Women’s Roles in To Kill a Mockingbird
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, originally published in 1960, readers are introduced to Atticus Finch and his family as he works to defend an innocent black man in a southern town. Briefly, the story is that of a small town lawyer (Atticus Finch) who is hired to defend a black man of the community who is accused of raping a white woman as told from the innocent viewpoint of the lawyer’s 9-year-old daughter, Scout. Atticus proves the black man is innocent of all charges while implicating that any damage done was actually caused by the girl’s abusive father, but the defendant is found guilty anyway by the all-white jury. In the meantime, the children have made friends with their eccentric mentally handicapped neighbor, Boo Radley, who has spent the majority of his life imprisoned by his parents in the house next door. Feeling shamed by the revelations of the trial, the father of the raped girl determines to murder Atticus’ children in retaliation, but is instead killed in the dark by the mentally handicapped eccentric who has been keeping an eye out for the children. Throughout the story, there is not a single important female in the lives of the children, as the mother died when they were much smaller; however, the women of the community, particularly their maid Calpurnia, their neighbor Miss Maudie and the irascible old Mrs. Dubose, provide the children with the feminine influence they need to better understand the changing world around them with a strength and intelligence often denied female characters.
Calpurnia is quickly recognizes as the surrogate mother to the two children despite the fact that she is a black woman working as a maid in the Finch household. This is made clear by the third chapter if it hasn’t been clear before as Calpurnia, or Cal for short, is given the latitude to discipline Scout as if she were a mother. The scene is when Scout, for revenge, beats up Walter Cunningham in the schoolyard on her first day of school and Jem invites the boy back to the house for lunch. His strange behavior of pouring syrup over his lunch is too much for Scout to bear and she begins making comments about it to the others around the table. Cal takes Scout into the kitchen and gives her a lecture regarding her duties as a decent person. “… don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty! Yo’ folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ‘em” (25). In this, she emphasizes to Scout the idea that a person’s worth is not in their income or skin color, but is instead in the way one chooses to behave. Because of her continuous correction of Scout, the two have a love-hate relationship, but Cal does manage to convey numerous motherly lessons to her young charge.
Miss Maudie is a neighbor of the Finch family who provides the children with an example of kindly Southern gentility and unconquerable independence of spirit. She allows the children to play as they will within her yard as long as they don’t trample her flower beds. These she spends her days working on, enjoying the sun and the companionship of any neighbors who might be passing by. She spends her evenings relaxing on her porch, again ready and willing to converse with any neighbors who care to walk her way. In this, she seems like the neighborhood busy-body, but she provides the children with an idea of what it means to be neighborly, supporting each other without interfering and demonstrates a keen understanding of the world around her. An example of this is when she indicates to Aunt Alexandra the reasons why Atticus was selected to be Tom’s lawyer. “Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying him the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right.” “Who?” “The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us” (236). Finally, when her house burns down, Miss Maudie displays for the children the epitome of strength when she responds to the loss of her house by telling Jem, “Always wanted a smaller house, Jem Finch. Gives me more yard. Just think, I’ll have more room for my azaleas now!” (73).
Finally, Mrs. Dubose teaches the children, especially Jem, about the true nature of strength as she battles her addiction to morphine. She is described as an irritable old woman who causes the children no end of grief. She expresses extreme pessimism regarding the breakdown of society in her constant disapproval of Scout as well as in her comments regarding the proper behavior of various members of society. Her racism is apparent as she yells at the children regarding their father’s case, “what has this world come to when a Finch goes against his raising … Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for” (102). In her tirades, Mrs. Dubose is provides the children with some knowledge of the old values that had been held by their society; however, in her story, she provides them with a new way of thinking not only about the true nature of courage, but also about the need to consider another person’s perspective before passing judgment on them.
Through the characters of Calpurnia, Miss Maudie and Mrs. Dubose, Jem and Scout Finch learn the values of their society and the understanding they require to be able to effect change as adults. They are taught the rules of etiquette, but more importantly, how to face life with an open mind, a wide eye and a willingness to look at things from the other person’s perspective. In doing so, they demonstrated tremendous strength and keen intelligence into the ways of the world and helped the children comprehend the events happening around them.
Lee, Harper (1982). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Warner Books.