Lessons Never Learned
By Michelle Dick

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, long considered an American classic, is as relevant to today’s society as it was when it was published almost 40 years ago. The novel is a comment on the origins and implications of prejudice. Prejudice is born of fear – the fear of what we do not understand. Told through the eyes of a child, “To Kill a Mockingbird” illustrates the logical shortcomings of judging people based on our fears. This point of view also clearly demonstrates why prejudice exists today; it is taught from generation to generation.
There are numerous examples of prejudicial behavior in the novel. Two examples portray a type of prejudice still present in today’s society: the false accusation and trial against Tom Robinson, and the treatment of Boo Radley by the people of Maycomb. The plots involving both of these characters highlight the actions of a society moved by prejudice.
In the case of Tom Robinson, the prejudice against him was based simply on his race. He was falsely accused of raping a white woman. Because the alleged victim was white, the people of Maycomb readily accepted her accusation against Tom Robinson, despite the lack of solid evidence. Robinson’s alibi was strong and the character of the accuser was in question, however, he was still brought to trial. Many of the townspeople developed a lynch-mob mentality and did not want Tom Robinson to be granted the right to trial. Atticus was not swayed by prejudice against Robinson and fought for the trial, which he subsequently lost. To further illustrate the town’s prejudice, Atticus was scorned for representing Robinson in the case. The strength of the towns prejudice is evidenced in its quick move towards ending the trial and ultimately killing Tom Robinson.
True stories exist from the beginning of American history of similar tragedies to that of Tom Robinson’s. It is likely that Harper Lee compiled a number of stories, either overheard or read, into the story of Robinson. In the 1960s, the United States was engulfed in turmoil related to the civil rights movement. As a result, “To Kill a Mockingbird” seemed to speak to a certain point in time. Unfortunately, the history that has unfolded since the novel was published proves that Lee’s commentary is as timely today as it was in 1960. An infamous police case in Boston, Massachusetts in the early 1990s eerily mirrors the events of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The wife of a well-respected Boston doctor had been murdered. The doctor, who was white, suggested a young black male had killed her during a robbery attempt. Both police and citizens harassed a number of young black males during the days following the murder. Eventually, it was discovered that the doctor had placed a contract on the life of his wife to collect insurance money. Before the police could apprehend the doctor, the doctor took his own life and extensive damage was done to racial relations in the Boston area.
While racial prejudice is very prevalent in today’s society, the story of Boo Radley exemplifies what is perhaps an even more common prejudice. The people of Maycomb chastised Boo Radley simply because he was different. He did not live like other people did; he behaved differently. Because the townspeople did not understand his behavior, they feared him. This fear lead to rumors and innuendo. Though nobody knew what he was really like, Boo Radley was portrayed as a monster. As a result, children and adults alike feared him. Scout learned to fear Boo Radley through the influence of her older brother, who was prejudiced by the opinion of townspeople. Scout eventually learned that Radley was a kind-hearted man, who always watched out for the good of the children. Lee’s use of a child’s point of view to describe the changes in perceptions of Boo Radley strongly highlights the flawed logic of prejudiced thinking. Scout’s learned behavior is clearly demonstrated as Jem tells her stories about Radley that heighten her misunderstanding and fear. Only when Radley directly helps Scout out of trouble does she realize that he is a good person, and not the monster everyone portrayed him to be.
A modern day example of society’s prejudice towards people who behave differently can be