Critial Theory 50). The characters in To Kill a Mockingbird hold strongly to two main ideologies: classism and racism, both of which have been socially programmed into their culture. Marian Wright Edelman, the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi state bar, claims that , “if parents snicker at racial and gender jokes, another generation will pass on the poison adults still have not had the courage to snuff out.” Edelman’s quote comes true in Lee’s novel; the only difference is that parents are not merely snickering at a joke—they are passing on genuine classist opinions. The ideological programming has been passed on through the generations, from parent to child, so that the entire town has a bigoted view.
Critic Michael Pearlman points out that it is “social status and cultural affiliation rather than financial position” that rules the classist hierarchy in Maycomb (1995). These classes range from both white folks to black folks, and everything goes back to family in the end. Few citizens of Maycomb are immune to the classifying and commodifying of people in their small town, and even those that are immune still live in the thick of it.
Scout, as the narrator of the novel and a child, gives readers the best view of people, from her innocent state of mind. In the beginning of the novel, Scout is already being impressed upon by society’s views of class. At six years old she understands the process of devaluing people like the Cunninghams, who are a poor farming family. Scout’s superior reaction to young Walter Cunningham is rewarded with a lecture from the family’s black cook, Calpurnia. Calpurnia understands the class system Maycomb holds; while she does not deny that the Finches are “better’n the Cunninghams” she firmly tells Scout “it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ‘em” (Lee 25).
Scout is portrayed in a negative light in the beginning scenes of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her tendencies to lord over those less powerful than herself and her impressions of the African American community show just how much society has been able to condition into her. From descriptions and encounters with her father, readers can see she has not picked up these ideologies from him—Atticus is careful to contradict everything she says that has the slightest hint of a racist or classist tone. Rather, these ideologies are impressions pieced together slowly from neighbors, school, church, and anywhere else she ventures in town. Readers find Scout to have redeemed herself of earlier classist views by the end of the novel, presumably through the further interaction and influence of people like her father, Miss Maudie, and Calpurnia, who are able to instill the right beliefs in her. As she gets old enough to form her own ideas of people, she comes to one important realization, as she tells Jem after Tom Robinson’s trial: “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (Lee 227).
Scout’s Aunt Alexandra is one of the predominant examples of the negative views given to classist characters. Scout “never understood her preoccupation with heredity” (Lee 130). Aunt Alexandra is Scout’s worst nightmare, “Atticus's only sister [who] comes to live with the family and constantly tells Scout she must learn how to act, that she has a place in society: womanhood with its stifling position of prim behavior and wagging tongues is the essence of southern decorum” (May 1993). For Aunt Alexandra, everything comes back to the family name. She will not permit Scout to play with Walter Cunningham, though Scout claims “they’re good folks” (Lee 223). Good is not good enough for Aunt Alexandra, because the Cunningham’s are “not […her family’s…] kind of folks” (Lee 225).
Other minor characters in To Kill a Mockingbird contribute to the negative view of classist and racist people. Mrs. Dubose, a cantankerous old lady who lives down the street, insults both Atticus and his children for Atticus’ involvement in the Tom Robinson case. Scout’s cousin Francis is described as “the most boring child […Scout had…] ever met” and through dialogue between Scout and him, readers see the snobbish attitude he shows in everything he does (Lee 81). Francis, at just eight years old, claims that Atticus’ convictions are the humiliation of the family, an attitude he has picked up from his grandmother at the illustrious Finch Landing (Lee 83). The missionary society is seen in a highly hypocritical light as they discuss the suffering of an indigenous tribe in Africa and openly criticize their own African neighbors who are barely getting by (Lee 231). The mob that comes to Tom Robinson’s cell the night before the trial is portrayed as an angry and dirty group—“there was a smell of stale whiskey and pigpen about,” according to Scout—clearly part of one of the lower “classes” of Maycomb (Lee 152). Though they themselves are disadvantaged by the class system, their ignorant attitudes drive them on to continue the vicious cycle and in fact it takes “an eight-year-old child to bring ‘em to their senses” (Lee 157). Only when Scout confronts Mr. Cunningham, in what she views as pleasant conversation about the entailment Atticus had previously helped him with, does the man seem to feel any sense of shame in what he is about to do the well-mannered lawyer.
In comparison to the ignorance and unkind attitudes of the majority of Maycomb’s citizens, Atticus appears to be the one ray of hope in the novel. A character sketch of Atticus Finch would show a man who is seemingly ahead of his time. In a setting where both classism and racism are the norm of social life, Atticus stands head and shoulders above his fellow Alabama citizens in his treatment of equality to everyone, regardless of social status, economic value, family differentiation, or race. Atticus does not embody the traditional views of classism in his town, though he does recognize the differences that must be allowed for certain people of differing statuses. For instance, when Scout questions why she must go to school while the Ewell children are allowed truancy, Atticus explains that “sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little bit in special cases” (Lee 30). He is not condemning those who are involved in these special cases; he is merely showing compassion on those who would be labeled as being in a less fortunate class.
Whereas the rest of the town sees the Ewell clan as the lowest of the low, Atticus has nothing but compassion on them, even when insulted by both the father and the eldest daughter of the group. Bob Ewell stops him in the street to spit in his face and threaten him, and Atticus merely walks away (Lee 217). Atticus explains, “if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there” (Lee 218). In the beginning of the story, Atticus explains to Scout why Bob Ewell is allowed to hunt out of season— because he spends all the children’s relief funds on alcohol (Lee 31). Atticus shows genuine concern for the Ewell children, even if they are a dishonest and lazy group. He understands they are merely a product of their conditioning, and their conditioning has come straight from their father.
As for the racism of the other townsfolk, Atticus claims “why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand” (Lee 88). The only thing he does understand is that if he does not do all he can to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, he could not face his children again without feeling like a hypocrite (Lee 88). He knows that “the jury couldn’t possibly be expected to take Tom Robinson’s word against the Ewells’ [… but he…] intend[s] to jar the jury a bit” (Lee 88). Atticus understands the change will not come about overnight, or even relatively soon. Miss Maudie tells Jem and Scout it’s a step “just a baby-step, but it’s a step” and explains to them “that Judge Taylor naming Atticus to defend that boy was no accident” (Lee 215-216).
Atticus Finch is the hero of the story. What is important to note is that he is the hero to almost everyone, not just those that embrace his ideals. Clearly, there are many in town who disagree with him. They talk behind his back and tease his children and try their best to bring shame on his family. Yet through it all, he is the one who puts himself on the line for them. As Miss Maudie says, “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us” (Lee 215).
Two specific examples bring Atticus’ heroism to light: the trial of Tom Robinson and the day the mad dog goes through town. These accounts, though on completely different topics, are surprisingly similar in their descriptions and portrayal of Atticus, and both show readers how much the town of Maycomb does depend on a man like him.
On the day the mad dog comes down the street, Atticus is the one called to take care of it. The scene, described by Scout, shows a desolate and empty street. Everyone is waiting in the safety of their own homes, faces pressed up against the glass of their windows. Calpurnia is shielding Jem and Scout with her body, while they peer around her to catch a glimpse of the action. Then the sheriff hands the rifle to Atticus, claiming he’d “feel mighty comfortable” if Atticus took care of it. With one shot Atticus kills the dog, ending the danger, and the people come out of their hiding places. A local hero proves himself once again.
Not long after, the trial of Tom Robinson begins. Just as Atticus is chosen to protect the town from the mad dog, he is also specifically chosen to defend Tom Robinson. In her first display of heartfelt emotion, Aunt Alexandra laments to Miss Maudie, “[…] this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves […] They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do” (Lee 236). From this passage, readers begin to understand that there are others in this town who don’t agree with penalizing someone based on race; they just can’t find the courage to “make up […their…] mind[s] and declare […themselves…] about something” (Lee 222). There is simply too much fear in losing the favor of those who hold the power and money in Maycomb, as Atticus explains to Jem after Tom is convicted.
The mad dog scene is symbolic of the trial. Critic Adam Smykowski claims how “the rabid dog, Tim Johnson, represents prejudice, and how, like a rabid dog, it spreads its disease throughout the South. Atticus Finch is seen as the hero, the avenger, as he kills racism and prejudice, not allowing it to spread itself any further” (2000). The only difference between the trial and the mad dog is that Atticus is unable to destroy the pride and prejudice that has infiltrated the jurors.
Scout describes the dog as being “dedicated to one course and motivated by an invisible force… he was alist, but he was being pulled gradually toward us” (Lee 95). Like the jurors in the trial, the rabid dog has two roads he can take; upon choosing one, his efforts to retrace his footsteps and take the other path prove fruitless. The jurors, likewise, are spurred on to their prejudiced sentencing by another unseen force. Scout is unable to see it; she had thought, “mad dogs foamed at the mouth, galloped, leaped, and lunged at throats” (Lee 94). Her impression of a truly prejudiced person had been the same—they must be ugly, miserable, and hateful creatures. Jem is the one who puts it into perspective for her when he says, “I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like” (Lee 215).
Despite the differences in attitudes and opinions held between Atticus and other members of the town, he is still deeply respected. Even Braxton Bragg, a man notorious throughout the small town for disliking the black people, stands guard with a shotgun to make sure no harm comes to Atticus the night before the trial. The very fact that Atticus is named Tom Robinson’s defendant speaks volumes about the respect he is given. If the town had really wanted to make sure Tom had no chance of a trial, they would have elected anyone but Atticus to defend him. Readers can see how the townspeople are torn between the tradition and social code they cling to and the new view of things that they are beginning to think may actually be right. This is Marxism working through the novel. By seeing every negative classist and racist character viewed alongside the town hero, Atticus Finch, one can see how Marxist thought is promoted in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
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Pearlman, Michael. “The Role of Socioeconomic Status in Adolescent Literature.” Adolescence 30:117 (1995). Proquest. San Diego Christian College. 20 April 2004.
Russo, Roy. Jan. 2006. World of Quotes.com. 30 April 2006. < http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/Leonard-Sidney-Woolf/1/index.html>
Smykowski, Adam. “Symbolism and Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird.” Readings on “To Kill a Mockingbird. Ed. Terry O’Neill. San Diego, Greenhaven, 2000.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide.. New York: Garland, 1999.
Tyson, Lois. Learning for a Diverse World. New York: Routledge, 2001. < http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?RQT=341&cfc=1>
Jordan Peck, Class of 2007