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The Effects of Social Hierarchy in To Kill a Mockingbird
“All men are created equal.” This is a phrase that has often been regarded as the sacred creed to a land of opportunity, the doctrine of an indestructible nation, and the crux of American philosophy. In her literary masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee bluntly exposes that as merely an idealistic raving, and replaces it with the harsh tones of often cruel reality. Society remains wholly unbalanced in her fictional Maycomb County, and is perfectly organized into a distinct social hierarchy. The white families with “background” stand proudly at the top, while every kind of poor farmer, common laborer and unemployed drunk occupies a unique position next. The last rung on the social ladder is permanently reserved for the entirety of the black population. In the novel, the actions, experiences, and circumstances of the Maycomb families are directly affected by their respective social standing.
The esteemed Finch family takes their place at the very top of Maycomb’s social hierarchy as a relatively well-off family with “background.” The very socially conscious Aunt Alexandra forces Atticus to impart this to his fidgeting daughter and disdainful son in the text, which reads, “… you are not run-of-the-mill people...you are the product of several generations of gentle breeding… and you should try to live up to your name (Lee, 177).” Of course, with great privilege comes great responsibility and great influence, and this is something the Finches are presented with throughout the novel.
As an accomplished lawyer, Atticus is endowed with a monumental challenge in defending Tom Robinson, a task he not only accepts, but embraces. Because of his respectable standing in the town, he holds the chance to make a difference in the palm of his hand, and takes it vigorously. It envelopes the lives of he and his family, and becomes his central focus for weeks. When Scout questions him about his involvement in the trial, he responds, “Every lawyer gets at least one case in their lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess (Lee, 101).”
Meanwhile, the Finch children are met with an entirely different consequence of their social standing. Jem and Scout are constantly at odds with Aunt Alexandra, who expects their behavior to be exemplary of young people belonging to a fine, old family such as the Finches. One of her requirements is that the children fraternize only with their socioeconomically equal classmates. One summer day, this incites a heated altercation during which Scout demands to know why she is forbidden from inviting Walter Cunningham over for dinner once the school year recommences. Aunt Alexandra haughtily replies, “ The thing is, you can scrub Walter Cunningham till he shines, you can put him in a new suit, but he’ll never be like Jem… Finch women aren’t interested in that sort of people (Lee, 300).”
A second family influenced by social standing is the Ewells, an impoverished, uneducated clan with Bob Ewell as the evil patriarch. It says of them in the text, “Atticus said the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb county for three generations. None of them had done an honest day’s work in his recollection… they were people, but they lived like animals (Lee, 40).” Though ranking near the very bottom of Maycomb County’s social hierarchy, they are elevated just slightly higher than the black men and women because of one feature, which Scout so accurately identifies in the following quote: “All the little man on the witness stand (Mr. Ewell) had that made him any better than his nearest neighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white (Lee, 229).”
This low, yet slightly elevated position in society motivates the action taken by the Ewells regarding Tom Robinson’s case. Bob’s accuses Tom of a crime he knows full well was not committed in order to preserve the little status to which he and his family are still entitled. Though in full knowledge of what really happened that fateful afternoon, he realizes that the shameful disclosure of the truth would sink his family to an unimaginable level. As Atticus explains to the jury, “He (Mr. Ewell) did what any God-fearing, persevering, respectable, white man would do under the circumstances - he swore out a warrant...and Tom Robinson now sits before you (Lee, 272).”
A second instance involving a younger Ewell also originates from social standing. An eight-year-old who has attended only the first day of first grade for three consecutive years, Burris Ewell is as much a gentleman as his father. The text narrates a particularly disastrous encounter with his new teacher, Ms. Caroline, “...He turned and shouted, ‘Ain’t no snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher ever born c’n make me do nothin’! You ain’t makin’ me go nowhere, missus. You just remember that, you ain’t makin’ me go nowhere!’ He waited until he was sure she was crying, then he shuffled out of the building (Lee, 37).” After this outburst, the children rush to comfort the distraught Ms. Caroline, assuring her that this disgusting behavior is simply a result of coming from a family such as the Ewells and that “them’s not Maycomb’s ways (Lee, 37).”
Finally, the Robinsons are a third family heavily affected by social hierarchy. They are members of the lowest class in Maycomb County’s society solely because of their dark skin color. A passage in the text describes their home, one in a group of cabins strategically placed far away from white neighbors, saying, “A dirt road ran from the highway past the dump, down to a small Negro settlement some 500 yards beyond the Ewells’. In the frosty December dusk their cabins looked neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside (Lee, 229).” They dutifully continue to lead separate lives from their superiors, until one November when everything changes.
Tom is the kindly, innocent father of the Robinson family, and goes out of his way to help Mayella Ewell with chores around her house on the way home from work. His life is turned upside down when he is accused of raping the very girl he has been trying so hard to assist. In court, he is asked to explain what prompted him to volunteer at the Ewell household without compensation. He answers easily and without knowing that his statement will seal his fate as a doomed man, saying, “I felt right sorry for her (Lee, 264).” Such a simple remark had an enormous effect on the spectators and members of the jury. In their eyes, it is unforgivable for a black man to take pity on a white girl, even if she is from a family as low as the Ewells. Though the trial persists until late that night, the outcome is decided as soon as the words leave his mouth - guilty as charged.
Tom’s wife, Helen Robinson, also suffers as a result of her family’s position in society. She already holds one of the lowest rankings in Maycomb because she is a black woman, but the allegations against her husband drive them both to the very bottom of the social ladder. When Tom is arrested and put in jail, Helen desperately seeks employment so that she can support her children, but is turned down wherever she inquires. Her source of income remains meager charity from the parishioners of First Purchase. As they are walking home from church, Scout asks, “Cal, I know Tom Robinson’s in jail and he’s done somethin’ awful, but why won’t folks hire Helen (Lee.164)?” Calpurnia replies with, “It’s because of what folks say Tom’s done...Folks aren’t anxious to - to have anything to do with any of his family (Lee, 164).” Rather than show sympathy for Helen because of the many hardships she must face with Tom in jail, the wealthy employers turn their back on her and leave her to fend for herself.
Clearly, all of the families are very much impacted by their personal status in the social hierarchy, as it informs many of their actions, experiences, and circumstances throughout the novel. The Finches hold a position that entails great privilege, but also places Atticus in the very difficult situation of defending an innocent man who has no chance of acquittal. Meanwhile, Scout and Jem Finch are limited by Aunt Alexandra in choosing friends, lest they should bring someone home who is not of the same class. The Ewells stand in the middle of the aforementioned families, though their crude behavior and lack of social grace is continually attributed to their poor family name. Even so, they take drastic measures to maintain their position in the town. Finally, the Robinsons are most negatively affected by their low ranking, as it prevents Tom from receiving the benefit of a fair trial and results in prejudice against Helen as an employee. With such a tiered society, it is apparent that all men are not considered equal. There is much to be taken from Scout’s childishly wise perspective of social hierarchy, on which she educates Jem in the following quote : “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of Folks. Folks.” If we do our best to uphold this simple philosophy, then we really can live in a land where opportunities abound for all, where everyone enjoys the same benefits of living in a democratic society, and where all men truly are created equal.