Do characters in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird construct their own identities?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of American fiction. One of the reasons for this success is its handling of a pressing social issue, namely, racial prejudice. Secondly, the work is structurally layered, allowing readers numerous interpretations. For example, the book can be studied for its socio-economic indications under the Marxist critical framework. It could be studied with equal felicity under the feminist, psychoanalytic or formalistic critical frameworks. To this extent, the novel can be said to be ‘polysemic’. Polysemy is the state of having more than one meaning. Though first coined to describe a linguistic phenomenon, the term has now gained a broader meaning so that it is also applied in discussing authorial intent in literary works. Also implied in the term ‘polysemy’ is the notion that perceptions vary depending on the particular identity of the reader, and
“that words are multi-ordinal; these characteristics can lead to or permit conscious or unconscious confusion. The existence of diverging perceptions and language are explained through general semantics. Two significant ideas of general semantics are non-identity and infinity of values. Each of these ideas is manifest in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.” (Kasper, 2006, p.273)
With the help of insights offered by Marxist school of literary criticism, this essay will argue that social class is a major divisive factor in the novel.
A central theme of the novel is its characters’ tendency to strongly identify with their race. Just as race separates, the human will is shown to overcome this difference. The decision by Atticus Finch to defend the black Tom Robinson is the most luminous example. Atticus’ defense of the innocent Robinson proves a daunting task. Despite convincing evidence to acquit Robinson from his guilt, the exclusively white jury convicts him all the same. Even the prison officials concoct a fake encounter and shoot Robinson while he was allegedly trying to escape. What is so shocking is that even within the confines of institutions of law and law enforcement, racial identity plays a dominant and destructive role. Clearly, racial prejudice overwhelms notions of fairness and justice espoused by law. (Singley, 2002, p.47) Applying Marxist critical thought to the novel we see how race is strongly correlated with class. This means that all the blacks in the novel are inevitably also poor.
This relationship between race and class makes the study of Atticus Finch all that more interesting and important. Atticus Finch is an exception to the typical characterization of white men – those seen in the novel as well as they actually existed in early twentieth century America. It order to deconstruct the formative ingredients behind Atticus Finch’s identity, we have to consider his upbringing, his influences, etc. From the references available in the text, we learn that Atticus Finch was a pious man. He is someone who looked up to the words of the scriptures in both letter and spirit. He brings the same attitude and mindset to his work as a lawyer. For Atticus, the spirit is more important than the literal interpretations of law – a concept he assimilated from his personal realizations of God. The manner in which Atticus brings up his own children is another indication of how his character is constructed. It is fair to assume that cherished values and virtues are inculcated by parents in their children. Just as Atticus’ children Scout and Jem are raised without prejudice or hatred, he in turn must have been raised the same way. So, it is fair to claim that Atticus’ identity development falls outside Marxist literary critique, for there is no trace of identity with class that is central to Marxism. On the other hand, religion and culture play a dominant role in Atticus’ personality makeup – in making him a broad-minded and fair-minded individual. This is what prompts him to defend an innocent black man, who has been wrongly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. During the trial,
“Atticus provides sufficient evidence for Tom’s acquittal and in fact proves that Mayella’s father, Bob, is responsible for the marks on her face and neck. However, the all-white jury convicts Tom anyway and later he is shot while trying to “escape” from prison. Bob Ewell is infuriated by the accusations made by Atticus and attacks his children Jem and Scout with a knife as they walk home from a Halloween party. Boo Radley saves the children and fatally stabs Ewell. Boo carries the wounded Jem back to the Finch house and after sitting with Scout for some time, disappears into the Radley house.” (Kasper, 2006, p.274)
The study of identities of characters in the story is facilitated through an understanding of General Semantics. Closely related to the ideas introduced by the Frankfurt school and Western Marxists, General Semantics gives rise to the concept of non-identity. Broadly speaking, the theory of non-identity states that each object/person is quite unique. The same is true of words, where they can only be employed as approximations of the actual things they stand for. Extending this theory to the novel, we learn that describing people in generalized terms can be a precarious exercise. For example, the
“townspeople and the jury are convinced Tom Robinson is guilty of raping a white girl simply because of their prejudiced view of black Americans. It was unacceptable for a black man to come anywhere near a white woman. If accused of the rape of a white woman, a black man was often lynched. During the trial, when Tom Robinson testifies that he did not rape Mayella and in fact she propositioned him, the jury refuses to believe him because it is a black man’s word against a white person’s. Tom’s character is not considered outside the generalizations made about his race.” (Murray, 2010, p.75)
Scenes like these from the novel illustrate how blacks were conferred a generic negative identity. To study the work in the backdrop of a Western Marxist model, Michel Foucault’s conceptualization ‘Panopticon and the Other’ is quite relevant. First articulated in his book ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’, this model offers a pessimistic view of society, and presents it as “is an infallible design of repression from which no one can escape, at least not without severe repercussions”. (Best, 2009, p.542) This model comes across as deterministic, thereby sapping the main characters Atticus, Scout and Jem of volition and merit. Sociologist Claudia Durst Johnson offers an alternative take on the ‘Other’ in the novel. She notes that individuals arrive at their self-identities through their encounters with external forces – forces that are outside their commonplace lives. As a result of these encounters, they “break the cultural and psychological barriers that imprison them and come to embrace a larger world.” (Best, 2009, p.543) In the cases of Scout and Jem they are still learning the rules of society and their own places in it. The thus “find alien forces in social outcasts and people of other classes. The sense of the Other is apparent in the social development of Scout and Jem, in class, race, and gender prejudices and even in the children’s fascination with Arthur “Boo” Radley.” (Best, 2009, p.543) Boo Radley as the most important ‘Other’ is quite interesting, for he belongs to their race. This illustrates the Marxist assertion that social class is one of the most powerful markers of self-identity.
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