The Themes of Empathy and Tolerance in Chapter 3 of “To Kill a Mockingbird” Analysis

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Empathy is the ability to understand someone by relating with what they are going through, and to ‘put yourself in their shoes’; which is a principle we all find hard to do. Within ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee draws upon the themes of empathy and tolerance, throughout Chapter 3, which form one of the core messages within the novel. This is expressed through various scenes, such as the empathy Miss Caroline fails to reflect towards the children, the empathy we feel for both Walter Cunningham and Burris Ewell, and the empathy that Atticus teaches Scout to grasp as a life long lesson, where he explains the true meaning of seeing things from someone else’s perspective is to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it’. Within my essay, I will expand on these different forms of empathy expressed within the Chapter, and further highlight its significance towards the forthcoming events within the novel.

The first sign of empathy is shown when Jem invites Walter Cunningham home to dinner, where he understands the background and difficulty that Walter faces, knowing he does not get a proper meal. Jem’s mature development is also highlighted superior to Scout’s when he asks her to stop hurting Walter, where he states ‘You’re bigger than he is’. This mature and empathetic comment highlights Jem’s growth to aspire to be like his father, Atticus. Furthermore, Atticus displays his empathetic nature when talking to Walter at the dinner table. This is shown through the quote ‘He and Atticus talked together like to men, to the wonderment of Jem and me. Atticus was expounding upon farm problems…’.

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This quote is significant by highlighting how Atticus is able to empathise with children, especially Walter, and adapt to talk to him about something that he is interested in. In contrast, Scouts lack of empathy is chastised by Calpurnia for her rudeness towards Walter when she criticizes his over use of molasses. This is shown through her quote ‘There’s some folks who don’t eat like us, but you ain’t called on to contradict ‘em at the table when they don’t. Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house’s yo’ company, and don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you ways so high and mighty!’ This quote highlights the message of showing respect and empathy to anyone, no matter who they are, regardless of background and social class. Furthermore, this teaching itself is ironic by the lack of respect and empathy shown to the black community themselves, where they are not treated the same as others, which further emphasizes the remarkable attitude of Calpurnia to teach Scout values that she does not often receive from others. It also emphasizes the firm discipline and morals that Calpurnia employs on Scout, portraying her as more than just a cook to the family but also a substitute mother to Scout.

Within Chapter 3, Harper Lee also has the ability of making the reader sympathise with the different children portrayed in the novel. This is apparent through the introduction of Burris Ewell into the novel, a poor child from a broken and uncaring family, where his appearance is completely filthy, shown through the quote; ‘He was the filthiest human I had ever seen. His neck was dark grey, the backs of his hands were rusty, and his finger nails were black deep into the quick’. The use of the superlative ‘filthiest’ emphasizes his unseen and begrimed appearance, whilst the use of ominous colours like ‘dark grey’ highlight is unkempt display. Furthermore, Burris Ewell’s appearance contrasts with the appearance of a fellow student, Walter Cunningham, introduced in Chapter 2. Although he too is in poverty, he still appears to make an effort, where he is described to have a ‘clean shirt and neatly mended overalls’.

This highlights the difference in personality between both children, where Walter appears to try and keep his dignity and pride despite his misfortune, when juxtaposed with the mind set of Burris who exerts his poverty for all to see. In addition, Burris’ impertinent attitude is conveyed through his responses to Miss Caroline, where he laughs rudely and angrily reacts to her suggestion to go home and wash after finding headlice in his hair. This is shown through the quote ‘You ain’t sendin’ me home, missus. I was on the verge of leavin’, I done my time for this year. Ain’t no snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher ever born c’n make me do nothin’. Burris’ offensive and disrespectful language towards his teacher highlights his upbringing to not have respect for authority. Although we may critisise Burris, we are then brought to sympathise with him when we learn about his troublesome background, shown through the quote ‘Ain’t got no mother, and their paw’s right contentious’, highlighting that he doesn’t have a stable family to turn to, unlike Scout who similarly only has one father, nevertheless we learn about Atticus’ caring and just upbringing for his children. This overall highlights how upbringing can have a major influence on a child’s life, and because of this we are able to understand the reasoning behind Burris’ appearance and attitude.

Empathy is also a key moral taught by Atticus to Scout, where he instills that if this can be understood and cultivated, it will enable her to ‘get along a lot better with all kinds of folk’. This core teaching is explained through the quote ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’. This quote provides a meaningful principle for Scout but also for us to learn and reflect on, where if we can truly see things the way other people see things, we will at least begin to understand them, even if we don’t agree with them.

Furthermore, this quote is a teaching for Scout to understand and tolerate Miss Caroline’s lack of understanding towards her in Chapter 2, where she is told off for being literate, along with her confusion towards Burris Ewell’s ability to only come to school on the first day of term. In addition, this is also a teaching that Atticus expects Scout to grasp to deal with many matters in the future, such as her treatment and judgements of Boo Radley, their unobtrusive neighbour whom is of speculation by the Maycomb community, her tolerance with Mrs Dubose, a cynical elderly lady down their road, along with racial empathy they will need to grasp within the forthcoming events of the Tom Robison trial. In addition, this meaningful quote highlights what a good father and teacher Atticus is to his children, where he accepts his responsibilities to teach his children to gain insight into other people’s perspectives on life to bring up his children as fair and just adults through good morals and lessons.

Furthermore, Atticus himself displays empathy through his strong beliefs of racial equality and justice, which was uncommon in the 1930s in Alabama. In addition, Atticus’ teaching contrasts the negative methods used by Miss Caroline, where her rigid commitment to the educational techniques and lack of empathy towards her students makes her teaching ineffective and un-meaningful. Furthermore, Atticus is able to put himself into his children’s shoes, where he too is able to empathise with Scout’s problems however find a way of helping her get through them. His ability to understand children is also shown through his guidance of reverse psychology to Scout in order to get Jem down by purely paying no attention to him.

This works, and his wisdom is confirmed through the ending short sentence; ‘Atticus was right’. Furthermore, Atticus is skilled in answering Scout’s questions without judging or exerting negative influences of his opinion, such as when talking about the Ewells, where he describes them as ‘members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells’, which is ironic as they are far from being an ‘elite’ society which is pictured. We further see his empathy towards the Ewell’s when Scout judges and condemns Bob Ewell’s unlawful actions, where he states ‘He’ll never change his ways. Are you going to take out your disapproval on his children?’ This statement highlights Atticus’ skilled way of understanding reasoning behind actions, where in this case, it is the empathy shown to Bob Ewell’s children’s decisions. Furthermore, by learning about the character of Atticus, we are able to empathise more with children like Burris Ewell, where his lack for a proper father explains his disrespectful character.

Overall, Harper Lee introduces the importance of empathy within Chapter 3 within many ways, which is a significant theme that is maintained throughout the novel. Furthermore, it is not only a key principle that is necessary to be taught to children, just like Scout is taught by Atticus, but it is also taught to us to as an audience, no matter what age. We too learn the lesson of viewing the world through someone’s else’s eyes to fully understand them, effectively summed up within Atticus’ quote; ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’.

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The Themes of Empathy and Tolerance in Chapter 3 of “To Kill a Mockingbird” Analysis. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from

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