Social Standing in To Kill A Mockingbird – English Essay
Social hierarchy is a very important part of any community, fictional or no. In Maycomb County, who the characters are, what they own, the color of their skin, and how they act on the public streets all contribute to their standing in Maycomb, among other things. In the novel To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the people of Maycomb’s ability to see people as more than just their social standing is tainted due to patronizing attitudes towards people who are inferior to them on the social ladder, and thusly interfering with their ability to judge other people fairly and unbiasedly.
In Maycomb, there is a definite separation between those who are higher and those who are lower on the social ladder. The populations of the poor and the blacks are normally lower on the ladder than the rich and the whites. As you go from the center of the town to the country, the neighborhoods slowly shift from a rich and white population to a poor and white population, finally stopping at the communities of the black population of Maycomb in the very country.
First Purchase African M.E. Church was in the Quarters outside the southern
town limits, across the old sawmill tracks. (99)
Along with this physical separation, the townspeople’s attitudes towards the people living on the outer section of town are less than positive. The white rich folks look down upon those such as the Robinson family because they are black or the Ewell family because they are poor. These prejudices are a perfect example of why Mayella Ewell is “the loneliest person in the world…lonelier than Boo Radley, who hadn’t been out of the house in twenty-five years” (162). She is lonely because she is white and she is poor.
When Atticus asked had she any friends, she seemed not to know what he meant, then she thought he was making fun of her. She was as sad, I thought, as what Jem called a mixed child: white people wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she lived among pigs; Negroes wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she was white…Maycomb gave [the Ewells] Christmas baskets, welfare money, and the back of its hand. (162)
By that same token, not all of the lower-class families have a positive attitude towards the rich, as is demonstrated by Lulu’s actions at the church, asking Calpurnia why she was “bringin’ white chillun to [a] nigger church” then stating that Calpurnia “ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here” (100).
With this sort of behavior going both ways in Maycomb, it is hard to break the stereotypes the social classes have for each other and, essentially, the barriers between classes. These stereotypes come to surface when Tom Robinson, a black man, is brought to court on charges of raping Mayella Ewell, a white girl. During the trial, Mayella Ewell gives evidence of the way other people treat her due to her social standing in the town by telling Atticus that she “won’t answer a word [he says] long as [he] keep[s] mocking me” (153). Although Atticus is not mocking her, but trying to be polite, Mayella is not used to being talked to politely unless the politeness in question is sarcastic.
Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but she said to the judge: “Long’s he keeps callin’ me ma’am and sayin’ Miss Mayella. I don’t hafta take his sass, I ain’t called upon to take it.” (153)
Because Mayella is unused to polite treatment from others, she believes that the only reason Atticus is treating her nicely is because he’s making fun of her. This isn’t true, but it’s a stereotype that Mayella has towards all of the people who are in higher social classes than she is, even though not all of the people are like that.
Also during the trial, substantial evidence is presented in favor of Tom Robinson’s innocence. However, while the deliberation is taking place, Reverend Sykes warns Jem not to “be so confident…I ain’t never seen any jury decide in favor of a colored man over a white man” (177). Sure enough, when the jury comes out of deliberation after three hours, they pronounce Tom Robinson guilty. By their logic, he is a black man, and black men can’t be trusted. Why? Because the stereotypes that the jurors have against Tom Robinson’s social class cloud their judgment. Black men are liars, they are crude, and they can’t be trusted; wouldn’t it be best to lock one up in case he actually does something?
With these stereotypes in the way, characters and their attitudes are obviously biased in lieu of these opinions. “Well, coming out of that courthouse that night Miss Gates was…talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say that it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves…Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home[?]” (210)
The people living in the town of Maycomb aren’t naïve or stupid; they’re simply prejudiced. Prejudice in Maycomb is what one does in order to “fit it”; it isn’t so different than wearing the right brand of clothing or playing the right sport to gain leverage with the “in-crowd” in high school. If someone isn’t prejudiced, it’s considered “weird” or “not right”, unless you have a very high standing in the town. Then it’s “just their way” (162) of life. Nearly everyone in this book wants to “fit in”, and they’ll do whatever they need to do in order to reach that high status, even if it means giving an innocent black man a death sentence. Because of a primal urge to be one of the crowd, it is hard to judge someone without bias about who they are, what they own, the way they act on the public streets, and, maybe most importantly, the color of their skin.