The characterization of Scout in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is seen from the progression of a child’s eyes; the many experiences and lessons learned, dealing with prejudice, are carried through to her adulthood. Lee uses this method of characterization to show that he many experiences and lessons learned as a child can create and affect the person that you grow up to be. In this case, Scout has many experiences with the prejudices dealing with race, which will be carried with her through her later life.
Lee introduces Scout to be a young girl living throughout the Great Depression in the early 1930s. She lives with her father, Atticus and older brother, Jem. Jem and Scout are basically raised by Calpurnia, a black “maid”, who comes and watches after them and takes care of the house while Atticus is at work. Because Scout lives with just her father and brother and is raised mainly by a black woman she has many encounters with different types of racism.
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Throughout the novel, it is made clear that the Finch always goes to church, but when Atticus leaves for a business trip, Calpurnia is left to watch after the children. On this Sunday in which Atticus is not home, Calpurnia decides to take Scout and Jem to her church. In this adventure to a “black church” for the first time Scout, Jem and Calpurnia are confronted by Lula; a big black woman who is offended when Calpurnia brings the two white children to their black church.
“‘You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillum here-they got their church, e got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?’ Calpurnia said, ‘It’s the same God, ain’t it?’…”
(Mockingbird, pg. 119)
This quote, between Calpurnia and Lula, shows that there is much tension when two white children are brought into a black church. The children do not feel wanted and would have rather gone home until they are welcomed by the reverend. Later during this experience, Scout realizes that many things done at a “black church” are the same as a “white church”. “Reverend Sykes then called on the Lord to bless the sick and the suffering, a procedure no different from our church practice….” (Mockingbird, pg. 121) Scout is starting to learn that blacks are no different from whites, but because they are a different colour they are treated differently.
Scout also has another experience with racism when she realizes that Calpurnia talks differently to her black friends than she does around the Finches.
“‘Cal,’ I asked, ‘why do you talk nigger-talk to the—to your folks when you know it’s not right?’ ‘Well, in the first place I’m black-’ … ‘It’s right hard to say,’ she said ‘Suppose you and Scout talked coloured-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now, what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbours? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses.’ ‘But Cal, you know better,’ I said… “It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike- in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around known more than they do. It aggravates ‘em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
(Mockingbird, pgs. 125-126)
This portion of a conversation between Scout, Jem and Calpurnia teaches Scout more about racism. Calpurnia does not want to make it seem like she is better than anyone else; if she talked normally, like a white person, at church or to her friends, she would be looked down upon and people would most likely dislike her. However, if Cal talked like a black person in the Finch’s home, the children would most likely pick up on it and start talking like a black person and be looked down upon at school.
A large amount of To Kill a Mockingbird is focused on a trial between a black man, Tom Robinson and a white girl, Mayella Ewell. This trial is a major learning experience for Scout because her father is asked by the county to defend the black man, Tom Robinson which causes much of the town to be against him. Scout deals with her neighbours, classmates and even her own family turning against or putting down her father. Scout becomes real angry because of people turning against her family and fights her own cousin, and also wants to fight her classmates. Scout learns to deal with these “trashy people” because Atticus explains to her that what they say should not mean anything.
“Scout,’ said Atticus, ‘nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain-ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favouring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody…” “I’m hard put, sometimes-baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you…”
(Mockingbird. Pg, 108)
In this segment, Atticus is explaining to Scout that it is okay for people to call you bad names, just do not let it get to you because chances are they are just jealous. Though most of the town was against Atticus for defending Tom, he had no problem doing this and actually felt better about himself because he did what he had to do and knew he could prove a point by doing so.
Scout also has another learning experience also affiliated with this trial. On the day of the trial, Jem Scout and Dill snuck into the courthouse and sat with the blacks on the balcony. They watched the whole trial and were “caught” just before the jury was dismissed to discuss their sentencing. Atticus allowed the children to stay for the verdict because they had already seen the whole trial and appeared to be very interested in what would happen to Tom Robinson. Atticus proved Tom to be innocent but yet, he was still convicted because he was black. Although Tom was convicted, the jury took a while to come to their decision, showing that they actually thought about stating him innocent. Scout does not understand why he was convicted if Atticus proved him innocent but she later learns that this happens because he is a black man.
“…There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads- they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”
(Mockingbird. Pg 220)
This quote from Atticus is from a conversation between Jem and Atticus. Though Scout is not involved, she is listening closely and learns that no matter what, white people will always be superior to blacks.
Scout learns many things from Atticus defending a black person and basically proving him guilty. The main lesson shows her that no matter whether a person is black or white, they should be treated equally. She learns this because Atticus has no problem defending Tom Robinson and even proves him innocent, he just would not be found innocent because he is black.
Harper Lee shows these lessons through a child’s perspective, creating a more descriptive characterization of Scout. Scout will learn these lessons as young as a child, changing how she will react to such experiences as an adult. Through this method of characterization, Scout’s personality is portrayed as a young girl being influenced by close outside forces, creating her to be more of an individual; constructing her own opinions and ideas.
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