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Various Forms of Social Prejudice in Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' and Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

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‘Prejudice presents itself in multiple different forms in society’. In light of this view, compare and contrast the ways in which the novels of ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) by Mary Shelley, and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (1960) by Harper Lee present prejudice.

Both ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (1960) are examples of gothic novels, with ‘Frankenstein’ being a classic gothic novel produced at the height of romantic literature, and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a Southern Gothic narrative. Both authors present prejudice in multiple different forms; Shelley uses the Monster as a vehicle to demonstrate prejudices within Georgian society for those who look different, with Lee also sharing this view in her respective novel, displaying it through Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley. Contemporary and modern readers may also note elements of prejudice down to gender and class within both novels, as well as Lee’s novel being dominated by the racial prejudice at large in the USA during the 1930s.

Lee uses autobiographical parallels to her own childhood to demonstrate the racial prejudice that existed in the Deep South of the United States, most notably in Alabama. The inspiration for the character of Atticus Finch may have been derived from her own father, who was also a lawyer and defended two black men accused of murdering a white shop keeper, where both were hanged for the crime. This parallels the rape trial of Tom Robinson in her novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. All the evidence presented in court clearly displays Tom’s innocence, with his left arm being “twelve inches shorter” than his right arm, causing it to hang “dead at his side”. As Atticus Finch explains, it is clear that the assailant is left-handed due to the injuries that Mayella receives, and the description of Mr Ewell fits the injuries to his daughter perfectly. Despite this, Tom Robinson is still found guilty due to the racial prejudice of the men in the jury: “people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box”. Tom’s “mistake” is feeling sorry for Mayella Ewell, as Mr Gilmer points out as he says, “You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?”. The use of italics emphasises the outrage felt at the comment within the courtroom, especially by the white community in Maycomb: “Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer”. In the end it can be determined that despite all of the evidence is in his favour, Tom Robinson is simply found guilty due to the racial prejudice existing US society at the time shown when Reverend Sykes comments that “I ain’t ever seen the jury decide in favour of a coloured man over a white man”, with the white jury believing that white people were superior and should therefore not be pitied by the black community. Along with this, racist language is used within court, specifically during Bob Ewell’s testimony, and is allowed to continue, showcasing institutional racial prejudice with 1930’s American society.

Aunt Alexandra is another character who effectively demonstrated racial prejudice within ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. First she holds a Missionary Tea Party for the women of Maycomb. Here the fictional Mruna tribe is discussed, where the women feel sympathy for their “squalid” lifestyle, however, they treat the Black people within their own community extremely poorly, labelling them as “lazy” and “sulky”. The tribe being fictional shows the hypocritical nature of women like Mrs Merriweather, who believe that the tribe are lost causes and need help, although she feels no sympathy for Tom Robinson or his wife Helen. This hypocritical nature highlights the racial prejudice prevalent within society, where the women view the black member of their own community with distrust whilst simultaneously feeling sympathy towards the Mruna tribe. Racial views existing in Alabama at the time can also be shown through the way Aunt Alexandra treats Calpurnia. When she first arrives with the Finch’s, she instructs Calpurnia to “Put [her] bag in the front bedroom”. The commanding tone and the use of the imperative “Put” suggests that Aunt Alexandra views Calpurnia as simply a servant, and not a close member of the family, which is how Atticus treats her; he states that Calpurnia will not leave the house “until she wants to”. Alexandra’s racial prejudice leads her to treat Calpurnia badly as she believes that is how she should be treated due to her race.

A final example of racial prejudice within Lee’s novel is the character of Dolphus Raymond, who, despite being white himself, is ostracised for his mixed-race children by his black mistress. Mr Raymond pretends to be drunk in order to avoid questions from the citizens of Maycomb, saying to Scout that “it helps folks if they can latch on to a reason” regarding how he chooses to live his life. This further implies that the citizens of Maycomb would rather Raymond be a drunkard than in love with a person of colour, highlighting the views on race at the time. Furthermore, he and his family are treated like outcasts, especially his children: “They don’t belong anywhere. Coloured folks won’t have ’em because they’re half white; white folks won’t have ’em ’cause they’re coloured”. Lee accurately demonstrates the racial prejudices prevalent within the USA at the time, with historian Joseph Crespino stating that “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America” (2000).

Similarly to Lee, Shelley draws inspiration from racial views at the time for her novel ‘Frankenstein’ in order to show the prejudice experienced by the Monster within the novel, although it is vital to note that this itself is not racial prejudice but simply common racial views from the time are used to highlight how different the Monster is to the human characters in the novel. The Monster is described as having “yellow” skin whilst Victor and Elizabeth are described as being pale. The difference in the skin colour is highlighted meaning that the Monster is viewed as dangerous for not having white skin. H.L. Malchow states that “Shelley’s portrayal of her monster drew upon contemporary attitudes towards non-whites, in particular on fears and hopes of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies” (1993). The prejudice experienced by the Creature is not racial prejudice as in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, so therefore the Monster can be seen to simply experience prejudice due to his physical appearance being drastically different, as well as simply being different himself, comparable with Boo Radley from Lee’s novel.

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The Monster within ‘Frankenstein’ is treated horrifically due to his appearance, stature, and his domineering physical presence ultimately led Victor Frankenstein to abandon his creation; he is “unable to endure the aspect of being [he] had created”. The Monster is hidden away from society by Victor, who’s heart is filled with “disgust” at his creation, feeling the “bitterness of disappointment” that his creature was not as “beautiful” as he had first envisioned. Firstly, he tells no one of his creation, with the Monster being the “one secret which [he] alone possessed”, and instead he hides his experiment away. As well as this, the Monster’s story is hidden within the epistolary novel between the narratives of both Frankenstein and Walton, suggesting that their prejudice against the Monster for looking different is causing them to hide him away from society. Furthermore, the villagers attack the Monster due to his appearance, with the whole village being “roused” and attacked the creation with “stones and many other kinds of missile weapons” believing that he was a danger to their community due to how he looks, showing their preconceived ideas about him, even though he simply views the discovery of the village as “miraculous”. Only Mr De Lacey is not abhorred by the Creature, yet he is blind, demonstrating how the attacks against him are purely for the way he looks, evident when Felix attacks the Creature, believing that he is harming his father, tearing the Monster away from his father with a “supernatural force”. However, originally the Monster was a good-natured creature who simply wanted love and friendship, so the attacks on him ultimately cause him to behave like his reflection suggests. If society had not been disgusted by him, he would have never turned into what they most feared.

Likewise, the members of Maycomb also believe Arthur Radley to be dangerous and violent, making up unplausible stories about him, like that he “dined on raw squirrels”. Scout also recounts a story told to her by Miss Stephanie, that Boo “drove the scissors” into his father’s leg, depicting him as a violent human being. However, in actuality he is very physically unimposing, with the description Lee makes almost suggesting that Radley looks sickly and weak; his cheeks were “thin with hollowness”, his hair was “dead and thin”, and his temples were “delicate”. This shows how Boo is not a dangerous man, but society believes him to be, prejudice against him purely because he is different to them. This may be why he becomes a social pariah, as this is a better alternative to the views he would face daily.

There are also preconceptions surrounding women presented in both novels, potentially due to both authors being female. Firstly, in ‘Frankenstein’, Victor destroys his female creation, believing that she will be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate” and “delight” in “murder and wretchedness”. Victor is also concerned that his female creation may “refuse to comply” with the Monster, and the thought of her not obeying the male creature is a terrifying prospect for Frankenstein. This shows the patriarchal views of Georgian society, with men being in control and women expected to conform to their idealistic role. Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a famous feminist writer and so therefore Shelley may share these views, believing that there is prejudice against women in society, who should actually be equal to men. Nature is represented as female within the gothic novel (“I pursued nature to her hiding places”) and nature is possessed by Victor when he creates his creature. This demonstrates the idea that women were docile and easily possessed by men; they are the ‘willing receptacle of male desire’ (Anne K. Mellor, 2018). Victor’s foster sister and eventual wife Elizabeth is confined to the house, kept like a pet or a “favourite animal”, illustrating the societal expectations of women to simply look after the house. This is further demonstrated in the character of Justine Moritz, who similarly to Elizabeth, only works in the house and raising the children. The relationship Victor and Elizabeth share is purely platonic, with them referring to each other as their “cousin”, and on their wedding night Victor overlooks the idea that any harm may come to her, thinking that the Monster would only attack him. This shows the prejudice face by women in society at the time as they were overlooked, society believing men to be more important; the consequences of this train of thinking are severe here as it ultimately leads to Elizabeth’s death. The only example of male and female equality within the novel is the De Lacey family, where both Felix and his sister attend to their elderly father. However, this is violently ripped away from the Monster in Felix’s brutal attack, suggesting that Shelley believes that the idea of men and women being equal is idealistic due to the prejudices faced by women at the time.

In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Scout also experiences hardship for being female as she is ridiculed by her Aunt Alexandra for wearing overalls, as she “wasn’t supposed to doing things that required pants”, believing that it is not ladylike, and that Scout could “not possibly hope to be a lady if [she] wore breeches”. In Maycomb ‘society dictates strict stereotypes, and people rarely cross the barrier between masculinity and femininity’ (Laura Hakala, 2010). Others in Maycomb share similar views to Aunt Alexandra, with Mrs Dubose saying that Scout should be dressed in “a dress and camisole” instead of her overalls. Aunt Alexandra is determined to make Scout act how a lady was supposed to in mid 1930s Alabama, and subsequently tries to get her involved in tea parties and wearing dresses. This shows a prejudice against women as the ideas of society were pushed onto girls from a very young age, whilst boys had little to no expectations; girls had to learn how to live in a society that was intolerant to them. Another way prejudice towards women is clear throughout the novel is shown via the different names Scout is given. She is called Scout by those who allow her to act as she pleases, like her father or when playing with Jem and Dill, however, Jem also enforces gender on his sister, stating that she gets “more like a girl” every day. She is referred to as Jean Louise by her Aunt and others, enforcing their mantra of her becoming more ladylike upon her by giving her a more feminine name.

Issues of class, and prejudice based on class, are also present in both novels. Lee uses the Cunningham family as a vehicle to show her views towards classism. Scout is told she is not allowed to play with Walter Cunningham by her Aunt Alexandra, who states that “He – is – trash”, also believing that the Finch’s are better than them as despite the Cunningham’s being “good folks” they are not the “kind of folk” that the Finch’s are. However, through the innocence of youth, Scout remarks that she doesn’t believe in class separation, instead believing that “there’s just one kind of folks”. This actively demonstrates that classism is taught and not naturally occurring in society. This point is further exhibited in ‘Frankenstein’, where Christine (Victor’s mother) and Elizabeth are both born into squalor, however, this is not seen as an issue for Alphonse or Victor, and it is never seen as a barrier between them. However, Justine Moritz is condemned for a crime she didn’t commit, and Victor failing to take responsibility for his own actions means that the lower class suffers for it. Lee shows that class divides society whilst Shelley, although noting how it is never an issue for Victor, realises that classism ultimately favours the upper classes, and the lower classes will always be at their expense.

In summation, both Shelley and Lee present aspects of prejudice within their respective novels of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Shelley remarks that the treatment of the Monster is so abhorrent due to his physical appearance, showing that society is prejudiced against those who look physically different, also shown in Lee’s novel via the character of Boo Radley. The two novels also depict issues of class alongside prejudice against women, showing how these issues are prevalent across time as the novels are more than a century apart in age. However, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ also explores racial prejudice through the trial of Tom Robinson, depicting how trials were conducted in the USA at the time, with racial prejudices swaying a white, male jury. Overall, both novels together demonstrate how prevalent different prejudices have been in society over time, many of which are still rampant in modern times.

Bibliography

  1. Crespino, J., 2000. The Strange Career of Atticus Finch. Southern Cultures
  2. Hakala, L., 2010. Scouting for a Tomboy: Gender-Bending Behaviors in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
  3. Malchow, H., 1993. FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER AND IMAGES OF RACE IN NINETEENTH CENTURY BRITAIN. Past and Present
  4. Mellor, A., 2018. Frankenstein, Gender, And Mother Nature. [online] Frankenbook.

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Various Forms of Social Prejudice in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/various-forms-of-social-prejudice-in-mary-shelleys-frankenstein-and-harper-lees-to-kill-a-mockingbird/
“Various Forms of Social Prejudice in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/various-forms-of-social-prejudice-in-mary-shelleys-frankenstein-and-harper-lees-to-kill-a-mockingbird/
Various Forms of Social Prejudice in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/various-forms-of-social-prejudice-in-mary-shelleys-frankenstein-and-harper-lees-to-kill-a-mockingbird/> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2022].
Various Forms of Social Prejudice in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2022 Dec 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/various-forms-of-social-prejudice-in-mary-shelleys-frankenstein-and-harper-lees-to-kill-a-mockingbird/
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