To Kill a Mockingbird: A Brief Introduction
To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee, published in 1960, that provides a bleak reality of the prejudice and racism prevalent in the Southern states of America during the 1930s.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is told through the eyes of Jean Louis Finch, or 'Scout,' as she recounts the story of her father, Atticus, defending a local black man, Tom Robinson, who has been falsely charged with the rape of a white woman.
The novel, published during the Civil Rights Movement, threw light on the racist attitudes prevalent in the southern parts of the United States. It also held up Atticus as a model lawyer who represented moral virtue in the face of systematic oppression and prejudice.
Plot Summary of To Kill a Mockingbird
The story of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb in Alabama during the 1930s. The narrator, Jean Louis Finch, also known as Scout, lives with her widowed father, Atticus Finch, and her brother, Jem.
[Critics believe that the character of Atticus Finch is based on Harper Lee’s own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a liberal politician and lawyer in Alabama, who used to defend African Americans in a racially prejudiced society.]
Scout and Jem grew up under the care of Calpurnia, an African-American housekeeper who was intelligent as well as capable of teaching the kids important values. Scout and Jem soon meet the seven-year-old Dill Harris, and together, they come up with a game of observing the town recluse "Boo" Radley. There are rumors of Boo Radley eating squirrels and prowling the streets at night, though no one can say with conviction that they have witnessed such incidents with their own eyes.
Atticus Finch is given the responsibility to defend the black man Tom Robinson after he is accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, do not have a good reputation in town. They live in poverty and are known to cause trouble. However, she is white, and that immediately makes Tom Robinson the more hated of the two, even if there is no concrete proof that Tom is the perpetrator.
Scout and Jem are ridiculed in school for their father defending a black man. However, Atticus wishes to instill in his children some crucial moral values that are not colored by racism and prejudice, so he does not back out of the trial despite the opposition.
The night before the trial, some of the residents of Maycomb gather and threaten to lynch Tom Robinson. However, when Scout discovers the father of one of her schoolmates in the mob, the plan falls through. During the trial, Bob Ewell accuses Tom of raping his daughter when he had invited him into their home to turn an old chifforobe into firewood.
Atticus draws the jury’s attention to the injuries on Mayella’s face. The bruises are on the right side. So, logically, the assailant would have to hit her with their left hand. Atticus points out that Tom’s hand has been rendered useless due to an injury, and he could not have possibly been the left-handed assailant. He suggests that the true culprit might have been Bob Ewell, who hit his daughter, and then made up the story about the rape to accuse Tom of his crime.
Even though Atticus makes a compelling argument, the jury finds Tom guilty and orders him to be hanged. While trying to escape, Tom is shot dead.
Bob Ewell, angered by Atticus' attitude in the trial, tries to attack Scout and Jem as they return from a Halloween pageant. But Boo Radley intervenes, and, in the scuffle, Bob is stabbed accidentally and dies on the spot. Boo Radley's involvement in the fight is kept a secret because Atticus knows that the townspeople are already prejudiced against Boo Radley. He knows a trial will only lead to a repetition of Tom’s trial, where an innocent man will be sentenced to death because of the prevalent prejudice in people.
In the end, Scout realizes that Boo Radley was never a threat. The only evil is the racial and inherent prejudice that people have constructed in their heads that makes them completely blind to the truth and intolerant towards anyone who doesn’t fit into the norms.
Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird: A Critical Analysis
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout mentions that she and her brother Fem were brought up under the care of their African-American housekeeper, Calpurnia. In the novel, Calpurnia is one of the few literate and educated black people living in Maycomb.
In the absence of a mother in the Finch family, it is up to Calpurnia to take on the role of the motherly figure. She is extremely crucial to the characters and is part of the Finch family, despite being black and an outsider. When the kids' Aunt Alexandra tries to convince Atticus to get rid of her, the lawyer insists on keeping her on because she is already a part of their family.
Scout's impression of Calpurnia at the beginning of the novel
At the beginning of the novel, Calpurnia is shown to be a strict disciplinarian who constantly berates Scout for her behavior. Scout considers her “tyrannical presence” and almost like the evil stepmother in Cinderella. Calpurnia polices Scout about her behavior, which irks her to no end since she believes Calpurnia doesn’t treat Jem the way she treats her. However, as Scout grows up, she realizes the love that Calpurnia has for them. In fact, Scout’s relationship with Calpurnia is better than the one she has with her own relative, Aunt Alexandra.
Calpurnia’s courageous nature
Calpurnia's courageousness comes forth when she takes Scout and Jem to First Purchase one Sunday when Atticus isn't around. It was the only Black Church in Maycomb and was named so since it was bought by the freed slaves with their first earnings.
At the Church, Calpurnia is accosted by Lula, who reprimands her for bringing white children to a church meant for Black people. After the confrontation, Calpurnia puts on a brave face and tries to reassure Scout, and tells her not to fret.
But though Scout can see Calpurnia trembling, she greatly admires the courage their housekeeper displayed in standing her ground and not letting prejudice and hatred color her actions. This instance gives Scout the courage to stand up for what she believes is right. View Examples
Calpurnia as a bridge between the black and white people
Calpurnia is one of the few literate and educated black people in the town of Maycomb. Even though she serves as the cook in the finch household, she takes the role of raising Scout and Fem very seriously. Like the many Black characters in the novel, Calpurnia has also suffered much hardship and racism at the hands of white people. However, she is grateful to those who treat her well without racial prejudice.
During the 1930s, it was common for white people to employ Black people as maids or cooks in their families. However, not all Black people are treated well. For example, Atticus Finch treats Calpurnia as an important part of his family and provides her with a fair wage for looking after his children. But when you compare Atticus' treatment of Calpurnia to Mrs. Grace Merriweather's treatment of her maid, racial prejudice becomes apparent.
Mrs. Merriweather uses Christianity as an excuse to criticize her maid Sophy for complaining. She doesn’t try to understand or enquire about the reasons for Sophy complaining, and yet passes judgment and thinks she should stop complaining.
Though Calpurnia is a representative of the Black people in Maycomb, she does not speak out about the atrocities faced by her people. But it's not because she is immune to their suffering or can't see the prejudice her people face daily. Instead, Calpurnia knows that speaking up in a community largely prejudiced against Black people would endanger her life.
Calpurnia plays an instrumental role in sneaking Scout and Fem into the trial of Tom Robinson. Atticus Finch did not want his children to attend the trial since he wanted to protect them from the ugly sight of blatant racial discrimination. But thanks to Calpurnia, they managed to find a spot among the Black people present at the trial and learned a lot about the inherent racism present in the people of Maycomb.
After Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson in the trial, the Black community in Maycomb presents him with gifts to thank him for representing one of their own, despite the hardships he must have gone through to defend a Black person. However, Finch appoints Calpurnia as a medium to let them know not to send him gifts since he knows life is already very hard for them. He also lets Calpurnia accompany him to inform Helen Robinson about her husband’s fate.
Calpurnia: A role model for the Finch children
In the absence of their mother, Scout, and Fem Finch grow up under the care of their Black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Wise is one of the best words to describe Calpurnia. She tries her best to instill in Scout and Fem proper moral values so that the children can grow up to be respectable people whose vision isn't colored by prejudice.
For example, when Scout and Fem bring Walter Cunningham to their house for dinner, Scout makes fun of Walter for putting syrup in his dinner. Just like Calpurnia, Walter comes from a financially constrained background. And even Calpurnia knows that she has better table manners than Walter. But she immediately reprimands Scout for her behavior and tells her not to act high and mighty.
This shows that Calpurnia is a staunch advocate of treating everyone equally.
Calpurnia doesn’t harbor a grudge against the Finches just because white people treat her people horribly. Furthermore, she stands her ground and defends Scout and Fem after a Black woman criticizes their presence in First Purchase. She is mentally strong and doesn't let anyone shake her belief, even if it is people from her own community.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Calpurnia is the silent hero who plays a critical role in the upbringing of Scout and Fem Finch. She is a great role model for the children. Not only is she educated and intelligent, but she does her best to instill moral values in them.
Despite having a harsh upbringing, Calpurnia does not let her hardships define her character. She is not prejudiced against the Finch family and treats Scout and Fem like her own children. Though Calpurnia doesn't actively protest against the atrocities and injustices that the Black community faces, readers should keep in mind that actively voicing out the dissatisfaction in the South during the 1930s can ruin Calpurnia's life.