To Kill a Mockingbird, Part II

:: Walk a Mile in My Shoes ::

To Kill a Mockingbird provides a remarkable description of a self-defeating culture frozen in its own stereotypes and prejudice. Maycomb was a “tired old town” precisely because it was dominated by stereotypes and prejudice formed in its early slavery days. Unfortunately, it’s easier to see the reality of such a world than it is to see a way out of it.

The real question is what is needed to break out of this self-defeating vision of the world? What could enable people to deal with others realistically and effectively? There obviously aren’t any easy answers to the question, or the problem would have been solved long ago. However, Atticus’ advice to Scout:

"First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–"
"Sir?" "— until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

offers a realistic way to begin solving the problem. If we can truly see things the way other people see things, we will at least begin to understand them, even if we don’t agree with them.

To Kill a Mockingbird follows Atticus’ success in instilling this quality in Jem and Scout. Since the story is told from Scout’s viewpoint, we see the development most clearly in her. After Jem returns to the Radley house to retrieve his pants and finds them awaiting him neatly folded, Scout thinks:

Jem stayed moody and silent for a week. As Atticus had once advised me to do, I tried to climb into Jem’s skin and walk around in it: if I had gone alone to the Radley Place at two in the morning, my funeral would have been held the next afternoon. So I left Jem alone and tried not to bother him.

Although she isn’t truly able to see what happened from Jem’s viewpoint, she does make the effort to do so, and just that effort helps her to cope with the problem.

In one of the crucial scenes in the story when Atticus is defending Tom Robinson who is locked in the jail from the lynch mob, it is Scout’s comments that save the night, as Atticus later explains:

That proves something—that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children…you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute. That was enough.

By reminding Walter Cunningham that she knows his son and that Mr. Cunningham had been helped by Atticus, Scout managed to break up a lynch mob, something that no amount of threats had been able to do.

One of the most telling scenes in Tom Robinson’s trial comes when he admits that he felt empathy for Mayella because she tried to escape the poverty of the family:

"Yes suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ’em–"
"You felt sad for her, you felt sorry for her?" Mr. Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling.
The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortable in the chair. But the damage was done. Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer. Mr. Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in.

Ironically, it is this very empathy for another human being that most seems to offend the townspeople, for they see it as “pity,” which is often taken as a way of “looking down” on another. Although it may offend the townspeople, readers see it as a clear indication that he is not guilty, that he is being betrayed by Mayella because she is afraid of her father and her own mistake in going against the customs of Maycomb.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of the power of empathy comes when Atticus refuses to retaliate when Bob Ewell spits in his face:

Jem see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?

Personally, I’ll be damned if I would put up with this from anyone, but I can still admire Atticus’ self-restraint and wisdom.

Jem, being the oldest of the two children seems to empathize with others before Scout does. He begins to understand why Boo avoids people after enduring the injustice of Tom Robinson’s trial:

"… If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time… it’s because he wants to stay inside."

Later, when Scout is about to crush a “rolly-poly,” Jem shows that his empathy goes beyond Tom Robinson, beyond even humans, when he tells Scout not to crush the insects “because they don’t bother you.”

Even before Arthur Radley saves Jem and Scout, Scout is beginning to feel guilty about the way the children treated Boo Radley in past summers:

I sometimes felt a twinge of remorse, when passing by the old place, at ever having taken part in what must have been sheer torment to Arthur Radley—what reasonable recluse wants children peeping in through his shutters, delivering greetings at the end of a fishing pole, wandering in his collards at night.

Immediately after her rescue she seems to be empathizing with Boo without even thinking about it:

Feeling slightly unreal, I led him to the chair farthest from Atticus and Mr. Tate. It was in a deep shadow. Boo would feel more comfortable in the dark.

And at the end of the story when she walks Boo back to his house, she comments:

Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.

With this insight Scout, too, finally “comes of age,” gains the critical insight of human nature that Atticus has been trying to teach her throughout the story. On the way home she thinks to herself, “I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else for us to learn.”

If we could get more people to empathize with their fellow man, we might have a chance of beginning to solve the problems that face the world. We could eliminate hate groups that would turn us against each other. We might even begin to see the world in a different light. We might find that we have more in common with other nations and other people than we think we do. We might even see that their problems are our problems.

As ex-English teacher, let me suggest one possible way of encouraging empathy in people is to get them to read more books, books that get inside the head of a greater variety of people. If books allow us to do anything, they allow us to see the world from someone else’s viewpoint. It’s no wonder so many groups are afraid of books; books threaten their narrow view of the world by exposing readers to the views of others.

As a blogger I might even suggest that the internet offers the same kind of opportunities, perhaps even greater opportunities because it is easy to see the world through the eyes of real people, not just characters in a book. The net is a truly world-wide phenomena.

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