To Kill a Mockingbird follows Scout, a precocious six-year-old, over the course of three years as she begins to grow, and in the process, bears witness to the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. As a child, Scout has set ideas regarding what’s good and what’s evil, but throughout the novel, her father, Atticus, gradually begins to encourage her to see that the world isn’t divided into good people and bad people. Rather, he suggests to her that all people are composed of a mix of good and bad qualities, but regardless, everyone is deserving of being treated with dignity and respect.
At first, Scout and her brother, Jem, hold very black and white views of what’s good and what’s evil. They believe that most of the people in Maycomb are good, as is the law. But in their eyes, the Radley family down the street (and specifically the youngest adult son, Arthur Radley) is evil—as is their elderly neighbor in the other direction, Mrs. Dubose. However, this ignores or contradicts over some of Scout’s more nuanced observations, such as the fact that Miss Stephanie, a good Maycomb lady by many standards, is a horrible gossip and nobody should believe what she says. Yet, Scout lumps Miss Stephanie in with Maycomb at large as a good part of her life. Meanwhile, there’s little real evidence that Arthur Radley, whom the children call Boo, is a bad person. In fact, there’s little evidence that he exists at all—Scout and Jem believe that Boo is evil because of childish neighborhood rumors that Boo survives on cats and squirrels and spends his evenings peeping into people’s windows. In other words, Scout’s world is clearly more complex than strict terms of good and evil, even if she doesn’t have the maturity to fully recognize this.
Through Tom Robinson’s trial, Scout has a number of opportunities to begin to question her initial assumptions about whether people are good or bad, and Atticus’s behavior impresses upon her that one of the best things a person can do is help another person maintain their dignity, which he does by defending Robinson. It’s confusing for Scout when she hears peers, extended family, and even adults in town—many of whom previously fell into her “good” category—take issue with Atticus’s defense of Robinson, defense that she understands that Robinson is entitled to under the law. Because of this, Scout has to grapple with the fact that people despise Atticus for doing his job, which begins to suggest that the people of Maycomb aren’t as overwhelmingly good as Scout initially thought. Indeed, many of them are extremely racist, and while they may treat their white neighbors kindly and with compassion, it’s unthinkable for many of them to extend that kind of generosity to their black neighbors or employees.
As Scout comes to understand that her town and neighborhood aren’t as good as she initially thought, she also has several opportunities to discover that seemingly evil villains in her life are actually not as villainous as she once believed. Though Mrs. Dubose is a foul woman who hurls insults, slurs, and other abuse at every member of the Finch family, including Jem and Scout, she also grows beautiful camellias of which she is very proud, a small quirk that humanizes her to the reader, if not to the children. Further, Atticus shares after her death that Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict who, in attempt to die free and with dignity, broke herself of her addiction in the weeks before her death. While this doesn’t substantially change how Jem and Scout view Mrs. Dubose, as they remain fixated on the awful way she treated them and Atticus, Atticus makes the point that every person, no matter how unsavory they may seem, has their own sense of dignity that his children—and for that matter, the reader—should make every effort to recognize and respect. Similarly, Arthur Radley makes a dramatic leap in Scout’s mind from a nefarious presence to the reason she’s alive when, a few months after Robinson’s trial, he kills Mr. Ewell (the man who accused Robinson of raping his daughter Mayella) in defense of Scout and Jem, whom Mr. Ewell tries to murder on their way home from a Halloween pageant. While the particulars of events that night raise a number of questions about morality, as Arthur does murder Mr. Ewell, both the adults and Scout choose to focus on the fact that what Arthur did was something that saved the lives of Jem and Scout. It’s possible that he also saved the lives of Mr. Ewell’s abused children and preserved some sense of safety in the town by removing its most dangerous resident. This situates Arthur as one of the novel’s “mockingbirds,” in that he helps and even puts himself in danger for others despite the wider world’s cruelty toward him.
Possibly more importantly than the novel’s exploration of the nuances of adult characters, however, is its portrayal of Scout herself as a morally complex individual. While not maliciously racist, Scout still parrots racist slurs and beliefs that she hears others espouse, even in the midst of Robinson’s trial—at one point, she tries to comfort Dill, who’s upset by the prosecution’s racist treatment of Robinson, with the assertion that Robinson is “just a Negro,” and therefore it’s not worth getting too upset over his treatment, as it’s just the way things are. However, she does begin to question this and other thoughts and behaviors of her past, most notably when she begins to feel guilty for the way that she, Jem, and Dill surely tormented Arthur Radley for years. In this way, the novel proposes that everyone, no matter how seemingly good or seemingly bad, is nuanced and contains both good and evil—and most importantly, that through exposure, time, and maturity, it’s possible to become increasingly better.
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity ThemeTracker
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird
“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!”
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.”
“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.”
“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?"
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus said.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
[Jem] was certainly never cruel to animals, but I had never known his charity to embrace the insect world.
“Why couldn't I mash him?” I asked.
“Because they don't bother you,” Jem answered in the darkness. He had turned out his reading light.
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.
A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing-pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.
It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose's [...] Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day's woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.
Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.
Summer, and he watched his children's heart break. Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him.
Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
“When they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.