Set in the 1930s, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” features four main families that are textbook examples of the adversities within the moral and social ladder in the “tired old town” of Maycomb Alabama. These differences within their backgrounds have an effect on their use of language and the ways in which they interact with one another and their surrounding society. Harper Lee’s clever use of language serves as a means of revealing the differences between families, creating an atmosphere giving the reader a sense of authenticity and a way of enhancing and supporting key themes such as racial injustice and inequality. In this essay, I will explore the ways in which family relationships are presented, specifically within the Cunningham, the Radley and Ewell families and will refer to the language devices and techniques used to explore these relationships.
The evidently troubled Ewell family “lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression” as a result of the Wall Street crash in 1929. They are illustrated to be severely disadvantaged – mentally and physically- by their “congenital defects” and suffer at the hands of “the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings” as established by Scout’s humorous and ironic first-person narrative. This morbid description of the Ewells allows the reader to sympathize with the family as they must live with their grim afflictions induced by poverty. However, the sympathy gained by the family is tainted by the actions of their father, Bob Ewell. Scout utilizes metaphorical language and similes to construct an account of Bob Ewell as being an arrogant and careless “redneck”. His nature is clarified in Tom Robinson’s trial when Scout narrates him to be “a little bantam cock of a man” transforming the sympathy of the reader to the disgust of the Ewells and their undeniably unsettled family affiliation.
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Later on, in the trial scene, the reader determines that Bob Ewell has no affection towards his daughter Mayella. This is established in the form of dialogue when Atticus puts forward his query about whether Ewell was “concerned with Mayella’s condition” after the alleged rape. Bob Ewell replies by stating that he “most positively was” concerned with his daughter in an aggressive manner showing the reader that he is being deceitful as he becomes tense in a relatively relaxed situation(when Atticus questions him). This displays that Ewell is not concerned with his family, as he does not even have the compassion to call a doctor despite his alleged daughter having severe injuries to her face. In juxtaposition to Atticus’s elegant and concerned speech when questioning the witnesses, Bob Ewell uses slang terms such as “I saw that black nigger yonder ruttin’ on my Mayella!” which subsequently conveys him to be not only racist but uneducated.
Bob Ewell’s lack of concern for his family’s relationship also has a detrimental affect on the actions of his children. Ewell’s irresponsibility and acrimony are seen initially through his son Burris Ewell in the form of dialogue when calling his teacher Miss Caroline Fisher a “snot-nosed slut” after telling him to “go home” as he was being disruptive. This highlights that the Ewells are not only antisocial but lacking in moral education. This episode prepares the reader for the appearance of Bob Ewell and foreshadows the violence he acts upon near the end of the novel when he spits at Atticus and assaults Jem and Scout after being “humiliated” in the trial scene. Bob Ewell’s poisonous attitude infects all of his children to the point whereby they are morally deficient and are looked down upon by the citizens of Maycomb.
The episode also demonstrates that Bob Ewell is far from concerned with his children’s education as they are allowed to truant and no “officers could keep their numerous offspring in school”. Scout’s use of the word “offspring” to describe the Ewells, conveys them to be animalistic, feral and dysfunctional. The fact that the older Scout portrays them in this manner implies that they have not changed and will never change as they are still seen as the “trash” of Maycomb. Harper Lee also uses humour in the form of malapropism through the speech of Bob Ewell to show that he is uneducated when saying that he is “most definitely not ambidextrous” and can use “one hand good as the other”. This effectively displays how difficult it is to break the cycle of poverty and inequality as nothing changes with every new generation of the Ewell family.
Despite this, some argue that it is Bob Ewell who should be held accountable for his family’s flaws, as he does not nurture them sufficiently and is “spending his welfare cheques on whiskey” rather than his children. This suggests that Ewell is neglectful as he takes no interest in his children’s needs but rather spends his money on nonessential items such as alcohol. Harper Lee implies that a child who is not properly cared for does not learn to respect others and suggests that bad parenting can have devastating consequences. This makes Bob Ewell the ultimate symbol of evil within the novel lacking all redeeming features. Bob’s corruption even reaches his daughter Mayella who at first takes care of her appearance by bathing -in contrast to her siblings- and tending to her flowers which are described to be “brilliant red geraniums” by Scout.
The older Scout sympathizes with Mayella as she was not always “arrogant” like she is illustrated to be in the trial scene. It is hard not to see her as that flower, her fragile nature crushed so easily under her father’s oppression. Yet, she is not a symbol of innocence (a Mockingbird) as she is complicit in framing Tom Robinson despite being given every chance to confess the truth that it was in fact her father who attacked her. The fact that Atticus questions her gently when saying “I won’t try and scare you but how old are you?” displays that she is more like her father than meets the eye as she has the audacity to lie to the people who show her compassion. The fear that Mayella has of her father overrules whatever moral decency she possesses thus Bob’s aggressive nature has a direct influence on Mayella’s actions.
The Cunningham family act as a contrast to the vile nature of the Ewells; Whereas the Ewells relish their moment in the spotlight, the Cunninghams are much more modest and prefer to stay in the shadows. This is emphasized early on in the novel through one of the family’s children, Walter Cunningham who politely declines his teacher Miss Caroline Fisher’s offer of taking a quarter from her in order “go and eat downtown”. It is only through Scout’s six-year-old perspective that the reader understands that the Cunningham family “never took anything they can’t pay back” demonstrating that they are proud and honest. This episode uses humour, but not to undermine Walter; it is used to create sympathy for him and allows the reader to warm to the Cunningham family in contrast to Ewells who are ridiculed by the older Scout’s humorous narration when they are called “guests of Maycomb”.
It is crucial to note that it is not Walter who explains his position; he embraces his southern courtesy and defers naturally to the teacher and to the more middle-class and articulate Scout. Despite this, it is also clear that they are not very well educated as Walter uses slang terms such as “patented ’em” in contrast to Scout’s more formal language. The Cunningham Southern courtesy is also highlighted in the molasses episode where it is made apparent that the Cunninghams have high moral, as Walter Cunningham (junior) speaks politely to Atticus calling him “sir”. This effectively conveys that the family is close as they are following their father’s example in the practice of high morals. Furthermore, Mr. Cunningham is illustrated to be caring towards his family despite Scout’s initial visualization of him taking “no interest in his son”. This is exhibited through the dialogue between Scout and Mr. Cunningham and his actions which are depicted in the “lynch mob” episode. Here, Scout attempts to make a friendly conversation with Mr. Cunningham by stating that “entailments are bad” and telling him that his son Walter “was a good boy”.
At first, he ignores Scout, giving the reader a sense of ignorance and neglect (thus the preconceived idea of Cunningham taking “no interest in his son”). In response to her sympathetic and sociable dialogue, Mr. Cunningham then “squatted down and took” her “by both shoulders” notifying her that he would “tell him you said hey”. The fact that Mr. Cunningham squats down to Scout’s level suggests that he can relate to children and is not ignorant like he previously depicted to be. One must appreciate that it is through Scout’s innocence that the reader is able to acknowledge the Cunninghams’ high sense of moral goodness as she is naï¿½ve to the towns’ predicaments. Due to Scout being young, Mr. Cunningham disperses the mob as he does not want to corrupt her innocent mentality with violence and hatred. This reveals the contrasting family relationships of the Ewells and the Cunninghams as Mr. Cunningham handles his relations in a positive manner whilst Bob Ewell is completely lax and ignorant towards his children and his surrounding society.
The warmth emitted from the Cunninghams immediately dissipates upon the initial description of the Radley household. Scout uses conventions of gothic horror and metaphors to depict the house as “rain rotted” and desolate as “oak trees kept the sun away”. These gothic conventions highlight the emotional deprivation of the family as the description of their home shows that they are not social people and “kept to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb”. The owners of the residence, Mr. and Mrs. Radley are also described to be socially dysfunctional, as they are never seen outside of their home socializing with others. Mr. Radley is described to have “walked to town at eleven-thirty every morning… sometimes carrying a brown paper bag that the neighbourhood assumed contained the family groceries”. These assumptions made by the citizens Maycomb suggest that the family is a mystery to the town as Mr. Radley does not communicate with his neighbours showing that the Radleys are antisocial
Their self-enforced isolation has devastating consequences on their children, specifically Arthur Radley who is seen as a “malevolent phantom” hence his nickname Boo. Through Scout’s narration, one ascertains that as a teenager, Boo entangled himself with the “wrong crowd of people”. The group was described to be “the closest thing to a gang that Maycomb had seen” as they had stolen the sheriff’s car, a crime which led Boo to be sentenced to go to a reformatory school. However, Mr. Radley convinced the judge to let him keep his son in the house instead; He saw it as a disgrace to send Arthur to such a place. He was not seen or heard from for fifteen years until he allegedly plunged a pair of scissors into his father’s leg. This highlights the lack of care from Arthur’s parents as they allowed Arthur to entangle himself with a “gang” and deprived him of contact with the outside world for fifteen years. It is clear that Mr. Radley cares about his social status as he reluctant to show the weaknesses of his family (by sending his son to a reformatory school).
However, one could argue that social standards are nothing if the family’s relationship is inefficient as it is the basis on which others judge you. Furthermore, the fact that the story of the Radleys is being told from the older Scout’s perspective suggests that much like the Ewells, things have not changed thus sympathy is gained for Boo. As a result of Boo being isolated, he seeks emotional warmth from Jem and Scout as seen when he leaves hand-carved “miniatures of two children” within a cavity of a tree for them to play with. This highlights the contrast between Boo and his parents as he is trying to socialize with others on their terms whereas his parents just ignore the outside world. To Arthur, Jem and Scout are substitutes for family symbolized by the carvings and a means of suppressing his cold and bitter home life. As Jem matures, he begins to notice that Boo is not a “monster” as previously described but a “gentleman”. This is something Scout does not realize as she is immature, describing him to be a “squirrel eater” showing her narration to be unreliable.
Despite Boo’s attempts to fraternize with the children, the differences within the families make it very difficult to do so; Whereas the Finches portray warmth and comradeship which is seen through Scout and Jem, the Radleys show a cold and lonely family life which is displayed when Nathan Radley-Arthur’s brother- “fills their tree” (where the children find presents from Boo) with cement. Nathan’s actions are seen to be morally wrong as he broke his brother’s only connection to the outside world, something that brings Jem to tears when he realizes it. Despite the heartbreak of this episode it highlights Arthur’s courage; Whereas the repressive values of his family -much like the Ewells- transfers from generation to generation, Boo rallies against it. This is seen when he saves Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell who was “tryin’ to squeeze” the children “to death”. This defies all that the reader knows about the antisocial Radleys and raises the question if Arthur Radley can break free from the chains which hold him down, is there really an excuse for Mayella not to do the same?
In conclusion, the reader is given a mixed image of family relations within the “tired old town” of Maycomb. The first image the reader is given is that of Atticus and his close relationship with his family and how good morals can bring a family closer together. In juxtaposition, Lee displays the Ewells as a distant family as they are poorer than the Finches and have lower moral standards which are transferred from the father Bob Ewell to his children as seen when Burris insults his teacher. But, as Harper lee highlights, money is not everything when it comes to family relationships as shown by the Cunninghams who despite being poor uphold high moral values and follow in their father’s example of being kind and honest.
The final image is that of neglect and isolation which illustrated through the Radley family who displays the devastating effects of bad parenting (seen through Boo Radley). Throughout the novel, Lee makes it clear that the Finches are a benchmark for the rest of Maycomb and portray a perfect family relationship. The author suggests that if all families were like the Finches and the Cunninghams in the practice of high morals, the surrounding society would be far more stable than a society with families who take no interest in one another and sponge “off of the welfare system”.