To Kill a Mockingbird - Southern Traditions

To Kill a Mockingbird - Southern Traditions

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To Kill a Mockingbird  -  Southern Traditions



The South has always been known for its farming economy, confederate tendencies, family pride, and delicate females in ruffled dresses. In the book To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, the South's familiar traditions become ostensible as a theme throughout the plot. This novel takes place in Alabama in the 1930s and tells a story about a lawyer who defends a wrongly accused black man while trying to raise his two children, Scout and Jem, as they go through life's most active learning stage. Southern ways enhance the plot of the story and give a realistic and historic perspective to the book. This portrayal of Southern culture appears in various forms of racism, hatred, meek women, and family.


The Southern women were told and obligated, by some code of southern conduct, to mature into fair-smelling, perfect "ladies." By "ladies" they meant women who were well mannered, good at embroidery, and wore frilly, lacy dresses. One example of this southern tradition occurs when Aunt Alexandra comes to the Finch residence to help Atticus raise his children during the trial. When first arriving she says to Scout, "We decided that it would be best for you to have some feminine influence. It won't be many years, Jean Louise, before you become interested in clothes and boys." This comment implies that the only subjects girls are expected to understand are boys and clothes. Aunt Alexandra makes no mention of Jean Louise's intelligence, education, or personality. Her diction suggests that the only thing Jean Louise is capable of pursuing is her attire and a man. Scout discovers what a "southern lady" is as she notices how Aunt Alexandra "chose protective garments that drew up her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Aunt Alexandra's was once an hour-glass figure." Scout was considered to be very improper, wearing overalls and pants, but Aunt Alexandra would still try and introduce her to other ladies. I assume that she did this to try and influence Scout. She hoped Scout would form lady-like habits by watching others. Another example takes place after the trial, when Jem is appalled at the decision the court makes in response to Tom Robinson's case.

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Jem asks Atticus, "Why don't people like us and Miss Maudie ever sit on juries?" Atticus's reply is, "For one thing, Miss Maudie can't serve on a jury because she's a woman . . ." and "Besides I doubt if we'd ever get a complete case tried the ladies'd be interrupting to ask questions." There was prejudice towards women in that time, but Atticus speaks of women in a very demeaning way. He thinks that they are incompetent so much so that they would have to continually ask questions during a trial. The South was repressing their women to become gentle, mild creatures instead of intelligent, well-rounded beings. This opinion of women pervaded the country, but the Southerners had an extreme idea of women in corsets and ruffled garments practicing sewing.


Southern pride came from the importance and quality of your family and past ancestors. Depending on your social status, you were either considered superior or inferior in comparison to other families. Those who were prideful tried to pass the information on to posterity, hoping to continue the family's good breeding and education. Aunt Alexandra, being very proud herself, had no problem with insulting the other "inferior" families. She analyzed the families labeling them with things like, "A Drinking Streak, A Gambling Streak, A Mean Streak, or A Funny Streak." I think that this social class standard widely spread due to the small size of the southern towns. Aunt Alexandra has a strong sense of self-importance. Another incident occurred during Scout's first day of school, when the new teacher, obviously unaccustomed to the Southern family identification method, offers Walter Cunningham a quarter to buy lunch. Walter refused the quarter several times and Scout presented Miss Caroline with an explanation saying, "Miss Caroline, he's a Cunningham." Miss Caroline was confused by this statement and Scout presided by telling her that, "That's okay you'll get to know all the county folks after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can't pay back - no church baskets and no scrip stamps." This incident shows that each family had a "definition" attached to their last name. For example, the Cunninghams were known for their bartering system and rejection of charity. Every family has a specific characteristic that is associated with their last name. Maycomb is a small town so each resident knew the history of every other family in town. These family epithets were beneficial because they provided each citizen with some background and a topic for conversation. The only problem with this system was that everyone knew everything about you, and if you had a shameful situation, everyone knew about it.


The South has been known for their farming economy for many generations. Many crops were grown in the South such as tobacco, corn, cotton, nuts, and various fruits. These crops needed to be harvested and the uneducated black people had a limited choice on their occupation so many of them chose or were forced to pick crops. For instance, Tom Robinson helped pick cotton for a landowner named Link Deas. After the trial, Tom's widow also began working as a harvester in the fields. In To Kill A Mockingbird, the importance of farming and the continual need of help in the fields are shown during Scout's first day at school. Burris Ewell is sitting in class and Miss Caroline spotted a bug crawling in his hair and as she says, "Please bathe yourself before you come back tomorrow." Burris's retort is, "I was just on the verge of leavin' - I done done my time for this year." The Ewell children come to the first day of school each year and then help with the plowing, picking, and planting of crops on their plot of land. Mr.Ewell is completely ignoring the fact that his children could get a decent education. The main thing he cares about is the harvesting of his crops so he is able to make a profit by selling the produce. In Southern culture farming was the first priority, it came before education, ethical values, and even human rights. Slavery violated black's natural human rights, but when it contributed to farming it was acceptable.


Racial prejudice towards black people was a main theme in To Kill A Mockingbird. The entire premise of the book focuses on the archetypal story of a black man on trial for a crime he didn't commit. The town of Maycomb profiles all black people as immoral, criminals, and a pilfering race. This discrimination becomes evident in the trial of Tom Robinson. He is wrongly convicted "Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty" after Atticus gives indisputable evidence of his innocence, and "not one iota of medical evidence" is presented to prove that the crime was even committed at all. The jurors made their decision solely on the assumption that black people are vile creatures. It shows how deeply embedded this idea of racism was implanted in this Southern community. If these jurors had all been color-blind, this case would have been an easily decided by an acquittal. Another incident occurred when Tom was awaiting his trial in the county jail. One night, a vigilante lynch mob tried to punish Tom for the crime they were certain he had committed saying, "You know what we want, get aside from the door, Mr.Finch." They planned to come and lynch Tom without allowing Tom to even be tried in court. This form of unjust thinking and impulsive reaction displays the prejudice that whites had for the black race. The black race was technically free, though they had restricted rights and a limited amount of credibility when it came to trials and crimes. The only monument that was officially known as a black territory was a humble church. "It was an ancient paint-peeled frame building, the only church in Maycomb with a steeple and a bell, called First Purchase because it was paid for from the first earnings of freed slaves." This church, though small and dilapidated, was their property. This house of worship was a very sacred place for the black community. It was their place of prayer. "Negroes worshipped in it on Sundays and white men gambled in it on weekdays." The white people who gambled in this church knew that they were gambling in a church, which was also the only black owned building in the town. Gambling is a sin and they thought that it was acceptable to be sinful in the only black possession in Maycomb. This routine of weekly gambling was an extreme disrespect to the black race and it exhibited the authority and control the white race had over the black population. Every white person felt that they were superior to blacks. There were few people who felt blacks deserved equality and those who expressed their feelings were lynched. During this era, the great depression was in the midst of the society and times were harsh. Money was scarce. People needed to blame someone for the hardships that they were encountering. Their scapegoat was the black race.


Southern culture had its share of faults, but in the 1930s these practices of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation were considered orthodox. As we look back at the traits of our history, we applaud the good and note the evil with a churning stomach. When we look at the demonic side of human nature, we either chose to ignore it or try to learn from it. The best way to stop the repulsive torture that has been done to our ancestors is to review the event and understand. To know what happened is one thing, but to be intelligent enough to realize that it shouldn't happen again is genius.


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