|Title||To Kill a Mockingbird - History Book Report|
To Kill a Mockingbird was the book that I already have read and enjoyed when I was in Korean high school. I read the translated version that time, and I could see the implied issue of human rights and justice in Harper Lee’s work. After I came to China and joined SAP program, I could read English version of To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore year. That time, I could feel how the main character Jem and Scout have grown through the various happenings and incidents in their childhood. Besides, I could get the author’s intention and understand her way of telling the story more. Well, this time was different. This time, after learning two semesters of United States history, I could understand the details of the story and the background of To Kill a Mockingbird more. While I read To Kill a Mockingbird again, I could find out the historical references, cultures, and other clues that form the historical background of the story.
First, To Kill a Mockingbird includes some historical references that help readers to understand more about the social atmosphere of the Macomb County, where the story mainly takes place. In the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, the main character and also the narrator of the story, Scout Finch, states that:
“But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.”(Lee 6)
In fact, the phrase ‘it had nothing to fear but fear itself” was the quote from the 32nd president of United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The quote ‘it had nothing to fear but fear itself’ was the part of his inaugural address. His inaugural address was made in March of 1933, so readers could infer the time setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Another historical reference shown in To Kill a Mockingbird is about the Reconstruction era. Scout tells readers about the old history of Maycomb County, by delivering what Aunt Alexandra told her about the Maycomb County (Lee 173-174). She mentions that Maycomb County was not involved in the ‘War Between the States’, which indicates the Civil War, but the Reconstruction rule and economic ruin—the Great Depression—helped the town to grow (Lee 174). This also helps readers to get more information about the historical settings of the story. Information about Ku Klux Klan is also mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird. After Atticus Finch, Jem and Scout’s father, said that there were no gangs or mobs in Maycomb, Jem says that once Ku Klux Klan came to Maycomb to get after Catholics (Lee 196). Then Atticus said there was no such happening, and Ku Klux Klan has gone and will never come back (Lee 196). Ku Klux Klan has formed around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, and disappeared for few decades, until the Civil Rights Movement become popular throughout the land. According to the previous clues and the quote of Atticus, it could be concluded that the time era of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place between the first rise of KKK and the second rise of KKK in later 20th century. Finally, the mentioning of Adolf Hitler also provides the time setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. In chapter 26, there is the scene that Miss Gates, a school teacher of Scout, lets students present what they have read in the news recently (Lee 327). Cecil Jacobs, one of the students, talks about Adolf Hitler’s persecution of Jewish people (Lee 327). Then Miss Gates teaches her class that Adolf Hitler and his government is a dictatorship, while the United States is a democracy (Lee 329). The oppression of Jewish people in Hitler government started around the 1930s and 40s, so this also could be a historical allusion in the story.
Secondly, To Kill a Mockingbird includes lots of cultural references that help readers to understand the setting of the story. For example, the conflict between Scout and the Aunt Alexandra highlights the Aunt Alexandra’s opinion of being women. In chapter 9, Scout complains about the fact that Aunt interferes to her too much, especially in Scout’s clothes, behaviors, and even the toys Scout plays with (Lee 108). Added with the fact that Aunt Alexandra became an authorized person in Maycomb and that she runs lots of clubs in Maycomb community, readers could know that Aunt Alexandra’s opinion is not that old-fashioned or wrong that time (Lee 172). Aunt Alexandra has the traditional stereotype of being a woman. Moreover, in chapter 23, Scout becomes angry because she realized that women could not become jury in the court (Lee 296). Scout is having a disagreement about those traditional stereotypes and culture that could show the inequality between men and women. The conflict between Scout and the traditional stereotypes of women in society implies the change of people’s perspective on gender roles. Besides the cultural issues regarding women, To Kill a Mockingbird also includes the cultures regarding African Americans that time. First, throughout the story, readers could notice that most of the housekeepers and farm workers are African Americans; Calpurnia in Scout’s house, little girl Jessie who works as housekeeper in Mrs. Dubose’s house, Sophy in Mrs. Merriweather’s house, Tom and Helen Robinson in Mr. Link Deas’s house are the examples. Also, To Kill a Mockingbird shows the culture of ‘separate but equal’ well. One example is the churches for both whites and black people. In chapter 12, Calpurnia took Jem and Scout to her black church (Lee 157). According to Scout, the scene of the black church is very different from the white church, and all the believers in the church are black people. Moreover, To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates the poor appearance that the black church has, and the different style of worship of the black church (Lee 159, 161). The ‘separated church’ culture is most obviously shown in the quote of Lula, one of the members of the black church:
“I wants to know why you bringin’ white chillun to nigger church.” (Lee 158)
Not only the church, but also the court has the culture of ‘attending separately’. In chapter 16, there is the scene of the trial of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man who was accused of raping white girl Mayella Violet Ewell. Most of the people around the Maycomb County attended the trial, but there was the tendency that black people waited for all of the white people enter into the court and have a seat (Lee 218). All of the white villagers watched the trial on the first floor, while all of the black people went upstairs and watched the trial on the second floor (Lee 219). These tendencies of being separate were the result of Jim Crow laws and other laws that legally allowed to be ‘separate but equal’ in religious activities and public activities. Moreover, To Kill a Mockingbird implies the scene of people trying to lynch Tom Robinson (Lee 202, 203). A group of white people threatened Atticus to hand over Tom Robinson, but he refuses to do it (Lee 202). Again, the lynching was one of the negative results of the discrimination in the United States in the 1930s and before.
Finally, To Kill a Mockingbird includes other clues that help readers to catch the background of the story and understand the story better. The mentioning of Dewey Decimal system, calling African Americans as ‘negro’ in a polite way, the existence of Sheriff Heck Tate, and the usage of Radios are the small clues that consist the background of To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee 24, 100, 124, 359, 360).
Reading To Kill a Mockingbird itself was fully meaningful and enjoyable the first time I read it, but I could only enjoy its full meaning after I analyzed the historical elements in the story. After learning the history and culture of United States, I could read the each episode and characters’ quotes deeply and thoroughly. To Kill a Mockingbird implies the true justice of being human, and gives insight to the Civil Rights Movement later in the 1960s. The story of Maycomb town, especially the trial of Tom Robinson and the appeal of Atticus Finch for the equality of people, would symbolize the one small wave of the preludes of the huge wave for equality and freedom.
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