TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: THE THEME OF PREJUDICE To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel which can deceive the reader into thinking that it is very simple. However, if the reader delves beneath the surface, she may find that there are a number of complex themes running through the novel. One of the central themes in this novel is the prejudice that was characteristic of southern town in the 1930's. A variety of prejudices combine to form the character of the town of Maycomb. The three main prejudices encountered are those of race, class, and sex. The prejudice of race, in the novel, makes the words of a lower-class white woman from a ne " er do well family readily accepted against those of a Negro with an upstanding reputation.
When Tom Robinson is accused of rape by Mayella Ewell, southern society and societal prejudice against blacks must be upheld. In spite of the flimsiness of Mayella's accusation against a black man whose one arm is withered, the white of Maycomb are bound to believe Mayella simply because she is white. Despite Tom's upstanding reputation, the people of Maycomb cannot allow a white woman's accusation go unanswered because doing so would make the white element seem less superior. For these reasons the people of Maycomb form a mob in an attempt to persuade Atticus to drop his defense of Tom Robinson. Even though most people have a less than high opinion of the Ewells, there is still that overriding solidarity that they feel must be shown against the Negro.
The blacks live in their section of town, and the whites live in their section of town. This clear division must be maintained is southern society, as represented by Maycomb, is to survive. This idea of a clear division is enforce by Aunt Alexandra. Although she holds no malice towards the blacks, she feels it is highly improper for Scout and Jem to attend the Negro church or visit Calpurnia' home.
Mixing of the races is simply not permitted in Maycomb society, unless one is either eccentric like Mr. Dolph us Raymond or too low in status to be of any concern. These racial prejudices, of course, have disastrous consequences for Tom Robinson. Even though Atticus proves that Tom could not have raped Mayella, the jury convicts Tom, and he is sentenced to death. When Atticus tries to explain the biased verdict to his children he says that in a case of a white man's word against that of a black man, the white man always wins.
An almost equally important prejudice in creating the caste system in Maycomb is that of class. The divisions by this prejudice are also clear. People like the Finches are at the top of the social hierarchy, and far below them are people like the Cunninghams, who are respectable, but poor. Jem explains to Scout that even further below the Cunninghams are the Ewells, and further below the Ewells are the "colored folks" whom the Ewells despise.
Jem assess that everyone but the blacks have someone to look down upon. Within this caste system is behavioral standards for individuals in their specific social caste. People like the Finches have a "postion" to uphold, while a Cunningham may be poor, but refuses charity or pity. Lee notes that the every town has families like the Ewells, who are an eyesore to the community.
The Ewells are avoided by the more decent people of Maycomb, and the Ewells know it. The Ewells, however, think themselves to be above the blacks. Yet, Scout observes that the only difference between Bob Ewell and the worst of the blacks is that, if he were scrubbed hard enough, Bob's skin would be stark white. Another area of prejudice in the novel is that of sex. The novel is set in the 1930's, which is before the women's movement was in full force.
Underlying the entire trial is the premium that the southern male places on the virtue of white southern womanhood. The white men must "protect their women" from the lusty onslaught of the hot-blooded "nigger." This belief is so great that is allows the doubtful reputation and testimony of a white woman to be superior to the reputation of a stable, gentle, and unassuming black man. Atticus is aware of this prejudice and addresses it saying that he is just as protective of "southern womanhood", but he refuses to preserve "polite fiction" if it will cost a man his life. The society of Maycomb welcomes the whispering, fanning, and gossiping behavior in its women, and treats them as if they are frail and hardly capable of taking care of themselves. Scout is constantly told to "act like a lady", "dress like a lady", and remember to keep her place. Her place seems to be with the women, who have no real role in the business of the town.
Even Atticus explains to Jem and Scout that women are not allowed to serve on juries simply because they are women. He comments that women are too talkative and that justice would be halted or impeded by their many questions if they were allowed to serve on juries. These three forms of prejudice - race, class, and sex - are integrated into the novel and the society of Maycomb, which serves as a symbol of the southern way of life in the 1930's. With these tools, Lee creates a graphic picture of a restrictive society which prefers to cling blindly to what has always been, rather than change its ways and accept change and progress.