Ethical Dilemmas in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
The human heart has hidden treasures,
In Secret kept, in Silence sealed – Charlotte Bronte
To Kill a Mocking Bird
This research article makes an attempt to explore the Ethical Dilemmas in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, not only a fun novel to read, but equally purposeful, that portrays the life of its young narrator, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, who stays with her older brother Jem (short for Jeremy), and their father Atticus, a widowed lawyer in the small sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression, in the mid- the 1930s. The novel occupies a two-year period, commencing when Scout is six and finalizing when she is eight.
To Kill a Mockingbird is broadly remembered in terms of the trial of Tom Robinson and its racist outcome. For this reason, people often consider that the novel’s theme is ordinary, a straightforward criticism of racism or evil. But To Kill a Mockingbird is actually more complicated (and interesting). Except in the case of Bob Ewell, the novel avoids simple portrayals and criticism of “evil”. Instead, it presents through Scout and Jem’s childhood-experiences that Maycomb and its citizens are a sophisticated blending of good and bad, full of people’s strengths and weaknesses. According to “Fine, Fancy Gentlemen’ and Yappy Folks: Contending Voices in To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Theodore Hovet and Grace-Ann Hovet, Lee’s work is important because she does not supply the normal assumptions most in America harbor regarding the origins of racism.
To the contrary, they argue that “Rather than ascribing racial prejudice primary to ‘poor white trash’ (qtd. In Newitz and Wray), Lee demonstrates new issues of gender and class intensity prejudice, silence the voices that might challenge the existing order, and greatly complicate many America’s conceptions of the cause of racism and segregation” (67). Using the backdrops of racial tension and an episode of southern living, Lee develops To Kill a Mockingbird to point out basic moral principles by which people should live. Atticus thinks that everyone deserves a fair trial. Maycomb thinks that only white people do. Scout thinks that her father is right.
Maycomb thinks that her father is wrong. So, who’s more moral – the community standard or the individual conscience? Where do the rights of the community end and the rights of the individual begin? To Kill a Mockingbird examines the conflict between the individual and the community. On the other hand, standing up for your beliefs can get you into a lot of trouble. But, if your beliefs are moral, then you just might end up dragging the whole community in a more satisfactory direction. After all, a community’s morals are the sum of what its individuals believe.
The larger questions of the novel are explored from the perspective of children. The novel approaches whether people are essentially good or essentially evil by dramatizing Scout and Jem’s transition from a perspective of childhood innocence, in which they assure that people are good as they have never seen evil. There is a pair of the character of almost good in To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus and Boo Radley. But they are good in different ways. Boo maintains his goodness by hiding from the world, while Atticus engages with it. Atticus acknowledges the evil in people and the world and fights against that evil. But he also appreciates what is good in very some people who through fault and weakness might be supporting an evil cause.
Atticus believes that everyone has a basic human dignity and that he, therefore, owes each person not only respect but the tendency to try to understand their point of view. He says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (Chapter 3, Page 33) Scout encounters trouble at school when a schoolmate condemns Atticus for “defending niggers.” Atticus confirms that if he didn’t defend Tom Robinson, he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up in town, he couldn’t represent the country in the legislature and he couldn’t tell Jem or Scout not to do anything ever again. He warns her that she will encounter more accusations of this kind and to remember that despite their views, the people who cast slurs at them are still their friends.
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Character: Atticus, Boo Radley, Bob Ewell, Scout, Jem, Miss Maudie
As Atticus, the father of the protagonist faces the moral dilemma in chapter 29-30 of the incident with Bob Ewell. Atticus’ moral dilemma will reveal his character and ideology – the belief system. Bob Ewell attempted to hurt Atticus’ children in order to get revenge on Atticus for defending Afro-American in the legal court who was accused of raping his daughter. Scout tells Heck Tate everything that happened, and as she does realizes that the pale man standing in the corner of the room is the person who saved her. Then she realizes that he’s Boo Radley, and says “Hey, Boo.” Scout is getting maturity. Her casual greeting of Boo shows that this man she once thought was a monster she now accepts as a person. Atticus is probably sure Jem killed Bob Ewell and doesn’t want it covered up. But Tate says that Jem didn’t kill Ewell. Boo Radley did. As Sheriff, Tate decides that Boo was saving other people’s lives and doesn’t need more attention. Atticus asks Scout if she understands. Scout says she does: bringing attention to Boo would be like shooting a Mockingbird. For an instant, Scout literally stands in Boo’s skin and feels his dignity. She has learned Atticus’ lesson.
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Miss Maudie would agree that Bob isn’t a killer. Atticus shows compassion and sympathy toward Boo, this interferes with his moral ideologies of law. Atticus’ son, Jem is his most significant possession as he not only loves his children more than anything but also teaches his children many life-values and Atticus would choose his children over his moral values. Atticus doesn’t suspect that his son Jem killed Bob. Atticus will not put Jem in court because Jem is his son, Jem admires him if Jem is convicted of the murder his future life will be affected. Jem called to Scout, “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me ?” Jem admires his father for shooting the dog. Atticus will not send him to court because he is Jem’s idol and Jem is proud of him; Atticus cannot lose Jem as he is very protective of his family.
If this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a complete failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him … If I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him. I don’t want to lose him and Scout, because they’re all I’ve got (Chapter 30, Page 301).
Atticus in the Ethical dilemma and To Kill a Mockingbird
Black and white, right and wrong; do decisions that simple and clear even exist? Does a decision ever mean gaining everything without anything up? Many characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are forced to make difficult, heart-wrenching decisions that have no clear exact answer. The novel presents many of these significant decisions as ethical dilemmas or circumstantial situations that require a choice or an alternative option between two different difficult generating alternatives. Both of these “alternations of generations” have unpleasant aspects and questionable morals and ethics. A person is put in an awkward situated position, with their minds saying contradicting things. These dilemmas are presented in many different ways- the decisions exposition of the novel are simple and can be solved quite easily, yet they are symbolic of latter decisions; other dilemmas place adult-like decisions in the lap of a child. One dilemma concerned a man burdened with the strict conventions of the South-NEWS (North, East, West, South). Then there are two biggest dilemmas- Atticus’ decision to take the case and Heck Tate’s optional choice between truth and the irrational or emotional well-being of a man.
The first half of the novel, many classic dilemmas that serve as models for more important problems later to come. For an illustration, Atticus is forced into a choice between disobeying Scout’s teacher and performing what he feels is right for Scout. Atticus wants Scout to retain her respect for the teacher and to keep continue following her programmable instructions – the program can be defined as a set of logical and mathematical instructions to perform a task, and the output may be “GIGO” – Good In Good Out, Garbage In Garbage Out. Yet, he knows the time he shows with his daughter is very important.
The main plot of the novel is concerned with the white townsfolk conspiring to convict an innocent black person and allow a guilty white person to go free, based on their prejudices. The evidence in favor of Tom Robinson and against Bob Ewell is overwhelming (Ewell is not on trial, but Atticus essentially constructs his defense case as a prosecution against the other person). In the end, the jury convicts Robinson choosing to deliberately ignore the evidence and the proper course of justice because it conflicts with their bigoted morality. On the other hand, the secondary plot of the novel revolves around the “surroundings” of Boo Radley, a neighborhood recluse, who, at the novel’s climax, intercepts and kills Bob Ewell in order to prevent him taking revenge on Atticus by attacking and perhaps murdering his children.
In the aftermath, both Atticus and the sheriff realize what has happened, but agree to fabricate a story that Ewell fell on his own knife, rather than subject Boo Radley to an investigation that, even if it would probably lead to his exoneration on the grounds of justifiable homicide, would drag the reclusive person into the limelight. Unlike plot, the ethical dilemmas do not follow in significance from the explosion to resolution. The most significant decision occurred in the middle of the novel, however, the ultimate dilemma is very important in bringing the reader the emotional feeling of conclusive resolution. The novel portrays the latter decision as an attempt to protect an innocent person rather than condemn him, and leads to the metaphor of the novel’s title, where to kill a Mockingbird is to deliberately destroy something innocent.
The mockingbird comes to represent true goodness and purity. Tom Robinson is one example of a human “Mockingbird.” He stands accused of raping and beating Mayella Ewell but is innocent of the charges, The town commits the ultimate sin by finding him guilty and sentencing him to death. In effect, they have killed a Mockingbird. Boo Radley is another example of a human “Mockingbird.” He has spent his entire life as a prisoner of his own house because his father was overzealous in punishing him for a childhood mistake. However, there is still an uncomfortable parallel between the actions of Atticus and the sheriff in protecting Boo Radley and that of the jurors in the Tom Robinson trial. All are participants within a criminal justice system with a responsibility to the truth, but who choose to ignore it in order to achieve what they consider the “right” evaluation or result, based on their personal morality.
‘Remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.’
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
‘Your father’s right,’ she said, ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird’ (Chapter 10, Page 99-100).
Harper Lee portrays the legal system realistically. She presents that is not always fair and is not always just. It is through Atticus and his dilemma that we learn that the legal system is only as just as the community it serves – that justice is a concept not always inherent in the machinery of legal process, and to recognize the demarcation line between justice and injustice does not take any special degree of wisdom and sophistication. The novel supports the belief that justice is easy to recognize and define.
Ben Florman and Justin Kestler, LitCharts Editors.“LitChart on To Kill a Mockingbird.”LitCharts . com. 4 Sep 2017.
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William T. Going, “Store and Mockingbird: Two Pulitzer Novels about Alabama,” in his Essays on Alabama Literature, The University of Alabama Press, 1975, pp. 9-31.