Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Impact of Class Structure on To Kill a Mockingbird

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The rigid class structure and social stratification of Maycomb County had a profound effect on the events in the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The impact of this class structure and the underlying prejudice was especially evident in the trial of Tom Robinson, a Maycomb black man. Because of the strict class system of Maycomb County and the extreme prejudice of the town, Tom Robinson was unjustly convicted of, and sentenced to death for, a crime he did not commit.

The society of Maycomb County had a definitive structure containing four classes. The first and upper class consisted of white collar Caucasians who were considered rich in the post-depression years. Characters who fit into this class were Atticus Finch, a wealthy, highly respected lawyer and citizen in town, and Judge Taylor, the justice of Maycomb County and presiding judge at the Robinson trial. Other characters who belonged to this upper class were Miss Maudie Attkinson, an open-minded, kind woman, and Miss Stephanie Crawford, the renowned gossip of the town.

The second class in Maycomb County included the blue collar, white workers, and primarily farmers who struggled to make ends meet. The Cunninghams, Dolphus Raymond, and the mysterious Radley family represented this group. The third class of Maycomb County was the white trash.² The Ewells, who lived at the dump and relied on welfare for survival, were members of this group. It is important to note that the difference between the second and third class was not a financial one. Both were poor.² The difference, however, was in the way they interacted in society. The Cunninghams, unlike the Ewells, refused to accept charity and they paid their debts with what little they had. The Cunninghams were also different from the Ewells because they didnt take advantage of Black men.

The fourth and lowest class in Maycomb included all the blacks that lived in this small county of Alabama. Prejudice ran deep in Maycomb County. Although several social levels existed within the Black community, a person of color was always in the lowest class of society in general. Therefore, the Blacks lived apart from the whites in their own section of town and seemed to have a society separate from the whites.

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The strong prejudice of Maycomb County and the negative effects of its social strata were demonstrated by the trial of Tom Robinson. Tom was a hard-working, warm-hearted Black man who went out of his way to be kind and helpful to some poor white trash. He helped Miss Mayella because he felt sorry for her. His major shortcoming was the fact that he was black. Bob Ewell, a white drunk, who was an eyesore and a problem for the town, accused Robinson of raping his daughter Mayella. Atticus Finch, Tom Robinsons lawyer, made it immensely clear to the jury that Tom was innocent. It was actually Mayella who made sexual advances towards Tom, and as a result was beaten by her father for kissing a Black man. However, despite the obvious, undeniable facts of the case, the all white jury found in favor of the Ewells and sentenced Tom Robinson to death. Tom eventually died when he was shot in an attempt to escape from prison.

In examining the case, one can see how the four classes in Maycomb were involved to varying degrees. The first two classes were represented at the trial by the presiding judge and attorneys and many jurors. It was the responsibility of all these people to see that Tom received a fair trial despite the cord of prejudice that had a stranglehold on the townspeople of Maycomb. However, this had to be a difficult task because they would have to challenge the attitudes of the townspeople and Atticus alone seemed to be willing to do that. ³The older citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time²(Lee page#). Instead of these people taking an interest in seeing that justice was done, they treated the trial as ³Ša gala occasion. There was no room at the public hitching trail for another animal, mules and wagons were parked under every available tree. The courthouse square was covered with picnic parties sitting on newspapers, washing down biscuit and syrup with warm milk from fruit jars. It was a crime that the upper classes of Maycomb condoned and even participated in this kind of behavior.

The litigants, the Ewells, and the defendant, Tom Robinson, a kind, black man, represented the two lower classes. The jurys decision proved one sad, undeniable fact when a black mans word went against a white mans word, the white man, regardless of his background or his character, would always be victorious. Despite the jurys doubts pertaining to the Ewells accusations against a Black man, they had to find in favor of Mayella because she was white. In spite of the jurys knowledge of Tom Robinsons character, they could not allow Mayella s accusations to go unanswered. To do so would have made the two races equal, an idea which was unconscionable at that time. There was no justice or mercy for a Black man, even one as upstanding as Tom Robinson. Atticus may have stated this point best when referring to the jurys decision, Theyve done it before and they did it tonight and theyll do it again and when they do it, seems that only children weep (Lee page #).

The strong prejudices and social strata of Maycomb County had a negative effect on the events in the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This fact was evident in the trial of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man unjustly convicted of rape. Atticus is correct. Many atrocities will be committed in the name of justice until we ³learn to be compassionate and understanding of the problems and conditions of life faced by other people.

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