I have just been marking Y11 practice essays on Mockingbird relating to the characters of Calpurnia and Tom. Given the stem: ‘how are the characters…. presented?’ the focus is clearly on Lee’s technique but also on her intention in creating these two characters. Students need to ask themselves what the function is of any character in a question such as this and then address the ways in which the author brings out that function in the writing.
Both are black and in a book focused on the racial divide of the deep south, this is an obvious point to make. More than this , both are ‘good’ and therefore can be seen not only as ‘Mockingbirds’ but also as the antithesis of the ‘white trash’ defined by the Ewell family. This is important since Lee is at pains to point out that there is inherent worth in Tom which cannot be seen at all in Bob, though Bob, being white, will receive the benefit of the bias of the jury.
Thus both symbolise an essential concept of goodness. Both are also part of Scout’s education though in different ways. Calpurnia, from before the start of the text is an active teacher whose role is criticised by society in the shape of Miss Caroline; Tom is himself a lesson – he never meets Scout, but is as much a part of her education as anything undertaken by Calpurnia or Atticus.
An intelligent and hard working black woman employed to replace Atticus’ wife in the Finch household. It is clear from the early stages of the narrative that Scout is utterly indebted to Calpurnia for her education and her burgeoning awareness of the world around her. Cal is not the only surrogate mother – Maudie and Alexandra must also be considered in this light, but Lee uses her for clear social education -whether when teaching Scout not to disrespect Walter or when taking the children to her church and responding to Lula’s verbal aggression.
It is Cal to whom the children turn when upset and it is Cal who will be chosen by Atticus to accompany him to call on Helen following Tom’s death. She has the feminine virtue of compassion and empathy in a way that Atticus does not. This is not to say that she is a ‘soft touch’ -Jem’s comments about the strength of her hand in a beating make that eminently clear.
Towards the end of the novel Calpurnia is presented in two scenes: Alexandra wishes to be rid of her and Atticus is clear -he can’t live without her. This is not a romantic attachment, but one of support and mutual respect. Look again at the little scene in which she enters the body of the courthouse to tell Atticus that his children are missing – she bears herself with dignity in the lair of the white folks and carries out one of her last duties in regards to the children. After this in the novel she will wait and serve at the tea party and help to comfort Helen, but her role as educator in chief is no longer relevant. In Part 1 she seems to be Atticus’ accomplice in educating the children. By the middle of part 2 she is replaced by circumstance and by Tom.
Although mentioned in Part 1, Tom plays no part in the text until part 2 – as though Part 1 has been preparation for the key idea: the black man, however poor, is not to be written off because of the colour of his skin. His trial takes up around a quarter of the text and is without doubt the central event of the whole text. In it Tom is set against Bob Ewell and the pair are held up to scrutiny. Tom is as much portrayed by his own deeds and speech as he is by Bob’s: the one is the antithesis of the other. Where Tom is quiet, respectful and unwilling to use Bob’s own words in his evidence because they are too uncouth. Bob, on the other hand, is brash, disrespectful and boorish. Lee uses the trial to give the reader a detailed description of the Ewell home which will later be contrasted with the homes of the black community. Both are near the tip but Bob’s is virtually on it – there are no windows and a fence made of savage-looking ruined tools. The only touch of softness is the attempt by Mayella to grow geraniums in a poor copy of Maudie’s garden in the centre of town. The Black community dwellings are, in contrast, cosy and carry the scent of cooking to the visitors, despite their poverty.
This is the key: despite poverty, at the middle of the depression, Tom finds time for dignity and honesty. This is seen time and again in the court house and also in the fact that he is employed at all, and a good worker. Not only this, he pities Mayella. Whilst this is used against him in court, it is so important – his thoughts are not for himself but for others. For this caring nature he is held up as a scapegoat by a jury of bigots. When he is killed trying to escape, he has run out of hope and his death presents the reader with a clear recognition that a terrible injustice has taken place.
His death is the last piece of Scout’s jigsaw. She sees Calpurnia being asked to provide comfort outside her family and also sees her Aunt – until this time a figure of hostility and perceived unkindness – in a different light. She too can see that it is time to grow up and to find dignity in the face of adversity.
Many will write that Tom is a ‘mockingbird’ but few refer to the jail scene. Here after the lunch ob has dispersed it is Tom’s weak voce which pierces the evening air. A frightened and vulnerable soul in a violent and cruel world.