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How Does To Kill A Mockingbird Show The Importance Of Empathy In Overcoming Discrimination?

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Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is a classic retrospective novel where Lee highlights the value of empathy in upholding and accepting diversity in society. Lee uses outsiders, people who are perceived as different, to demonstrate how a community’s ingrained, prejudicial views and ideas lead to discrimination. Through dramatic characterisation, representation of societal values within the Southern American states during the 1930s and powerful events; we are encouraged to see the value of empathy as it leads to tolerance of diversity and social cohesion within communities.

Throughout the novel, Lee uses characterisation to indicate that lack of empathy prohibits change to Maycomb’s culture and stimulates social instability. In the early chapters, Lee introduces Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley – an ominous figure of the town. She uses the perspective of young children to reflect the prejudiced voices of the community around them, as Scout admits that ‘Jem and I had never seen him.’ Lee describes Boo with pejorative terms such as ‘malevolent phantom’ and ‘unknown entity’ to encapsulate the towns neglect and lack of empathy, resulting in Boo becoming an outcast. In addition, Lee shows how racial prejudice and inability to see past this can lead to innocent deaths. Lee uses characterisation to define Tom Robinson as ‘a humble black man’ in order to highlight difference between him and Mayella Ewell and further present his outsider status. Later, Lee uses dialogue, ‘if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared too’, to show how important it was for the white community to empathise with Tom in order for him to receive a fair trial. This again reinforces Tom’s difference between Mayella Ewell and the jury’s inability to ‘walk in his shoes’, leading to Tom’s innocent death. Thus, Lee demonstrates through striking characterisation that failure to appreciate and understand difference is key to achieving social instability as a lack of that understanding diminishes outsider’s positive contributions along with leading to unjust deaths.

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Furthermore, Lee’s representation of common southern values and beliefs shows how lack of empathy creates discrimination. Lee collaborates with the idea that lower class, outsider families like the Ewell’s ‘lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression.’ This simile creates an impression that the Ewell’s are a poor family who scarcely contribute positively; living off others’ prosper no matter the circumstances. Lee highlights that out-casting families like the Ewells, embeds greater strain on society as they exploit this status for personal gain. Additionally, Lee juxtaposes these preconceived ideas with the Cunninghams. Their family is similarly poor and outcast, yet ‘never took anything off of anybody’. Lee reveals a common Maycomb view that Walter Cunningham is ‘trash’ making the reader believe that he is worthless. However, after Jem’s use of empathy and acceptance, Lee explains that ‘Walter had forgotten he was a Cunningham’ - demonstrating how empathy can break barriers that discrimination generates. Therefore, Lee’s representation and oppose of widely spread views and ideas reveals that out-casting individuals or families counter-intuitively creates a greater burden. In order to achieve social sustainability, Lee suggests that we should show greater empathy and acceptance of class diversity in order to create greater contributors like the Cunninghams.

Lastly, Lee’s continuation of powerful events throughout the novel teaches us the importance of understanding and respecting outsiders for their difference. To demonstrate this, Lee presents Mrs Dubose, an outsider of the Maycomb community. Despite Mrs Dubose’s outlandish behaviours, Lee emphasises respecting and empathising with her as she attempts to cease her morphine addiction. Through the rabid dog event Lee reveals, Mrs Dubose is ‘what real courage is, instead of… a man with a gun in his hand’ and that courage is ‘when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway’. Lee encourages us to consider that outsiders have value and empathising with them teaches us how to better ourselves. Similarly, Lee shows what can be learnt from the out-casted black community. Through stream of consciousness, Lee demonstrates that even though the black community did not receive justice, ‘the Negroes were getting to their feet’ as a sign of respect for Mr Finch. Lee suggests that all should be gracious and appreciative in defeat through understanding of the outcast black society. Consequently, through evocative events Lee demonstrates how empathy can allow outsiders to be respected and teach, showing how their difference is essential to achieving social security.

Through evocative characterisation, impactful representation and revolt against customary beliefs and views as well as compelling events, Harper Lee reveals the significance and positive impact of empathy in challenging discrimination. By presenting that prejudice pinned against outsiders only causes social instability, a better culture will produce greater contributors and that there is much to learn from outsiders, Lee enlightens readers with solutions of understanding for greater social cohesion.

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How Does To Kill A Mockingbird Show The Importance Of Empathy In Overcoming Discrimination? (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
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