“What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.” This quote from Albert Einstein is portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird as the courage of a few of Maycomb’s citizens to split from the popular belief in white before and above black. Scout’s progression of maturity throughout the book also demonstrates the courage of stating and acting on an unpopular opinion in a more innocent, simple manner. Saying what you think is right is good, but doing what you think is right is admirable and inspiring. Harper Lee uses characters, point of view, and plot to exhibit this theme.
Harper Lee uses innovative characters for the time period to show the courage of having a different opinion. Some of the characters are revealed to Scout as anti-segregationists but hide their true opinions from the rest of the town. Dolphus Raymond escapes prejudice for being a white man with a black family by acting like a drunk in the presence of the townspeople.
This is because, as he explains to Scout and Dill, “Some folks don’t—like the way I live. Now I could say the hell with ‘em, I don’t care if they don’t like it. I do say I don’t care if they don’t like it, right enough—but I don’t say the hell with ‘em… they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live” (268). Because he doesn’t want to face the hatred that would come from the town for his way of life, Dolphus Raymond chooses instead to live how he wants, but lie about his reasons. Even the characters who don’t hide their unorthodox opinions from their neighbors aren’t able to fully speak out to support what they think is right.
Miss Maudie calms Aunt Alexandra down by telling her that Atticus is supported by more than just his family and the black community, people who believe he is the best man to make a step towards equality. “We trust him to do right…The handful of people who say that fair play is not marked White Only…who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us… [those] with enough humility to think, when they look at an [N-word], there but for the Lord’s kindness am I” (316). The people in Maycomb trust Atticus to do the tricky work to defend an innocent Black man against a white man’s word when they know that he is Tom Robinson’s best chance at a fair trial.
They might be cautious about openly promoting equal rights for everyone, but they are doing the best they can by supporting someone who is willing to shoulder the challenge. The intricate types of characters in Maycomb that Harper Lee created to describe the different kinds of people in the south in the 1930’s shows how carefully people had to decide on supporting what they believed or follow the opinions of white supremacy.
Point of view in To Kill a Mockingbird is used to show Scout’s perception of people’s actions. Her innocent, unknowing perspective of what happens to and around her explains the way she sees the actions of other people. When Bob Ewell is attacking Scout and Jem, she can hear someone defending them, but can’t tell who because they aren’t saying anything. “‘Jem?’ There was no answer but the man’s heavy breathing… It was slowly coming to me that there were now four people under the tree… by the time I reached the corner the man was crossing our front yard… [Atticus] ran down the steps, and together, he and the man took Jem inside” (352).
Even though the man won’t identify himself, Scout can tell through her distorted view that the man protected them and even hurt someone else to keep them safe. The vague understanding of what’s in her surroundings also translates to Scout’s vocabulary. Scout’s reaction to her cousin insulting Atticus is violence, but she owns up to something petty so that Atticus won’t find out.
Only later does she explain that even though she doesn’t understand what he had said, she knew it was unacceptable and thought that she had to put him in his place. “‘you told me never to use words like that except in ex-extreme provocation, and Francis provocated me enough to knock his block off…Francis called Atticus somethin’, an’ I wasn’t about to take it off him.’ ‘What did Francis call him?’ ‘An [N-word]-lover. I ain’t very sure what it means, but the way Francis said it—’” (114).
Scout can tell that Francis is being disrespectful without knowing what the meaning of his words because she’s heard grown-ups around town calling Atticus an [N-word]-lover with disdain. She only decides to beat him up because, to her, fighting is one of the only and best ways she knows how to share her opinion. Both Scout’s physical and moral point of view explains the righteousness that she sees in people’s actions and in her own.
The conflicts set into To Kill a Mockingbird’s storyline show the importance of fighting popular beliefs for a true opinion. During the 1930’s fighting white supremacy was difficult because many people thought society should be that way. Even though Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, and he intends to, most of the town doesn’t believe that he should support a black man. “‘If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it? …You mean if you didn’t defend that man, Jem and me wouldn’t have to mind you anymore?’ ‘That’s about right’” (100).
Because Atticus’ moral compass tells him that he wouldn’t have any true right or authority to direct his children or be a role model for them if he didn’t take a case simply because it’s a black man against a white man. Since he says “cheatin’ colored man is ten times worse than cheatin’ a white man…it’s the worst thing you can do” (269), he’d be a hypocrite in his beliefs if he didn’t help Tom Robinson wholeheartedly.
Helping people despite social structure is just as important as helping those in danger. When Scout and Jem are saved from Bob Ewell’s attack by an unknown man and she is trying to explain what happens, she finally identifies who had helped them. “‘I thought Atticus had come to help us and had got wore out—’ ‘Who was it?’ ‘Why there he is, Mr. Tate…Hey, Boo’” (362).
Boo is considered by Atticus and his family as the savior of Scout and Jem, but later Scout sees Maycomb through his view from his porch. She sees that Boo had watched them for a while and had grown protective of them, but not been able to do anything. Only when he sees that “[his] children needed him” (374) does he step in to defend what he cares about. The major plot events that occur in To Kill a Mockingbird relate to acting true to your beliefs instead of only speaking them.
Through characters, point of view, and plot, To Kill a Mockingbird conveys the importance of courage to follow your beliefs with not only words, but actions. The characters in Maycomb who aren’t afraid to have a different opinion sometimes have to decide whether supporting an unpopular view is more important than living without extreme prejudice. Scout’s understanding of the motives that led to others’ actions as well as her own, from both physical and moral viewpoints, shows a perspective of finding good in people in the simplest ways.
The biggest conflicts in To Kill a Mockingbird show the ethical value of having the bravery and sense of justice to act on behalf of innocent people, even with the consequences of endangering yourself. Supporting an opinion means more than expressing personal values; it means involving yourself in the cause. Everyone has the power to make change by acting upon their convictions.