I’ve always been a fan of Harper Lee, especially since reading To Kill a Mockingbird in my 9th grade high school English class. Having lived in a small town in Tennessee when I was the age of the novel’s child protagonist, Scout Finch, I could relate to the novel’s setting in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. To Kill a Mockingbird is known for its depiction of small-town life, told from the child-like perspective of Scout. Though I believe the novel is perhaps most striking in its message of equality.
Lee is one to push back against racial inequality. The main crux of the novel happens when Scout’s lawyer-father Atticus Finch, much to the chagrin of the town, decides to represent and defend Tom, a black man accused of rape. Atticus sees the way the town is ganging up against Tom just because he is black, and is disgusted. It turns out, Tom is in fact innocent, but he is still convicted, revealing the truly corrupt court system, and the rampant, lingering presence of inequality.
In another message of equality, Lee centers on equality as it relates to prejudgement of personality and mental illness, by focusing on Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbor of the Finches. Boo rarely absconds from his home, except when he leaves small gifts in the knot of a tree for Scout and her brother, Jem. Scout and Jem are afraid of Boo because of his mysterious, reclusive nature, but by the end of the novel, Boo saves Scout and Jem from an attack by Bob Ewell (the father of the woman who Tom was convicted of attacking). This instance can be related to the stigma surrounded all mental or developmental illnesses. Harper Lee makes a powerful, simple statement in her novel about equality, judgement, and love when she depicts Boo as the kind, thoughtful man he is.
In perhaps the most powerful, direct display of equality, Lee focuses on a situation involving addiction. Atticus requires Scout to go and read to a neighbor, Mrs. Dubose, who is a morphine addict. Scout doesn’t fully understand what is going on, and is frightened by Mrs. Dubose’s drool and generally sick appearance. Though Scout doesn’t realize, Mrs. Dubose has vowed to become sober before dying, and has stopped taking morphine. When Scout goes to Mrs. Dubose’s home, Mrs. Dubose is in a state of withdrawal–she is fighting her addiction. After Mrs. Dubose dies, Scout asks her father why he made her go and read to Mrs. Dubose. Atticus tells Scout,
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
If that’s not powerful a powerful message of equality, and not judging a person based on past actions or circumstances, I don’t know what is. In fact, this statement is tear-worthy, touching, and one of the most beautiful messages I have ever heard. People are human and make mistakes, and that is what Harper Lee wants her readers to understand. True courage is not founded on violence or even winning, but by small goals and perseverance.
The common thread in all of Lee’s messages concerning equality is humanity. Harper Lee uses her first novel to reveal humanity in people whose circumstances may invite them to quickly be prejudged and dehumanized. Lee uses a convict, a man struggling with his mental health, and a drug addict, to spread the truth that we are all equal and worthy of love. Lee’s message is truly empowering, and that is why I will miss her. I still can’t believe Harper Lee passed away, but at least we have her powerfully written words, and her lasting legacy of equality, preserved forever.
P.S.: Harper Lee also wrote some pretty awesome non-fiction pieces. This is one of my favorites: “Love–In Other Words.“