The recent demise of Harper Lee left us with a sense of sorrow and a sudden longing to immerse ourseles in the everlasting world of To Kill A Mockingbird. As much as the novel is about the deep-rooted racism in the South, it also explores the journey from childhood innocence to the awareness of evil in the world, and the rigidity of gender of those times. To Kill a Mockingbird is autobiographical not merely in its mode of expression but also in quite a personal sense. If David Copperfield is Charles Dickens and Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is James Joyce, Jean Louise Finch (Scout) is unmistakably Harper Lee. If we examine the internal evidence, we can easily infer that in 1935, while Hitler was persecuting the Jews in Germany and Tom Robinson was being tried in Maycomb, Jean Finch Scout, the narrator, was ‘not yet nine’; perhaps she was born, like her creator, in 1926. The identification between the narrator and the novelist is apparent. The novel with its autobiographical mode strikes a psychological balance between the past, the present, and the future.
Because the novel’s narrative vision is consistently first person throughout and as a result focused on the older Scout’s perceptions of her growing-up years, the female voice is unquestionably heard and the narration is focused on the world of Maycomb which she must inevitably enter as she matures. The novel focuses on Scout’s tomboyishness as it relates to her developing sense of a female self. Also evident throughout the novel is Scout’s devotion to her father’s opinions. Atticus seems content with her the way she is; only when others force him to do so does he concern himself with traditional stereotypes of the Southern female.
In Harper Lee’s Maycomb, stereotypical views concerning masculinity and femininity are prevalent. Scout’s Aunt Alexandra emphasises these conventions when she suggests that Scout play with small stoves and tea sets, desiring that Scout submit to domesticity. While women complete these tasks in the home, men journey outside. Scout expresses her awareness of these codes when she describes the fathers of her classmates: “manliness” entails working labor-intensive jobs, such as driving a dump-truck or farming, as well as engaging in outdoor physical activities, such as hunting and fishing. Regional stereotypes about gender also influence these standards. Starting on the first page of the novel, Scout establishes her family as Southerners, mentioning several significant aspects of the Southern lifestyle: her family’s pride in their heritage, their agrarian history on Finch’s Landing, and her ancestor’s ownership of slaves .That way of life also draws on the nineteenth-century model of the Southern lady and gentleman.
Of special importance with regard to Scout’s growing perceptions of herself as a female is the meeting of the missionary society women. Through observing the missionary women, Scout, in Austenian fashion, is able to satirize the superficialities and prejudices of Southern women with whom she is unwilling to identify in order to become that alien being called woman. Dressed in “my pink Sunday dress, shoes, and a petticoat,” Scout attends the meeting shortly after Tom Robinson’s death, knowing that her aunt makes her participate as “part of … her campaign to teach me to be a lady” . Commenting on the women, Scout says, “Rather nervous, I took a seat beside Miss Maudie and wondered why ladies put on their hats to go across the street. Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire to be elsewhere …” . As the meeting begins, the ladies ridicule Scout for frequently wearing pants and inform her that she cannot become a member of the elite, genteel group of Southern ladyhood unless she mends her ways. Miss Stephanie Crawford, the town gossip, mocks Scout by asking her if she wants to grow up to be a lawyer, a comment to which Scout, coached by Aunt Alexandra, says, “Not me, just a lady” with the obvious social satire evident. Scout clearly does not want to become a lady. Suspicious, Miss Stephanie replies, “‘Well, you won’t get very far until you start wearing dresses more often’” . When the women begin conversing about blacks in America, their bigotry—and Scout’s disgust with it—becomes obvious. Rather than the community of gentility and racism represented in the women of Maycomb, Scout clearly prefers the world of her father, as this passage reveals: “… I wondered at the world of women …. There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water” .
The female role is far too frivolous and unimportant for Scout to identify with. Furthermore, she says, “But I was more at home in my father’s world. People like Mr. Heck Tate did not trap you with innocent questions to make fun of you …. Ladies seemed to live in faint horror of men, seemed unwilling to approve wholeheartedly of them. But I liked them ….[N]o matter how undelectable they were, … they weren’t ‘hypocrites.” This obviously idealized and childlike portrayal of men nevertheless gets at the core of Scout’s conflict. In a world in which men seem to have the advantages and seem to be more fair-minded and less intolerant than women with their petty concerns and superficial dress codes, why should she conform to the notion of Southern ladyhood? Ironically, Scout, unlike the reader, is unable to recognize the effects of female powerlessness which may be largely responsible for the attitudes of Southern ladies. If they cannot control the everyday business and legal affairs of their society, they can at least impose their code of manners and morality. To Scout, Atticus and his world represent freedom and power. Atticus is the key representative of the male power which Scout wishes to obtain even though she is growing up as a Southern female. More important, Lee demonstrates that Scout is gradually becoming a feminist in the South, for, with the use of first-person narration, she indicates that Scout/Jean Louise still maintains the ambivalence about being a Southern lady she possessed as a child. She seeks to become empowered with the freedoms the men in her society seem to possess without question and without resorting to trivial and superficial concerns such as wearing a dress and appearing genteel.
The meeting of Aunt Alexandria’s Missionary Circle provides an insight into the society of white women. Scout’s experience with the Missionary Society women is somewhat ambivalent. She observes the hypocrisy with which the women try to do good for a remote culture like the Mrunas, but neglect the needs and sufferings of the black community in their own town. Particularly disconcerting is the way women discriminate freely against the blacks, complaning about “sulky darkies” and making ridiculous insinuations, that black men, spurred on by the trial, will start assaulting them. The women’s provincialism is highlighted when they speak of the Mruna people – it is evident that they have no understanding of how another way of worship could be just as spiritually meaningful as the religion they have always known. They also refuse to acknowledge that the blacks of Maycomb are Christians, although it is evident that they worship the same God. Miss Maudie is the only woman who seems to show any appreciation for conscience, but when she speaks up, Aunt Alexandria is required by civil code to make the conversation pleasant again. Thus, the ladies never seem to discuss anything meaningful.
Scout finds an ally in Miss Maudie, who Scout “never laughed at me unless I meant to be funny.” Miss Maudie and Calpurnia are the two women in Scout’s life who never expect her to act in a particular way. Fitting for Lee’s goals in telling this story, Scout better identifies with a black woman than with her biological family. These ladies are wonderful role models for Scout, yet Aunt Alexandra doesn’t recognize the positive effect that they have on her niece. Ironically, Scout learns the important things about being a lady from these unlikely sources; for all her efforts to the contrary, Aunt Alexandra only supplies Scout with negative images of womanhood, images Scout flatly rejects.
Throughout the book, women are described in superflous terms, for instance as “soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum”, Miss Caroline is described as looking like a peppermint drop, and the ladies gathered at the Finch household are described as smelling heavenly and make many remarks about Aunt Alexandria’s dainty tarts. Women seem, in these descriptions, as somewhat superficial and transient. The delicate desserts they seem to epitomize are hardly fortifying or necessary – they mainly look pretty and behave pleasantly – but lack real substance. Scout, who has a very strong sense of character, fights against becoming a part of this community.
Neverthelss, Scout is intrigued by this world of women. While socialising with the ladies, Scout realises that the ideal of womanhood is much different from the reality. When she sees Aunt Alexandra thank Miss Maudie with only body language and no words, Scout realises the complexity of this social order: “There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water.” But in spite of the sudden lure of being with women, Scout admits that she prefers the company of men, and readers are left believing that Scout will never become “a lady” in the sense that Aunt Alexandra would most like. To Kill a Mockingbird can be read as a feminist Bildungsroman, for Scout emerges from her childhood experiences with a clear sense of her place in her community and an awareness of her potential power as the woman she will one day be.