Suffering: a theme in TKAM

A response to the 2016 January Edexcel IGCSE exam.  NOT a model essay: Find your own quotations – I have tried to point out the way!

Suffering covers a wide range of ideas and I would begin here by identifying my key thought areas:

  • Suffering due to abject poverty
  • Suffering due to prejudice
  • Physical suffering
  • Mental suffering

Once this is done, we can look more closely at each area.

Poverty drives this novel from the very opening and the firsr few chapters, focused on early school days are a good source for this.  Another area I would use is the description of the Ewell home which is found during the trial in chapter 18.  The depression has hit the South hard as it was struggling to cope with the after-effects of the civil war.  Southerners took great pride in their heritage , but even now the energy is running out – “Maycomb … was a tired old town”.  The description of the town – the courthouse with the roof which “sagged” and the dirt street which turn to thick mud suggest a town on its last legs.  even the mules are”bony”.  At school the poverty is thrown into sharp contrast with Miss Caroline’s dress (which represents the Stripes of the Stars and Stripes – then still seen as the flag of the North).  Individuals are singled out for attention – Walter with no food but the pride and dignity to refuse the loan to buy some since he can’t repay it.  There is nothing without suffering in a society in which food is used as payment for actions – however picturesque or heartwarming it might be.  This is a world in which poverty has removed dignity from so many and created alarming levels of suffering which the young Scout does not really see.  The Cunninghams are dignified in their suffering.  The Ewells are not.  Burris hurls abuse at his “slut” of a teacher and leaves school on day 1 each year – presumably to do nothing since the description of the home does not suggest a need to help on the family farm.   The Ewell household is suffering at the very bottom of society and seemingly is incapable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Their home by the dump has no running water, no panes in the windows and a general air of poverty that would rival that seen by Mrs Merryweather’s beloved Mrunas. Bob is in receipt of financial help from the state but chooses to drink it all away and leaves the care of the children to Mayella.  She is helpless – she tries to make the place more beautiful with geraniums, but is helpless.  The food is scavenged and the atmosphere threatening.  Poverty has reduced this family to a level of suffering which is painful to behold.  Sadly, the theme of racist bigotry is so strong in this house that we do not see the suffering as clearly as we should – it does not excuse any of the actions of Mayella, but it explains why she longs for the company of Tom, even if her moral compass is rendered non-existant by the threats and abuse of her father. We should notice that the suffering caused by her father with its implied sexual abuse causes her to behave as she does and any suffering she feels as she lies on the witness stand derives neatly from this same source. This suffering shows neatly the hypocrisy rife in the town, where even Atticus can refer to the Ewells as white trash and all suggest that they occupy a lower social level than the Blacks.  In that society, suffering is all too clear, but it is interesting to note that one of the purposes of the scene in the church is to highlight a community pulling together to help each other out of the suffering caused by poverty and bigotry.

Such prejudicial suffering must be highlighted by the treatment of Tom.  He and his family suffer for racist prejudice.  It is clear he is innocent of the crime, yet he is convicted.  Atticus knows this is to be the case and all with an understanding of the racial attitudes of the deep South know it too.  As a first person narrator, Scout cannot know what took place in the jail prior to his escape bid (if such it was), and this is not touched upon.  We assume that there was no let up there.  His family suffer the grief of his death and the continued harassment of Bob “chunking” on Helen. Link Deas performs a small act of Heroism to save her from this suffering, but no amount of slightly description of the black homes with their “pale smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside” and the “delicious smells” coming from them can hide the level of suffering of this community – ignored by the town women who fret about the Mrunas while allowing such abject conditions to exist within their own town.

Physical suffering is used, as much else in this text, as an educative process for the children and is best shown through Mrs Dubose.  Her suffering -in a sense futile since it will not alleviate death – is used to teach Jem true courage.  The description of her home and her physical features -a beautifully written Gothic interlude- show her as a grotesque and terrifying old woman – “the corners of her mouth glistened with wet, which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin” – but one in much pain from her attempt to clean her body prior to death.  Again, Scout is such an unreliable narrator that the reader is fixed on her cruelty and her unkind mouth, rather than on her suffering.  Once the section is complete, the reader learns, along with the children, what this was about.  “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand”, says Atticus, “it’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway”.  The suffering of Mrs Dubose is an apt illustration of this and concludes part one of the book.  The same message will be stressed in part two through the medium of Tom’s trial.

My final section might consider the mental torment suffered by Boo and you can look at another post to flesh out ideas for this: Hey Boo!