Social Class and Race in To Kill A Mockingbird Imagine if you were thrown into the South in the middle of the Great Depression; you would probably be very preoccupied with race and social class. Accordingly, in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird, set in Macomb County, Alabama in the sass’s, race and social class are big issues. During these times, blacks were hated and looked down upon by many white people. The Jim Crow laws established segregation between whites and blacks and discrimination against blacks. These laws play a huge role in To Kill A Mockingbird by setting up the social environment of he book.
Throughout the book, we get introduced to many characters and families including the Cunningham, the Ells, Tom Robinson, and the Finches. All of these characters occupy a specific role in the social pyramid based on race, class, and other factors. For Scout, throughout the book, social class overrides racism in terms of how she Judges and values other people at first, but ultimately a person’s essence determines their real value. The Cunningham are looked at as very low in the social pyramid because they are of a lower class, but once Scout gets to know them, she sees that they are actually good people.
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Early on in the book, on Walter Cunningham first day of school, Miss Caroline notices he that he does not have lunch and offers to loan him a quarter, but Walter refuses. Scout explains, “He didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day. He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life” (Page 26). Scout uses many negative words in this quote, such as “didn’t,” “any,” “none,” “nor,” and “never,” creating an emphasis on what he does not have.
This wows us exactly how low the Cunningham are in the social pyramid, because they are characterized by everything they don’t have, rather then everything they do have. Later that day the Finches invite over Walter Cunningham for dinner. Scout is then confused when Walter pours molasses over his food. She says, “Walter poured syrup on his vegetables and meat with a generous hand. He would probably have poured it into his milk glass had I not asked what the Sam hill he was doing” (Page 32). In the quote, Scout thinks Walter is being rude and improper by the way he is eating.
The hears “what the Sam hill he was doing” shows how annoyed Scout is by this strange behavior. It is evident that Walter is being Judged based on his social class. Later on in the book, though, once Scout gets to know Walter better, she has a much better opinion of him. In a conversation with Aunt Alexandra, Aunt Alexandra talks about the Cunningham being “trash” (Page 301) and Scout replies by saying that they are “good folks” (Page 300). Aunt Alexandra is very harsh when she talks about the Cunningham. This is evident when she uses the words “trash” and “picking up” (Page 301).
The word trash is extremely negative, and the phrase picking up almost makes it sound like the Cunningham have some sort of disease. Aunt Alexandra is Judging the Cunningham like this because they are really poor and low in the social pyramid, but Scout defends Walter and his family by saying that they are good people. This shows us how Scout has changed her opinion on the them based on that, rather then how poor they are. The Ells are shown to be even lower in the social pyramid than the Cunningham, despite the fact that they get welfare money, because they do not have the personal worth to make up for their jack of money.
Towards the middle of the book, during a conversation about families and their land, Scout introduces the reader to the Lowell family saying, “The tribe of which Burrs Lowell and his brethren consisted had lived on the same plot of earth behind the Macomb dump, and had thrived on county welfare money for three generations” (Page 173). The fact that Scout uses the word “brethren” is interesting because it is a very fancy word for “family’ and suggests that Scout is making fun of the Ells since they are so poor and live behind the dump. This quote also tells us hat they are surviving on welfare money.
This idea comes back later during the trial when Scout says, “Every town the size of Macomb had families like the Ells. No economic fluctuations changed their status – people like the Ells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression” (Page 227). This quote also makes fun of the Ells by calling them “guests of the county. ” Furthermore, the phrase “every town the size of Macomb had families like the Ells” shows us that the Ells are bad people because it suggests that they are unwanted but cannot be avoided.
During the trial, we also find out that the Ells are big liars, since basically everything they say is untrue. While describing Mr.. Lowell, Scout says, “All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white” (Page 229). The phrase “if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water” shows us how dirty Mr.. Lowell is because his skin needs to be scrubbed a lot in order for it to look white. The word “lye” sounds like “lie,” so it also suggests how much of a liar Mr.. Lowell is.
Generally, the Ells seem as low as any family can get in the social pyramid even though they get money from the government, which means that they might have a little more money than the Cunningham. This is because the Ells are disrespectful and lazy and dishonest, while the Cunningham are down to earth and honest and do not take what they cannot pay back Tom Robinson is barely even looked upon as a person by society, but Scout sees him as a very good and therefore important person. In one of the books central scenes, Tom Robinson is accused of raping Male Lowell, Mr.. Else’s daughter, and is put on trial.
During the trial it is revealed that Tom had been helping Male with various chores around the house and Tactics Finch asks him, “Were you paid for your services? ” Tom Robinson replies by saying “No such, not after she offered me a nickel the time. I was glad to do it, Mr.. Lowell didn’t seem to help her none, and neither did the chilling, and I endowed she didn’t have no nickels to spare” (Page 256). In this quote we learn how extremely innocent and good of a person Tom Robinson is, since he did a lot of work for Male for free and was “glad to do it” only because he saw that she needed help.
Soon afterwards in the trial, Scout notes that “in their own way, Tom Robinsons manners were as good as Attic’s” (Page 260). This quote is striking in that it shows how perfect Tom Robinsons manners are in Scout’s opinion, since Tactics always has perfect manners. Also, the fact that Scout is comparing Tom Robinson to Tactics shows how highly she is coming to value Tom as a person, as she is realizing more raping Male Lowell and is found guilty even though we know that he is innocent. He goes to Jail, and towards the end of the story we find out that he has died trying to escape from Jail.
Tactics Finch comes home and announces, “Tom’s dead… They shot him” (Page 31 5), explaining that Tom was fighting for his freedom and trying to escape from Jail because he knew he was innocent, when he was shot and killed by the prison guards. The fact that Tom Robinson is innocent but gets convicted and ultimately killed due to his race shows us the amount of racism in this society and the fact that he is barely considered a human being. To Scout, though, he is an important person, and his death upsets her so much that she starts “shaking and couldn’t stop” (Page 317? Tom Robinson ends up being a very highly valued character in Scout’s mind because he is such a good-hearted and noble person. Overall, Scout learns lessons from all of these characters. Even though people were very racist during the Jim Crow era and still are in our present day, Scout is able to look past the caste system in Macomb County and determine people’s actual value based on who they are. Throughout the book, Scout learns the truth about all of these characters and also learns that a person cannot be Judged by the way they look on the outside, but what is on the inside.