Teaching TKAM: A Dystopic Mockingbird

For my final TKAM post this year, I submit the final assignment my students are working on: a classic 5 paragraph literary analysis essay. All year we have built the skills to write arguments, find evidence, provide context, and do a particular kind of analysis structure we call Quote the Quote. Earlier this spring, I found a tenth grade version of this assignment on the copier, and I was happy to note my students were in fine form for seventh graders. Prior to this unit we studied dystopian short stories, and I baited them with my argument that Mockingbird is, for me, a dystopia. They of course wanted to see my evidence and analysis so here it goes. I think I convinced all, but one. The character of Jem has grown on my quite a bit. He is understudied I feel and far more interesting than Scout. A pedagogical note: it’s such good practice to do the assignments we ask of our students. So much to be learned!

Wake Up, Jem: Analysis of a Dystopic Mockingbird

While set in the past, Harper Lee’s award winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird offers sage warnings against issues of our time, like many popular dystopias that are set in the future.  The fictional town of Maycomb is initially presented as a sort of tired utopia, a place where everyone is known and clinging to the rigid roles they play. The retrospective narrator even goes so far as to describe a caste system that establishes an impenetrable hierarchy based on social class and economic status, but most of all race. An examination of the narrator’s brother, Jem, (who is  part of the powerful Finch family) as he wakes up to the realities of their environment, begins to question the system, and seems poised to use the Finch’s power and privilege as an essential tool in fighting Maycomb’s racism reveals this book can be classified not only as historical fiction, but potentially, as a dystopian novel too. 

Following the trial where his father, the beloved Atticus Finch, is unable to convince a jury that innocent Tom Robinson did not assault Mayella Ewell, Jem wakes up to the reality that his hometown is actually a terrifying place ruled by an unjust system of racial hierarchy. Jem is initially in disbelief. He had been certain that the reasonable residents of Maycomb would believe his esteemed father and the irrefutable evidence presented in court. The upsetting result causes him to cry and realize that his town has sides he was previously unaware of.   He says to a neighborly Miss Maudie, “It’s like bein’ a caterpillar in a cocoon…like somethin’ asleep wrapped in  a warm place. I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world” (246).  When Jem says “I always thought”, it demonstrates the unsettling nature of realizing the people in his town are different than he previously perceived. He now has a more negative view of his neighbors and no longer believes they are the “best folks in the world”. In dystopian stories, there is always one character who sees through the veneer of their society and becomes aware of its true nature. Throughout the story, Atticus has tried to limit Jem and Scout’s understanding of their neighbors’ white supremacist views. Because of what he witnesses at the trial, Jem sees the truth for himself:  Maycomb is a racist town that would rather wrongly convict a Black man than say a white man, who is the “disgrace of Maycomb”, and his daughter are liars. 

These events cause Jem to question the system of racial hierarchy that rules Maycomb and causes so much injustice. Jem is deeply affected by the results of the trial and asks the adults in his life how something like this can happen. They continue to try and reassure him, but to no avail. Jem starts to reject the white privilege that has allowed him to stay ignorant about the true impacts of racism. He insists there is nothing about the situation that can  “‘make it right…You can’t just convict a man on evidence like that – you can’t’” (252).  Jem’s understanding that the system is unfair is revealed when he says “you can’t just convict a man…like that”.  He sees that the problem lies in the system and not in people like Tom Robinson. He thinks this imbalance of power is not right and, as he “beat(s) his fist softly”, may be gaining the courage to do something, as well as the perspective. 

It is also Jem who actually suggests using power and privilege as a way to rectify wrongs in the system. Jem continues to ask questions about the trial and how such an unjust verdict could occur when the justice system is supposed to be fair. When Atticus tries to point out various holes in the system, Jem identifies his father’s role as a state senator as a possible solution. He charges his father to do something more with his power, privilege, and position.“Then go up to Montgomery and change the law” (251).  By commanding his father to “go up” and “change” the laws that he helps to write and vote for as a state senator in the capital of Alabama, Jem is showing that he understands his father is in a position of power and that power can be used to make change. He is saying that he no longer wants the system to work unfairly and that he would rather have a social world that was more just. He is asking his father to work on behalf of himself and others to find solutions that will end the kind of discrimination and injustice that he witnessed during the trial. Jem is asking his father to take action and truly act like the anti-racist he is given so much credit for being.

Many dystopias are set in the future. But sometimes it is the past that we need to be warned against. To Kill A Mockingbird is one book that allows us to look back and reflect on how far we have come. By some measures we have as a nation grown by leaps and bounds,  By some measures we have not come far at all. The dominant reading of this book portrays Atticus as a hero who is doing the most he can to uproot racism. But a closer look at Jem, who questions his father about the system and how to best use their familial privilege and power, reveals there is more work to be done. One is left wondering, as he sleeps peacefully in the final scene, whether he will stay metaphorically asleep or allow himself to wake up enough to take action. In his book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson says that the deeper messages of racism in To Kill A Mockingbird failed to take root. Instead, similar plots have played out over and over again, even recently. In a time when so many are calling for America to be “great again”, it is worthwhile to remember exactly what past versions of “great” actually cost, why so many fought so hard to change things, and why that fight must continue today. 

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