To Kill a Mockingbird, Part III

:: It’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird ::

One of the main goals of stereotyping, and prejudice, seems to be to turn other people into outsiders, at best, objects, at worst: those people aren’t human; they don’t have feelings like we do. If we can convince ourselves, or others, of this, then we can use these “others” as we want without feeling guilt.

For this reason, empathy seems to lie at the very heart of conscience. We worry about what happens to others to the extent that we are able to identify with them. Once we identify with other people and feel the way they feel, it’s impossible to treat them differently than we would want to be treated.

At its simplest level, empathy shows us it is wrong to hurt someone who is trying to help us, trying to make our lives better. Atticus strives to teach that to Jem and Scout throughout the novel, beginning with this advice when they receive guns at Christmas:

Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird."

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

"Your father’s right," she said. "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird."

While I personally wouldn’t want my children shooting any living thing, it would be hard to find anyone who would disagree with Atticus’ idea. Mockingbirds don’t do any harm; all they do is sing beautiful songs that make our lives richer. Few would disagree that it is a “sin” to kill one.
It doesn’t take much to extend this idea to the concept that it is a sin to hurt someone who is doing something to help us. After all, if we are helping someone we would certainly expect them to help us, too, or, at the very least, expect them to like us.

If we accept this proposition, the greatest sin in the story was obviously the conviction and killing of Tom Robinson. All Tom Robinson was guilty of was making the mistake of feeling sorry for a white girl and trying to make her life a little easier. Despite the jury’s miscarriage of justice, in their heart of hearts the people of Maycomb must have known that it was a sin to sentence Tom Robinson to death:

Mr. Underwood didn’t talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand. Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they stand, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in The Montgomery Advertiser.

The trial is so blatantly unjust that the three children in the story are devastated by the decision. Dill immediately breaks down into tears. Jem becomes angry, sullen, and wants to be left alone, finally realizing how Arthur Radley must feel. Scout searches desperately for some rationale for the decision, but she too realizes in the end what an injustice has been done.

It’s not really until the end of the novel that Scout is really able to apply this sense of sin to life itself. Only after Boo saves the children does Scout fully understand why it’s a sin to hurt someone who is dong nothing but good. Sheriff Tate tries to convince Atticus that it would be wrong to put Arthur Radley on trial for killing Bob Ewell even though he knows he would never be convicted:

"To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight-to me, that’s a sin. It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head. If it was any other man it’d be different. But not this man, Mr. Finch."

Atticus obviously agrees with Sheriff Tate but doesn’t want his children to think that he doesn’t live his life by his conscience, that he tells his children one thing but does something different when it’s convenient. After Scout’s reply:

"Scout," he said, "Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?" Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might.
"Yes, sir, I understand," I reassured him.
"Mr Tate was right."
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?"

We realize that she has, indeed, grown up and has developed a conscience. She understands the true meaning of justice because she has empathy for Boo as she has shown by seating him in the dark and, later, by walking him home.

If a child is capable of this much insight, why were so many adults incapable of it?

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