Question: Analyse how supposedly insignificant events or details revealed one or more significant themes.
In the novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, written by Harper Lee, the story follows two children in their journey through childhood to adulthood. It also highlights their journey through innocence, and losing innocence. Their names are Jem and Scout, and their father, another important character, is called Atticus. They, as well as an array of other interesting important characters within the novel, live in a small town called Maycomb, Alabama during around 1929-1939, the time period of The Great Depression. There are many events and details which define and create important and interesting ideas, such as racism. There are some events which occur within the novel which are supposedly insignificant. Some of these events or details include, the Snowman which the main characters, Jem and Scout create when it unusually snows one time in Maycomb. Another lies within the obviously significant event of Mrs Dubose, a disciplinary, old, grouchy lady who lives down the street from Scout and her family, and her lessons with courage. In this essay I will analyse and explain the significance of these two supposedly insignificant events.
Firstly, in Chapter 8, an unusual weather occurrence hits Maycomb: it snows. Mrs Eula May, the leading telephone operator in Maycomb, called and informed the children that school is cancelled, ‘as it has not snowed in Maycomb County since 1885’, there will be no school.’ Jem and Scout then adventure outside to the snow to try and build a snowman. However, there is hardly any snow, so they go to Mrs Maudie’s house. The children then take a basket of her snow back to their house. Then, Jem gets some more baskets and fills them up with dirt, ending up with 5 baskets of dirt and 2 baskets of snow. Jem begins to construct a torso from the dirt. ‘Jem I ain’t ever heard of a nigger Snowman’, says Scout. ‘It won’t be black long’, he replied.
This event is supposedly insignificant because it’s just children making a snowman for fun. However, even though it is significant in the way that it never snows in Maycomb, there is deeper meaning to the snowman than just an unusual weather occurrence. The ‘snowman’ ends up showing very strong resemblance to Mr Avery, their neighbour. This is because of a very round belly below the waistline. They then begin to layer on the snow. ‘Gradually Mr Avery turned white.’ Mr Avery is a weird character, who had been seen doing unusual things that were supposed to go unseen. For example, one night Scout witnesses him peeing off of his front porch. ‘Besides making change in the collection plate every Sunday, Mr. Avery sat on the porch every night until nine o’clock and sneezed.’ This weird behaviour is happening in Maycomb, which at the time set in the book, is a very racist and prejudiced place. Therefore, it is significant because Mr Avery acts how a negro would be stereotyped to act in this place and time, which is unusually weird, impolite and compulsive. This behaviour is represented through the mud parts of the snowman, and his physical appearance is represented through the snow. However, Mr Avery is a white man, so he therefore gets away with it. He is seen doing unusual things that are meant to go unseen. He is a black man on the inside and a white man on the outside. This supposedly insignificant event reveals the theme of racism and prejudice through how Mr Avery is able to get away with acting uncivilized and obscene as a public disturbance. If a Negro was to act how he acted, they would suffer the consequences, not get away with it without so much as being labelled slightly weird. This teaches the reader that people are not always as they seem, and that the perception of a person is not always the reality. Also, the perception of people are heavily influenced by prejudice, and can affect how people are treated.
However although the snowman showed a lot of physical resemblance to Mr Avery, it also represents Tom Robinson, who was a black man accused of raping an 18 year old, poor, white girl. It also represents Atticus, who is a father to Scout and Jem, and a lawyer who is defending Tom in the upcoming trial. The trial is also represented through aspects of the Snowman. The snowman represents teamwork between black and white people, specifically Atticus and Tom, and this teamwork is shown during the trial through how hard Atticus tried to get him free, and also how much he believed in doing the right thing. The snow is Atticus, in the way that he is a white man, and also in the way that he is protecting Tom from the dangers of the outside world, and the trial. This is physically shown in how the snow is covering up the mud, so the mud is Tom, in the way that he is a black man. Not only does it represent his skin colour, but also the hidden culture in Maycomb. This is shown in how negroes are always the underdogs, the lower part of Maycomb that nobody wants to see. ‘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.’ This quote from the text proves that no matter what, a white man’s word is always going to win over a black man’s.
The next night, Atticus and the kids are woken up and come to see that there is a fire at Mrs Maudie’s house. They rush out and watch as many town’s people are desperately trying to save her things by taking them outside. The fire ends up melting the snowman, which leaves the children sad. The fire can be likened to racism. This is because it consumes and destroys everything in its way. Racism is referred to ‘Maycomb’s usual disease’, by Atticus, and he does this because racism, like a fire, burns and consumes everything. The fire could be seen as a representation of the upcoming trial. The townspeople’s racist thoughts of the town, are likely to consume anything innocent in its path, because of the strong prejudice preventing any change from happening. For example, the innocence of, and also Tom and Atticus themselves. The burning fire contrasts the intense cold of the snow, which could be an allusion to how people react to the trial, as some people may sympathize with Tom, and some may condemn him. Also, it could allude to the opposite sides of the trial, with Tom as an innocent black man, against Bob as a guilty white man. The snowman therefore also foreshadows Tom’s death. As it melts in the fire, Tom dies as a consequence of the events from the trial. ‘To Maycomb, Tom’s death was typical. Typical of a nigger to cut and run. Typical of a nigger’s mentality to have no plan, no thought for the future, just run blind first chance he saw. Funny thing, Atticus Finch might’ve got him off scot free, but wait-? Hell no. You know how they are. Easy come, easy go. Just shows you, that Robinson boy was legally married, they say he kept himself clean, went to church and all that, but when it comes down to the line the veneer’s mighty thin. Nigger always comes out in ’em.’
The Snowman may also be interpreted as a representation of a mixed child, with mud and snow. The mixed child is referred to when Scout asks Jem what one is in Chapter 16. He then goes on to explain that they’re a mixture of black and white. ‘They don’t belong anywhere. Coloured folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ’em ’cause they’re coloured, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere. But Mr Dolphus, now, they say he’s shipped two of his up north. They don’t mind ’em up north. Yonder’s one of ’em.’ Jem says that they’re sad because they never fit in, as they have aspects of both races.
Therefore, the fire then represents a form of prejudice when it melts the snowman. The prejudice against mixed children is because they don’t fit in anywhere, and they’re not accepted in that time and society, because they possess traits of both black and white people. We as the reader, learn from these details that we should treat all people with respect and kindness, no matter their skin colour, ethnicity, or religion. We should perceive people positively and based on a non-prejudiced attitude.
The snowman is moulded with earth from their garden, and is covered in a layer of snow. This symbolizes, and proves that a black man would never be accepted by society until he is a ‘white man’. The creation of the snowman can symbolize Atticus and his efforts in the trial towards helping Tom Robinson win. However he fails to do so, and that in turn results in the death of Tom Robinson, who ran in an attempt at life because he believed he would never win. He was afraid, and he knew that because he was a black man, he could never win a trial against a white man’s word. ‘I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.’ From the beginning of the trial, he was never going to win. Just like the fire, it melted the snowman, however even without the fire, the snowman would’ve melted anyway. ‘Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.’ The significant themes that are presented from these ‘supposedly insignificant’ events are racial prejudice. Tom already knew that because he was black, he wasn’t going to win the trial, and he would rather take his chances at escaping than what is essentially certain death anyway, despite the obvious drawback of only having one arm. Also, this theme is shown through how the guards shot to kill, not stop him from escaping.
Secondly, in chapter 11, Jem and Scout are walking back from a trip to town to buy some things for themselves. On the way they are interrupted by Mrs Dubose. ‘Jem and I hated her. If she was on the porch when we passed, we would be raked by her wrathful gaze, subjected to ruthless interrogation regarding our behaviour and given a melancholy production of what we were to amount to when we grew up, which was always nothing.’ They were told by Atticus to ignore her insults and judging comments, however this time she began to personally attack them through Atticus. ‘Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for!’ Jem loses his temper and ends up trashing Mrs Dubose’s white camellias. They are then forced by Atticus to go to her house and read to her everyday for a month.
Mrs Dubose had been addicted to morphine since she had an injury when she was younger. She was prejudged by the children before they ‘stepped in her shoes’. Scout introduced her as ‘plain hell’. ‘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’, said Atticus. The children hated her before they saw things from her perspective. Jem was made to read to her after ruining her camellias because Atticus wanted him to step into her shoes and see what life was like for her. ‘I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand’.
The flowers in Mrs Dubose’s garden are supposedly insignificant because they’re just flowers, and the reader would maybe focus more on the fact that Jem is acting out, and breaking character. However, the detail that they’re ‘white camellias’ is important because it alludes to ‘The Knights of the White Camellia’, which is an American political terrorist organization that was operating during the 19th Century. They’re an anti-black, hate group similar to, (and associated with) the Ku Klux Klan. They believed in white supremacy. It is however significant because Mrs Dubose would’ve been around as a child to remember them, and also be exposed to their influence and beliefs. She also, because of her age, already has racist inclinations. She grew up with those beliefs and therefore it is ingrained in her. The flowers of the white camellias symbolise the older generation of the society. Therefore, the children are the roots. They are the next generation, and they support the whole community, and help it grow.
White as a symbol is very traditional, because of the ‘white’ camellias. It represents, so called ‘purity’ for the Knights of the White Camellia, and for white supremacy. The camellias also represent how racism was such a big part of her life. Jem chose to destroy them because he knew it would affect her. They are her pride and joy, and she had spent a lot of time on them. She then says to Jem later on in the novel, ‘Thought you could kill my Snow-on-the-Mountain, did you? Well Jessie says the top’s growing back out. Next time you’ll know how to do it right, won’t you? You’ll pull it up by the roots, won’t you?’ This references to the fact that children are the ‘roots of society’, and in order to get rid of a problem in a society, you have to start with the next generation. The roots of society are the children, and the flowers are maybe the older generation, in the way that if you were to knock off the flowers they would grow back, however if you were to pull it up by the roots, it would destroy the whole plant. This is a metaphor for society, where the next generation needs to be educated to change the system. This theme is related to an idea in the Renaissance, ‘Humanism’. It was a European cultural and intellectual movement during the 14th-16th century. This movement was defined by attention to Classical culture. During the Renaissance, ‘Humanists’ created schools, which they then used to teach their ideas and write books about education. The main goal for this was to produce a model of education for all of Europe, by combining classical texts and Christianity. The people would be able to write and speak with articulation, fluency and clarity. Therefore, is they achieved this, they were then capable of engaging in the life of their communities, and would then go on to persuade others to do the same. This can be related to the text ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, because it was a movement which believed in educating the ‘roots of society’ in order for it to become better and more advanced as a community. They believed that education could dramatically change humans. The cultural and intellectual movement of Humanism then lead to the new attitudes towards art, government and philosophy.
In conclusion, the Novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, written by Harper Lee, represents many themes such as racism, through supposedly insignificant details in the text. The supposedly insignificant details of the Snowman in Chapter 8, and the White Camellias in Mrs Dubose’s garden in Chapter 16 portrays the ideas of racism and prejudice in children and adults. As a whole, the reader learns about loss of innocence and the journey to adulthood through the experiences of Scout and Jem. This is shown through how their exposed to the negative parts of society and world during the trial and the actions of the townspeople. The reader also learns about racism and unfairness of prejudice and how it affects people. The world and society are unfair, and this is all shown through the snowman. It portrays the destruction of racism, consumption of things, and how it destroys innocence in children, and how the real world is harsh. This links to the White Camellias in Mrs Dubose’s garden. The flowers represent the society, and the layers and generations are represented through the parts, flowers, roots, stem. The children are the roots of our society, and therefore in order to ‘uproot the problem’ we need to start with the children. You can’t kill a plant by knocking off the flowers, because they will grow back from the stems. Mrs Dubose also teaches the reader of what real courage is. Her morphine addiction shows the courage and strength of morals and what is morally right. This is relates to the world through the children, and teaching them the right morals, and what is just in the world.