Maycomb county comprises of a conglomeration of various sections of people, who live together in studied harmony. Their differences are noticeable, and therein lies the foundation for all trouble which emerges later on in the novel.
Outwardly, the community is divided into two sections: the white community and the black community. The blacks are simple, honest, hardworking folk, eking out a living by simple labor on the fields. They are god fearing and attend church regularly. Being uneducated, they repeat the hymns sung in the church, by rote. Though poor they have a sense of self-respect and pride and would never take anything from another without paying back in kind. When Atticus takes up Tom Robinson’s case, even though he loses the case, his kitchen is overflowing with food items; the blacks’ way of showing gratitude. Though Jem and Scout are white, they are treated with deference and respect when they visit their black church.
The white community is divided into two sections. One includes most of the citizens of the county, who are simple, yet well bred. They work hard, keep their houses clean and attend church regularly. At the same time, they are prone to indulge in idle gossip, and slander, and have a nose for prying into others’ affairs. Stephanie Crawford, with all her well-bred insolence, cannot help making snide comments at Atticus and his children.
There is an air of suppressed hypocrisy among many of these white citizens.
Another small segment of the white community comprises of what is called ‘white trash’. The Ewells are a part of this segment. These people, though white are worse off than the blacks. They are poor not because of circumstances but because of sheer laziness and lack of ambition. The children are filthy, have no manners, and even refuse to attend school. They are mean and hard and have no qualms about using their fists. Even the law has to be altered a little to maintain order in the society, for instance. This community is worse off than the poor but inherently good blacks, yet consider themselves superior to them because of the color of their skin.
There is another smaller segment, consisting of the Cunninghams. The Cunninghams are known never to take anything they cannot pay back, they manage with whatever they have, which isn’t much. When Scout’s teacher offers Walter Cunningham a quarter to buy lunch for himself, he refuses, and Scout has to explain to her the ways of the Cunninghams. When Mr. Cunningham cannot pay Atticus money for his legal help he sends sacks of hickory nuts, turnips and holly to him.
Evaluating all these sections, one can notice a marked similarity between the blacks and the Cunninghams. Though different in race and color, their attitude towards life, and importance to honesty and self-esteem, depicts them to be good people who deserve better than what is meted out to them by the society.
The Ewells, on the other hand, are the worst kind of people, who show no concern towards bettering themselves, and in fact show insolence towards the others.
All these distinct sections of people have been portrayed to bring forth the problem of racial prejudice to the fullest.
Atticus Finch, the father of Scout and Jem, is a highly respected AND responsible citizen of Maycomb County. An attorney by profession, he has always tried to instill good values and a sense of moral propriety in his children.
Atticus’ relation with his children is unique. He lets them call him by his name. Though outwardly detached and always busy with his work, he does manage to find the time and patience to explain the intricacies of human nature to his children. When Scout comes home from school, upset at being reprimanded for already knowing how to read, Atticus teaches her to compromise with the situation. By continuing to take lessons from the teacher, and at the same time, reading with her father at home, both could be kept happy. Thus, Atticus teaches his daughter, in her impressionable years itself, the mature demeanor of how to conduct oneself in public, and at the same time luxuriate in one’s own decisions.
For Jem, Atticus is a role model, and Jem’s maturity is largely due to Atticus’ dealings in his work and his conduct at home. Jem follows the Tom Robinson trial very attentively and with much trepidation, and actually starts believing that his father will win the case. So, when the case is lost, Jem feels hopelessly disillusioned. Yet Atticus’ acceptance of the situation and the explanation that a black man has yet to win over a white man, heartens him. Hence Atticus has a great influence over his children’s perspective of things.
Atticus always tries to be truthful to his children and takes pains to explain the things they don’t comprehend fully. The children know that he loves them absolutely. His reassuring presence is highlighted in the last few lines of the final chapter -- "He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."
Atticus is a typical southern gentleman. He is always courteous towards ladies, even the sharp-tongued Mrs. Dubose. He never raises his voice, even at his children. His behavior with Calpurnia is meticulous, giving her a fair status in the household. He is brave as well -- he faces the lynch mob in Tom’s prison, without displaying any fright or anxiety. Though his speech is cool and formal, one knows that his heart is warm and he extends his amiability to all, including the black community as well as the poor whites, like the Cunninghams.
Atticus is primarily concerned for the welfare of his community which for him includes the whites as well the blacks. Therefore, he works diligently towards this goal. He does not posses the usual faults of Maycomb citizens; of prejudice, arrogance and hypocrisy. Instead, he takes pains to take the side of the blacks whenever needed and never compromises on this stance of his.
Atticus believes in religious tolerance and he wishes his children would learn this too. He also teaches them to be tolerant of others’ shortcomings and forgive them for the same. He insists that they respect Aunt Alexandra and tolerate her even if they find her even if they find her tiresome and rigid. He also insists that they go regularly to Mrs. Dubose’s house to read out for her, even though he knows that she showers abuses on them. Therefore, he wishes to instill the virtues of Christian tolerance in his children.
Thus Atticus is an ideal gentleman and a sure favorite of all the readers.
Jem has chosen Atticus as his role model, and he emulates him throughout the novel. However, at the same time he gets the opportunity to forming his individuality. Jem is a true brother to Scout, helping her out of scrapes, escorting her to school and back, guiding her at times and comforting her in general. When he is given money to buy something for himself, he buys a gift for Scout too. When he finds out that Scout has eaten the gum found in the knothole of the oak tree, he insists that she gargle her throat. When she muddles up her role in the pageant and is mortified, Jem is the one to console her. Much genuine concern and consideration is displayed by him in dealing with his unruly sister.
At the same time, some typical ‘elder brotherly’ syndromes are exhibited by him when he does not let her join in all the games he plays with Dill (as she is a girl). While escorting her to school on the first day, he instructs her not to follow him around school and embarrass him. He is thus portrayed as a brother, in all the characteristic ways.
Jem has a sharp mind too. During the trial, he follows all the details perfectly. He even understands the reason why Atticus was pointing out the side of Mayella’s face which had been injured. When he builds the Morphodite Snowman, Atticus says, "from now on I’ll never worry about what’ll become of you, son, you’ll always have an idea."
Jem’s character undergoes a consistent change as the novel proceeds. At the beginning, he displays immaturity -- he does not realize the distress he is causing to Arthur by his pranks. During the middle of the novel, Jem he does mature though not entirely. He has a high regard for manliness and courage and is initially ashamed of his father’s apparent feebleness in front of the fathers of his school friends. But his outlook changes completely when he sees his father shoot the rabid dog, and also when he faces the mob in the prison. By the end of the novel he has gained considerable maturity and Scout and Dill too realize this when Miss Maudie gives a slice of the ‘grown-up’ cake to Jem.
Jem is compassionate too, quite like his father. He empathizes with Arthur Radley and the his predicament, and during the Robinson trial, he cannot help getting upset at the unfair discrimination against Tom Robinson. Jem takes on from his father’s humane nature and he is portrayed as a strong character.
Scout, because of her age, and being the youngest in the family, is impulsive by nature and extremely emotional too. She unthinkingly rushes into fights and scrapes, cries when her ego is hurt and is generally is rash in her actions.
Scout is very warm and friendly. Even in the midst of the tension, when the mob gathers in Tom’s prison, she attempts at a friendly conversation with Mr. Cunningham. During the ladies’ meetings held in her drawing room, though unnerved by Stephanie Crawford’s saucy comments, she tries her hard at conversing with the ladies.
As the novel proceeds, Scout too gains in maturity. She realizes how offensive they had been by tormenting Boo Radley. Though a natural tomboy, she begins to adjust to her feminine role and enjoys helping Calpurnia in the kitchen.
Finally, her behavior with Boo Radley when she meets him, displays her sensitivity. She makes him sit comfortably and converses with him. She even escorts him back to the safety of his home. Thus Scout is an adorable character, with a great potential for perception and appreciable values in her personality.
Arthur Radley, called Boo by the children, is an enigma in himself. As a young boy, he had been a pleasant, good-natured boy, but had fallen into the company of the unruly Cunningham boys and had created some mischief. As punishment his father had sentenced him to a lifetime confinement to their house.
Though having gained the reputation of a lunatic, Boo is basically a harmless, well-meaning person; childlike in behavior sometimes, and as Jem and Scout realize, hankering for some love and affection. When Scout and Jem discover little gifts for them, the reader can easily understand that this is Boo’s attempt to extend a hand of friendship to them. But these attempts too are thwarted by his father.
When Boo emerges from the house to rescue Jem and Scout, and is finally introduced to the children, it can be seen that due to his long confinement, his health has weakened and he is unable to even stand the harsh living room lights. Scout feels sorry for him and understands the sheriff’s reason to save Boo from the menacing limelight, which would inevitably fall on him if the truth is exposed. Scout surmises correctly that it would be like killing a mockingbird, a sin which should be avoided as far as possible.
In the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, various themes can be noticed, which project the intricacies in the novel. The primary theme is evidently the problem of racial prejudice. This is revealed throughout the novel at some point or the other, but is highlighted in the Tom Robinson trial.
Tom Robinson, a poor black laborer has been accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewells and is on trial. The jury consists only of whites, and though Tom’s innocence is evident, he is convicted as guilty. Thus, the reader witnesses an irrefutable instance of racial prejudice which restricts a black to clinch victory over a white, even if he is innocent. Though black slavery had been abolished, this abolition had still not been totally accepted by the whites, who could not see any equality between the whites and the blacks.
This racial prejudice taints the minds of many citizens of the town. Stephanie Crawford shows her lack of civility by passing cheap remarks over Atticus, and even Walter Cunningham, who is not much better off than the blacks, tries to harm Atticus. The children, however, in their innocence, are free from this prejudice.