The depression, racial issues, equality, morality and justice, are all complex issues that The United States of America still face in today’s society. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a cleverly written Harper Lee novel that focuses on many issues surrounding life in the southern states of America in the 1930’s. Written from a young girl’s perspective, the novel speaks of a justice system with no justice, the ethics and morality of racist and the courage to do what is right in the face of extreme opposition. Harper Lee is a very intelligent writer, who uses minor characters to explore the complex themes generated in the novel. These minor characters, alongside the more prominent personalities, are each important in their own right, allowing the storyline to flow and move through the main themes with ease. Minor characters, such as Mayella Ewell, Mrs Dubose, Heck Tate and Lula, all allow the novel to explore different ideas whilst encompassing the all important and relevant themes. Even though they may be minor characters and dismissed by many, there is importance in what they say and do. Each one of them is in the novel for a reason and Harper Lee uses them to enhance the novel to a higher degree, allowing the reader to understand the themes on an unconscious level.
One of the many minor characters that are featured within the pages of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is Mrs Dubose, a mean spirited misunderstood old lady, who has lived through a lot within the small county of Maycomb. She is a very complex and difficult character to understand and interpret and the views in which she espouses could be seen as primitive and racist. She is dying, and attempting to free herself from a morphine addiction before she does so. As punishment for destroying her camellia’s, Jem (who along with Atticus and Scout is a main protagonist) is made to read to her once a week. Atticus’ reason for this is not only to discipline Jem but also to make life a little more bearable for Mrs Dubose.
Although she may not be the nicest person on the small street that Jem and Scout live on, she is a very courageous woman, and it is not until later on that the children recognise and understand this. After Mrs Dubose passes away, Atticus reveals to Jem the truth saying, “I wanted you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.“ After this Jem beings to fully fathom the strength it must take to come off an addiction whilst suffering in pain from another illness which is killing you. Mrs Dubose is very opinionated in her views, and is a representation of a lot of the older generation from that era. She is a very important part of the plot, allowing the children to understand courage and its many forms whilst encompassing many of the county’s views on justice and race. By using this character, Harper Lee has allowed the audience to explore many themes, from courage, to racism, to growing up and being responsible. Mrs Dubose allowed the children to mature, to understand fairness and compassion as well as the attitudes of their community.
Another minor character that is cleverly used within this novel is Mayella Ewell. Mayella is the teenage daughter of Bob Ewell, and the reason for Tom Robinson’s false conviction. She is a teenager, who is very spiteful and emotional. Tom was the only person to ever reach out to the unliked and unloved girl, who in turn took advantage of him and threw his kindness back in his face. Mayella lives in squalor at the end of the town with her often drunk father and many siblings, and she allows us a unique view into the amount of respect given to different races within this time.
Regardless of the fact that Tom Robinson is the better educated and polite person with much more integrity, the fact that he is a negro, means that Mayella, although regarded as ‘white trash,’ is still respected more than a coloured man. This minor and pitiful character helps the audience understand the extent of racism within the southern states of America in the 1930’s. Racism in that era was a complex and undefined issue; to the extent that innocent men were convicted of crimes they did not commit and in many cases were not even regarded as human beings. Atticus put it best, “…when it’s a white man’s word against a black man, the white man always wins.” Tom is the ‘mockingbird,’ an important symbol of innocence destroyed by evil. In today’s society we could not imagine the ethics and standards of a community in which race was such a big issue, when guilty was determined by colour and white men spoke only truth. Mayella Ewell helps the reader understand the many themes that develop within the text, especially the issues surrounding racism and morality within the community and the individual.
Mr Raymond is another, often dismissed, minor character in the novel that plays a small but significant part. Dolphus Raymond is a wealthy white man who lives with his black mistress and mulatto children; he often pretends to be drunk so that the citizens of Maycomb will have an explanation for his behaviour. In reality though, he is simply jaded by the hypocrisy of white society and prefers living alongside the black community. He explains his situation to the children, saying “Some folks don’t – like the way I live … I try to give ‘em a reason, you see. It helps folks if they can latch onto a reason.“
Mr Raymond represents one of the not so many individuals within a community of immoral ethics and racist views that they have learned, either by society, experiences or home. He uniquely helps the audience understand the other side of racism within this era, that there were people in the community that believed in equality, fairness and justice for all, not just for white. He is courageous, believes in compassion and understands the views that the Maycomb community takes on issues, especially those involving ethics and coloured folk. He recognises that they need to believe there must be something wrong with him, in order for him to behave the way he does. He is a wise and intelligent character that is purposefully misunderstood, and helps the audience understand more fully the issue of race and its effects on society and the individuals’ conscience. His actions within the novel allow the audience to see the issues from another perspective, a different view from another angle with a varied outlook.
Another one of the many minor characters that plays an important role in allowing the reader to explore the different themes evident within the novel is Lula. Lula is an African American woman who is part of the black community within Maycomb. She is an angry but avid churchgoer who does not wish for white people to be ‘intruding’ on her community. She expresses her hatred to the fact that Jem and Scout are attending her church’s Sunday mass, saying to Calpurnia, “You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here-they got their church, we got our’n.” In this way she is very similar to Mrs Dubose, in despising the opposed race. Her view of Caucasian people, allow the reader to understand that racism works both ways. Lula plays an incredibly important role in the novel, no matter how small or short lived her part may be. She helps the children, and the reader, acknowledge the fact that people learn from their environments. Lula is an excellent example of how society sometimes fails the individual. She has obviously gained this bitterness from experiences with white people, stereotyping and generalising them as having the same views, which is not always correct. Her behaviour towards the children allows the audience to explore the different themes evident within the text.
It is unmistakable that each and every character Harper Lee has used within this important and inspiring novel, no matter how minor, is significant, and allows the reader to explore the themes and issues raised on a deeper and more meaningful level. Harper Lee has ingeniously used these characters to subconsciously allow the reader to delve into bigger and more pressing matters within this particular society of the 1930’s. Her clever use of language, characters and plot make the read an enjoyable one whilst covering these important issues from a time when the community’s conscience was far from moral and ethical. This novel allows the audience to understand the true meaning of courage, justice, the individuals fight against an immoral society and most importantly the effect race has had on communities in the past, whether intentionally or otherwise. Harper Lee has used the minor characters in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ to explore the main themes of the novel and unmask our representations of certain people and beliefs that are not always true. She teaches us to search for the reality behind the masks that we, or our environment, place upon them.