To Kill a Mockingbird

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Themes and Colors
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Courage Theme Icon
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To Kill a Mockingbird, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Prejudice Theme Icon

Atticus's belief in treating and respecting everyone as an individual is contrasted in To Kill a Mockingbird with a number of other worldviews. These other visions are all quite different from each other—they are religious, racist, classist—but they all share one thing in common: they treat people as groups, demand conformity, and give no respect or credit to individuals. In other words, they are all forms of prejudice, which is a preconceived notion about a person based on the groups to which that person belongs. Over and over again, To Kill a Mockingbird reveals prejudice not just as closed-minded and dangerous, but also as ridiculous.

The most obvious form of prejudice in the novel is racism, which causes otherwise upstanding white citizens of Maycomb to accept the testimony of an obviously corrupt white man over the evidence supporting the testimony from a black man. Yet prejudice is also visible in the racially condescending Mrs. Grace Merriweather; in Aunt Alexandra's and many other character's belief in the importance of social class; in the gender stereotypes that people try to force on Scout; and even in the way the town views Boo Radley as a monster because he acts differently from everyone else.

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Prejudice Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird

Below you will find the important quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird related to the theme of Prejudice.
Chapter 3 Quotes
"There's some folks who don't eat like us," she whispered fiercely, "but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't. That boy's yo' comp'ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?"

"He ain't company, Cal, he's just a Cunningham-"

"Hush your mouth! Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' comp'ny, and don't you let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty!
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Calpurnia (speaker), Walter Cunningham
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

Jem has invited Walter Cunningham to their house to eat, and Scout is shocked by the way Walter pours molasses all over his food – and she says so. Here, Calpurnia gives Scout a lesson about the way she should treat other people. Scout implicitly has a sense of who counts as "company" and who doesn't – that is, who is worthy of politeness and respect (richer, more prominent members of the community) and who is not (poorer members of the community). It is this implicit belief that Calpurnia rebukes Scout for, saying that "company" is anyone who is invited home, and that Scout should be ashamed of thinking otherwise.

Indeed, Scout is meant to learn through this event that judging Walter at all, much less talking about it, is something to be ashamed of, far more than Walter should be ashamed of his eating habits. Calpurnia and Atticus are clearly on the same page regarding the way they believe one must treat other people, all people: with common dignity and without prejudice.


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Chapter 5 Quotes
"There are just some kind of men who—who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results."
Related Characters: Miss Maudie Atkinson (speaker), Nathan Radley
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Scout is curious about her family's reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, and here she asks a friend of the family, Miss Maudie, why he never leaves home. As with Walter Cunningham, Scout reveals here how easy prejudice can be: even a young child can be naturally suspicious of people who act differently than she does. Luckily, Scout has a number of adults, from Atticus and Calpurnia to Miss Maudie, who are willing to be patient and teach her to take a step back and consider alternative possibilities to her prejudice.

Here, Miss Maudie humanizes Boo, telling Scout about his strict, very religious father, who was against all pleasure in life. Like Atticus, Miss Maudie doesn't think people are just born a certain way: instead, she believes that a combination of personality and opportunity work to influence how a person is and acts, and that one should seek to understand this process rather than judging from appearances.

Chapter 9 Quotes
"If you shouldn't be defendin' him, then why are you doin' it?"

"For a number of reasons," said Atticus. "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again."

"Atticus, are we going to win it?"

"No, honey."

"Then why-"

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win," Atticus said.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Tom Robinson
Page Number: 100-101
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Atticus teaches Scout a difficult lesson about morality – one that goes counter to her own childhood impulses. Scout has heard other children at school criticize Atticus, and when she asks why, he tells her that he has decided to defend in court Tom Robinson, a black man accused of murder, even though he knows there's no chance of winning. Until now, Scout has considered that physically fighting and winning is what it means to be courageous. Now, her father attempts to explain to her that it can show even more courage to strive for something even when one knows that failure is inevitable.

Rather than acting because he will win, Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson because he knows that it is the right thing to do. Interestingly, even though many people in town are prejudiced and disagree with Atticus's choice, for Atticus it is the fact that everyone in town knows him and his own beliefs that serves as another motivation for him to act according to his beliefs. He believes that only by standing up for his ideas can he then, in turn, be seen as a representative of the community (even if the community disagrees with some of those beliefs). In order to be morally consistent, Atticus believes, he must act on behalf of human dignity – and more specifically, this man's dignity – regardless of the end result.

Chapter 10 Quotes
"Atticus, you must be wrong...."

"How's that?"

"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong...."
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Tom Robinson
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In the small, tight-knit town of Maycomb, what "most folks seem to think" can quickly come to mean what is actually true. Such "group think" and the pressure it puts on individuals to join in it help to preserve and expand all sorts of prejudice. Here we see such logic at work, as Scout questions her father's choices based on what most people in the town think about those choices.

Scout is still struggling to reconcile these two things: it's difficult for her to see how "most folks" can be wrong, since it makes sense that what the majority thinks about something must be right – especially in a town small enough that it can seem like everyone thinks the same way about something, such as the Tom Robinson case. But the ellipses (three dots after Scout's sentences) seem to suggest that Scout is not at all confident in going against her father: she understands that there are elements at work that she may not have yet understood.

Chapter 12 Quotes
Lula stopped, but she said, "You ain't got no business bringin' white chillun here—they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?"

… When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone. In her place was a solid mass of colored people.

One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo, the garbage collector. "Mister Jem," he said, "we're mighty glad to have you all here. Don't pay no 'tention to Lula, she's contentious because Reverend Sykes threatened to church her. She's a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an' haughty ways—we're mighty glad to have you all."
Related Characters: Lula (speaker), Jean Louise Finch (Scout), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem), Calpurnia, Reverend Sykes
Page Number: 158-159
Explanation and Analysis:

Calpurnia has invited Jem and Scout to her all-black church while Atticus is away at the state legislature. This passage pins one woman, Lula, who is suspicious of the white children's presence, against the rest of the congregation, which welcomes them. Lula is portrayed as being just as prejudiced as the white people in town, just as susceptible to judging people on the basis of their skin color rather than of their character. In this sense, the rest of the congregation is shown to surmount this small-mindedness and embrace the inherent human dignity in welcoming guests into their home or place of worship.

Nonetheless, another way to interpret this passage would involve making a distinction between the kind of "prejudice" Lula shows and the kind shown by the white members of the town. The black people in Maycomb are discriminated against and restricted in almost every facet of their lives – their church is among the only places where they can feel secure and at home. It is understandable, therefore, for Lula to express suspicion at white children interrupting this small sanctuary in a town that seems to have little room or desire for people like her. As children, of course, Jem and Scout haven't played any kind of active role in creating this double standard, but Lula's reaction only underlines how deep and structural are the inequalities that persist in the town. The novel itself does not seem to recognize this latter view of Lula's position, but that might be taken as a criticism of the novel rather than a defense of it.

Chapter 13 Quotes
Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Aunt Alexandra
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Alexandra has moved into the Finch home because she believes that Scout needs more of a "feminine" influence. In addition, she begins to try to inculcate Scout with some of her own social values, values that stress class and family history over character and behavior. The Finches have, indeed, lived in Maycomb for a long time, and Alexandra believes that this means they are inherently superior to other people who have not been around for so long in the town. The way Scout describes this belief – "squatting on one patch of land" – makes clear through its tone just how skeptical she is of Alexandra's ideas. 

In other situations, Scout's childhood innocence is shown to revert back to easy prejudice, such that her father must teach her a better, more nuanced, and less prejudiced way of thinking. Here, however, her innocence makes her see more clearly, making it obvious to the reader as well just how silly the idea of moral superiority based on land ownership or family history really is. 

Chapter 16 Quotes
"Well how do you know we ain't Negroes?"

"Uncle Jack Finch says we really don't know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain't, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin' the Old Testament."

"Well if we came out durin' the Old Testament it's too long ago to matter."

"That's what I thought," said Jem, "but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black."
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Amid the excitement around the trial that's about to start, Jem and Scout talk about their own family history. In Scout's childhood innocence, once again, it becomes clear just how silly it is to seek to draw hard-and-fast borders between races, and to proclaim moral differences based on something so fragile. After all, every human being, ultimately, originated from Africa, and not only can one can never with any certitude trace one's own family history back in order to prove racial "purity" – the very idea of racial purity, as this passage shows, is simply absurd. 

Jem, slightly older than Scout, is aware both of how senseless the idea of racial purity is, as well as how entrenched an idea it is in this small town anyway. The idea that even one small "drop" of blackness makes you black – that is, according to the town's logic, morally inferior – gives the townspeople a black-and-white way to look at racial relations, and a pseudo-scientific definition to bolster their own prejudice. 

Chapter 19 Quotes
“The way that man called him 'boy' all the time an' sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered— … It ain't right, somehow it ain't right to do 'em that way. Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that—it just makes me sick."
Related Characters: Charles Baker Harris (Dill) (speaker), Tom Robinson, Mr. Gilmer
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

Dill has begun to cry in the courtroom during the trial of Tom Robinson, so Scout takes him outside. They had been listening to the prosecutor Mr. Gilmer's cross-examination of Tom Robinson. Gilmer – making little attempt to introduce hard evidence with which to convict the defendant – has been essentially trying to bait the jury into succumbing to racism in order to convict him. Dill cannot stand to hear the way Mr. Gilmer is talking to Tom Robinson: for him, the lawyer is essentially treating Tom as a different, inferior species. 

An advantage of having a child narrate To Kill A Mockingbird, and in having other children populate the novel, is that we as readers can look with fresh eyes at appalling prejudices in American society. We may be in danger of growing accustomed to these prejudices, of assuming that they are simply the way the world works. Part of Dill's distraught feelings stem from the dawning realization, as he and Scout grow up, that this is the way the world works: but the way in which he rebels against what is given reminds us of the danger of becoming complacent, and forgetting just how shocking such prejudices really are.

"If you had a clear conscience, why were you scared?"

"Like I says before, it weren't safe for any nigger to be in a—fix like that."

"But you weren't in a fix—you testified that you were resisting Miss Ewell. Were you so scared that she'd hurt you, you ran, a big buck like you?"

"No suh, I's scared I'd be in court, just like I am now."

"Scared of arrest, scared you'd have to face up to what you did?"

"No suh, scared I'd hafta face up to what I didn't do."
Related Characters: Tom Robinson (speaker), Mayella Ewell, Mr. Gilmer
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

As Mr. Gilmer cross-examines Tom, he is trying to make the jury give in to its racist prejudices and assume that Tom must be guilty, even in the absence of any proof. One way he does this is by suggesting that Tom must have run away because he was guilty. Here, though, Tom reminds Mr. Gilmer and the rest of the audience that for black people in the South, any uncertain situation would almost certainly be blamed on them.

As he and Mr. Gilmer go back and forth, it becomes ever clearer that Gilmer is, purposely or not, misunderstanding Tom. Tom is attempting to refer to the societal assumption that all black men must be guilty – and, indeed, that that is why he finds himself in court now. Mr. Gilmer, for his part, stubbornly clings to this very assumption of guilt whose prejudiced bases Tom is referencing, and so Gilmer takes everything Tom says as an indication that Tom is guilty.

Chapter 22 Quotes
They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep.
Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

Jem tells Atticus that he can't understand how the jury could have convicted Tom Robinson based on the evidence and based on the arguments from Atticus and from Mr. Gilmer. Here, Atticus implicitly returns to what he told his children at the very beginning, and has repeated again and again: that good will won't necessarily conquer evil, and that sometimes prejudice will win out over both evidence and human dignity. 

While Atticus has done his best to educate Jem and Scout so that they lose some of the weaknesses and errors of childhood, here he shows himself to be convinced that childhood holds some major moral advantages over adulthood. Children are still innocent enough – they still have been little enough affected by the world – to be able to notice and be devastated when something unjust happens. Unlike adults, they have not yet learned to grow bitter or even just used to the way things are. This state of shock and anger, Atticus implies, is a powerful reminder for adults not to become complacent.

Chapter 24 Quotes
"Oh child, those poor Mrunas," she said, and was off. Few other questions would be necessary.

Mrs. Merriweather's large brown eyes always filled with tears when she considered the oppressed. "Living in that jungle with nobody but J. Grimes Everett," she said. "Not a white person'll go near 'em but that saintly J. Grimes Everett."
Related Characters: Mrs. Grace Merriweather (speaker)
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Alexandra has invited company to the house, and Scout is helping with serving the guests. Here, Mrs. Grace Merriweather is beginning to talk about the "oppressed" people of Africa, whom she has such pity and compassion for. However, this passage and the ones that follow make clear that Mrs. Merriweather's so-called compassion is nothing else but another form of prejudice.

On the one hand, Mrs. Merriweather speaks with tears in her eyes about the plight of African people, even while she snaps at the African-American servants and cares little about the fate of Tom Robinson. On the other hand, even her attitude towards Africans is condescending and ultimately rests on her conviction in her own superiority, and on the superiority of white people in general. Scout is, little by little, equipped with the tools to understand this prejudice and to distance herself from it. 

Chapter 25 Quotes
Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell
Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

As Scout reads Mr. Underwood's editorial, which compares Tom Robinson to a mockingbird, she thinks about how prejudiced and wrong the blasé attitude of the rest of Maycomb is. Maycomb residents think Mr. Underwood is just trying to be "poetic," but here Scout summarizes what she really believes to be the lesson of the piece. Atticus's battle against prejudice had lost, not because he wasn't a good enough lawyer, and not because he didn't provide sufficient evidence to make the case for Tom's innocence, but because prejudice was so ingrained in the hearts of Maycomb people that they would never be able to be convinced that Tom wasn't guilty. In this context, any time black people are accused of anything, guilt will be the presumption – a danger that Scout is only beginning, soberly, to recognize.