To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of American fiction. One of the reasons for this success is its handling of a pressing social issue, namely, racial prejudice. Secondly, the work is structurally layered, allowing readers numerous interpretations. For example, the book can be studied for its socio-economic indications under the Marxist critical framework. It could be studied with equal felicity under the feminist, psychoanalytic or formalistic critical frameworks. To this extent, the novel can be said to be ‘polysemic’. Polysemy is the state of having more than one meaning. Though first coined to describe a linguistic phenomenon, the term has now gained a broader meaning so that it is also applied in discussing authorial intent in literary works. Also implied in the term ‘polysemy’ is the notion that perceptions vary depending on the particular identity of the reader, and
“that words are multi-ordinal; these characteristics can lead to or permit conscious or unconscious confusion. The existence of diverging perceptions and language are explained through general semantics. Two significant ideas of general semantics are non-identity and infinity of values. Each of these ideas is manifest in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.” (Kasper, 2006, p.273)
With the help of insights offered by Marxist school of literary criticism, this essay will argue that social class is a major divisive factor in the novel.
A central theme of the novel is its characters’ tendency to strongly identify with their race. Just as race separates, the human will is shown to overcome this difference. The decision by Atticus Finch to defend the black Tom Robinson is the most luminous example. Atticus’ defense of the innocent Robinson proves a daunting task. Despite convincing evidence to acquit Robinson from his guilt, the exclusively white jury convicts him all the same. Even the prison officials concoct a fake encounter and shoot Robinson while he was allegedly trying to escape. What is so shocking is that even within the confines of institutions of law and law enforcement, racial identity plays a dominant and destructive role. Clearly, racial prejudice overwhelms notions of fairness and justice espoused by law. (Singley, 2002, p.47) Applying Marxist critical thought to the novel we see how race is strongly correlated with class. This means that all the blacks in the novel are inevitably also poor.
This relationship between race and class makes the study of Atticus Finch all that more interesting and important. Atticus Finch is an exception to the typical characterization of white men – those seen in the novel as well as they actually existed in early twentieth century America. It order to deconstruct the formative ingredients behind Atticus Finch’s identity, we have to consider his upbringing, his influences, etc. From the references available in the text, we learn that Atticus Finch was a pious man. He is someone who looked up to the words of the scriptures in both letter and spirit. He brings the same attitude and mindset to his work as a lawyer. For Atticus, the spirit is more important than the literal interpretations of law – a concept he assimilated from his personal realizations of God. The manner in which Atticus brings up his own children is another indication of how his character is constructed. It is fair to assume that cherished values and virtues are inculcated by parents in their children. Just as Atticus’ children Scout and Jem are raised without prejudice or hatred, he in turn must have been raised the same way. So, it is fair to claim that Atticus’ identity development falls outside Marxist literary critique, for there is no trace of identity with class that is central to Marxism. On the other hand, religion and culture play a dominant role in Atticus’ personality makeup – in making him a broad-minded and fair-minded individual. This is what prompts him to defend an innocent black man, who has been wrongly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. During the trial,