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How Does “To Kill a Mockingbird” Interpret the Coexistence of Good and Evil?

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To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) doesn’t shy away from studying the moral nature of human beings. Presented from a child’s perspective, the film introduces itself through the eyes of six year-old Jean Louise Finch, better known as “Scout” (Mary Badham). She, along with her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama. It’s the 1930s, and a time where the days are 24 hours long, but seem longer in the eyes of innocent youth. The children are taken care of by their soft-spoken liberal lawyer father Atticus (Gregory Peck), who works to support the family and maintains a reputation of integrity and politeness about town. Scout begins the story by painting a picture of Maycomb; an impoverished but quiet town where everybody has nothing, and like the rest of America, they’ve been told there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Scout and her brother spend their days innocently playing in the streets, inventing wild stories about the reclusive neighborhood characters, and looking forward to summer visits from their eccentric friend Dill (John Megna). But as time pushes forward, the children undergo changes in their lives as they discover the racism and evil present in their town; forces aggravated by poverty and fear.

The film, adapted effectively from the Pulitzer Prize-winning source novel by Harper Lee, challenges the notion that people are either inherently good or inherently evil. As the story begins, Scout and Jem have never seen real evil. They concoct stories about Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), their down-the-street neighbor who allegedly stays inside his dark and opaque house, chained to his bed, after a stint of time locked in the courthouse basement where bats and crazies are kept. “Judging from his tracks,” Dill says, “he’s about six and a half feet tall. He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There’s a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yellow and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time.” Of course, you can’t judge any of those things by tracks. The only evil in Jem and Scout’s world is one of legend and make-believe, perpetuated by their own imaginations and neighborhood superstition.

Jem wants Atticus to buy him a gun. He sits in a tree and refuses to come down unless his father plays football for the local Methodist team. He reaches out for these aggressive constructs, both of which Atticus denies him. Atticus is a man of principles and appreciation, truths instantly made aware in a scene where he accepts a bag of hickory nuts as legal payment from a man named Cunningham (Crahan Denton). Scout sees the charity in her father’s actions—even though the Finches are poor as well, Atticus respects the hardships of others. When Jem pries about getting a gun, Atticus tells a story of his own youth, when he was instructed to use his gun only for shooting at cans, but never animals, and particularly not mockingbirds because they “don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy.” The story teaches lessons about life and the way it should be lived. The innocent are to be protected and not hurt.

SparkNotes writes, “The moral voice of To Kill a Mockingbird is embodied by Atticus Finch, who is virtually unique in that he has experienced and understood evil without losing his faith in the human capacity for goodness. Atticus understands that, rather than being simply creatures of good or creatures of evil, most people have both good and bad qualities. The important thing is to appreciate the good qualities and understand the bad qualities by treating others with sympathy and trying to see life from their perspective. He tries to teach this ultimate moral lesson to Jem and Scout to show them that it is possible to live with conscience without losing hope or becoming cynical.”

As Atticus goes on to serve as defense in a rape case, wherein a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is the accused, the ramifications of the assignment start becoming noticeable in Scout and Jem’s lives. Their father is threatened by community members, and Scout is picked on at school, finding herself winning fistfights with other kids.

“Atticus, do you defend niggers?” she asks him. His response is incredible, affirmative, and tender. He condemns her use of the racial word and explains he is defending a Negro because it is the right thing to do. His explanation—that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up or tell Scout what not to do —instills in her the virtues of opposing injustice and standing up for your own principles. Violence is not the way to solve conflicts. The potential for good and evil exists within everyone, but actions define the way a person is viewed.

When a rabid dog needs put down on the street, the town sheriff hands Atticus a gun. With one calculated shot, Atticus shoots the dog as Jem and Scout watch. It reinforces Atticus’ life lessons—though he’s clearly skilled and capable to inflict violence, he chooses goodness and justice. Soon, when Atticus waits outside Tom Robinson’s jail cell and a lynch mob arrives, Scout and Jem show up and the words of Atticus’ worldview start to pour out of Scout’s mouth. The goodness of a little girl preaching morality to men hell-bent on doing evil drives them off, and shows Scout’s evolving comprehension of the two shades of humanity.

The trial proves Robinson didn’t commit the rape and that the “victim” came onto him, making him the real gambit in the mess. Of course, Robinson is found guilty, and not hours later is “accidentally” killed. Not long after, on their way back from a Halloween pageant, Scout and Jem are attacked in the woods by Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the father of the alleged rape victim. The two are rescued by Boo Radley in his first in-the-flesh appearance of their lives, but not before Jem takes a few strong blows from Ewell. Ewell’s demonstrated anger and violence throughout the film result in his death. Atticus, as Ewell’s foil, stands in contrast with a belief system that is adopted by Scout.

The events at the end of the film reveal a subplot about the threat prejudice and ignorance pose on the innocent, and the duality of man. The ignorant and prejudiced person is the product of society and fear. Boo was demonized through Scout and Jem’s stories simply because they didn’t understand the truth about him, when in fact he is arguably the purest representation of good in the entire story. Tom Robinson was persecuted for being a helpful black man in a time and place where such behavior aroused suspicion. Everyone’s faith in human nature is tested in the process. Scout’s gradual understanding of Atticus’ lessons as the events of the film unfold culminate in her acceptance of Boo Radley at the film’s closure. She learns the value of perspective Atticus has been preaching, and the importance of protecting the innocent. Exposing Boo to the world “would be like killing a mockingbird,” Scout says, evidence of her transition from an innocent child to someone with an expanded worldview revealing that good and evil stem from personal choices, not nature.