Kendall HallMs. BonnarEnglish 915 December 2017Discovering DignityIn the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee demonstrates the importance of extending dignity to all, even those deemed undeserving. Dignity, the quality of being worthy of respect. Often times, the surface of a person does not reflect an accurate representation, the surface only reflects an external appearance rather than one’s identity. To understand and extend dignity one must cast aside judgments made on physical appearance, to remember that all humans are worthy of respect.
, straight into the heart, to see a person’s worth and humanity deserving of respect. To Kill a Mockingbird set in the American south in the 1930’s, where race and societal status determine everything. The novel follows a well-off White family, the Finches, specifically Scout Finch, on her quest to discover the respect that humanity comes with. On the first day of school grade, Scout pins Walter Cunningham, an unkempt boy, to the ground in retaliation when earlier, in defending him, she reviewed her punishment as unfair. Surprisingly, Scout’s older brother, Jem, breaks the fight up and asks Walter to come over for dinner. As the children start to walk to the Finches’ house, Scout surveys Walter: “By the time we reached our front steps Walter had forgotten he was a Cunningham. Jem ran to the kitchen and asked Calpurnia to set an extra plate, we had company. Atticus greeted Walter and began a discussion.
..neither Jem nor I could follow” (Lee 31). Lee illustrates how people are often judged by their name and background with disregard to who they really are. Scout unknowingly judges Walter based on his appearance; dirty, poor, and different.
However, Scout’s father, Atticus, is able to look past Walter’s appearance, straight into his heart by simply having a simple conversation with him. Atticus sees the worth and respect Walter deserves, extending him dignity by looking past his habits and social status. Unfortunately, at this early stage, Scout focuses on the Cunningham name and reputation while Atticus sees beyond the family label right into Walter’s soul; a young, kind boy just like his own son, Jem. Walter Cunningham may have been deemed unworthy and lowly by the town but behind his appearance lies an honorable and respectful soul worthy of dignity. Furthermore, looking beyond a person’s past or current actions and mistakes may reveal hidden honor and worth. Fantastic! Members of society constantly make mistakes, but a person should not be defined solely by a single poor decision. In some cases, to discover the worth and respect of an individual, people must understand that everyone is human and that everyone’s life is precious and important. As the Tom Robinson trial begins, tension rises in Maycomb when scandal of the year comes to light: an African American man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white, eighteen year old, trespassing into the social taboo of interracial relations.
The night before the trial begins, a mob, including Mr. Cunningham, gathers outside Maycomb’s county jail in an attempt to kill Tom Robinson, to deliver justice and closure on their terms. However, Atticus, Tom’s lawyer, stands watch and protects his client. Little does Atticus know that Jem, Scout, and Dill witness and step into the situation to diffuse the heated animosity. The White mob targets Tom Robinson, simply because of his race not because of his personality or moral character, thus stripping him of his dignity. Scout recognizes one man in the mob of angry farmers, Mr. Cunningham. She quietly realizes an opportunity to diffuse the rigid and tense predicament stating, “Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in.
Mr Cunningham displayed no interest about his son and interests, so I tackled his entailment once more in a last-ditch effort to make him feel at home” (Lee 205). Lee demonstrates the ability to express dignity in times of distress. Scout extends a significant amount of dignity towards Mr. Cunningham, despite his intentions to harm Mr.
Robinson and potentially Atticus in the crosshairs. Scout treats Mr. Cunningham with respect and honor instead of distaste and shame. In this moment, she is able to look past Mr. Cunningham’s actions and see the humanity in him; she finds a way to relate and connect with him. Scout does not define Mr. Cunningham as a awful person, but as a respected elder.
Scout discovers numerous facets to Mr. Cunningham’s character, most notably that while he may possess racist animosity, he is also a kind, caring father. She is able to understand that– in the moment– Mr. Cunningham is bad person, however, overall he has dignity and worth. Sometimes, it is instinctual to see the negative and dark side of a person based on their outward actions, but to afford dignity people must consider the full person, all of humanity has some form of caring characteristics. Lee asserts that neither single actions nor mistake or external appearance fully defines a person. Equally true, it is easy to ignore or overlook one’s respect and honor when only looking through a narrow perspective.
Yes! In order to discover a person’s true identity one must act with empathy. Empathy, the ability to step into someone’s world to see challenges, struggles, and strengths, to understand emotions of another, allows one to view people or situations through a new, larger perspective. In the beginning of the novel Scout perceives her neighbor, Arthur Radley, as vengeful and ghostly: “Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom” (Lee 10). Scout has never met or seen Arthur Radley, but she believes him to be evil and frightening, and thus strips Arthur of dignity. As the novel progresses, Scout continues to infer aspects of Arthur’s personality when she refers to him as “Boo” rather than his real name, further rejecting his humanity.
When tragedy strikes Scout and Jem, Arthur saves their lives. Through a situation that allows Scout to view Arthur Radley in a new light, Scout’s perception changes: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough” (Lee 374). Scout illustrates empathy by imagining herself in Arthur’s world and looking beyond the rumors and gossip to discover the real Arthur Radley, a man who is respectful and warmhearted. Scout demonstrates how easy it is to forget that everyone is human and worth something.
She changes her understanding of Arthur when she steps into his shoes, which restores his dignity. It is only when Scout pushes aside the rumors and peels back the layers of Arthur, that she discovers Arthur’s worth and the respect to which he was entitled. Taking the time to display empathy, can change a person’s outlook for greater good, in this case, Scout’s perception of Arthur Radley. Ultimately, Lee demonstrates that extending dignity can be obstructed by judgements and misconceptions.
Throughout the novel, characters are constantly mislabeled and misunderstood illustrating the effects of judgement. To extend dignity one must understand that a person’s worth lies underneath the surface. By being open minded and seeing multiple perspectives one can truly understand?? Word choice?? another’s inner identity and character.