Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird has become one of the most well-known works in American literature. Influenced by tense racial issues and the Civil Rights movement, which developed rapidly in the 1960s, Lee managed to create a relatable story that had a major impact on the way society viewed racism. This research will analyze different dimensions of the context in which the novel was written, including historical, political, social, ideological, and literary aspects.
While there are many major historical events that happened in 1960, it can be argued that, when writing her novel, Lee was largely influenced by the issues of race, class, and gender. Historical, political, social, and ideological contexts all interconnect in relation to these three aspects of public life in the middle of the 20th century. Although slavery was officially abolished in the US in 1865, it did little to change the way the majority of whites treated black people (Williams, et al.). In this sense, the 1950s were a decade of significant changes and rapid growth of the Civil Rights movement. Some examples of the events that were transforming the landscape of the society at the time are the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1956 riots at the University of Alabama, and the murder of Emmett Till. In addition, the political context was defined by segregation reforms and Jim Crow laws, which were still enforced in the Southern states in the 50s and 60s. This is reflected in the novel as Jem and Scout learn about inequality and segregation.
Another way the context of racial segregation has influenced the novel can be seen in the way Lee depicts social classes. Along with occupation and personal wealth, the race was an important factor that enforced division into classes (Gil and Marion). For example, Calpurnia is described as a respected and educated woman with perfect manners. However, because she is Black, she is still considered to be a lower class than the Finch family. Moreover, although some Black and White families were equally poor, Blacks were still considered to be a lower social class.
The ideological context that influenced the novel was defined by the outrage and protest that more and more Black people began to express in the 1950s. Having endured the life-long unjust treatment, they were striving to voice their anger and end discrimination, inequality, and intolerance. These strong desires became the basis of the ideological principles of many Black Civil Rights activists. One of the characters that demonstrate this opposition is Lula. It might be difficult to feel empathy for Lula due to the harsh and rude attitude she expresses towards Scout and Jem when they come to church. However, it can be suggested that this aggression is caused by her strong ideology and extreme frustration.
In addition to racial discrimination, the social and political contexts of the time when the novel was written were shaped by the prejudice and discriminatory attitudes toward women. During the 1950s, women were still considered to be submissive and inferior to men: they were paid less, had limited educational opportunities, and were much less encouraged to pursue a career (Pessin). In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee portrays this prejudice about the roles that women were expected to have. One example of gender stereotyping is the scene where Scout is told that she cannot play with the boys because she is a girl (Lee). The novel demonstrates that from a young age, girls were taught to conform to stereotypical assumptions and expectations of society. Despite this fact, Lee has created such female characters as Scout and Miss Maudie, who are fierce and tough but optimistic and kind at the same time, and who stand against these standards.
The literary context of To Kill a Mockingbird can be defined in relation to Southern Gothic literature, as the novel belongs to this genre. Originated in the early 19th century, Southern Gothic tradition became quite prevalent in literature in the 20th century, having a major influence on a number of prominent writers, including Harper Lee (Hartsell-Gundy). It is characterized by the themes of violence and cruelty and dark macabre tensions coexisting with seemingly tranquil and calm routines of the “pastoral, agrarian South” (Bjerre). The influence of this genre is present throughout the whole novel, as the depiction of these dark themes is combined with the somewhat nostalgic, ‘surface’ description of the Finch family’s quiet life (Lee). The most outstanding example of this confrontation is arguably Bob Ewell’s attack on the children, which represents the aggressive and monstrous nature of the region’s suppressed violent history.
It can be concluded that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a product of the time in which it was written as much as it is the factor that influenced the times that followed its publication. Political, historical, social, ideological, and literary contexts are interconnected in this novel, and many important topics were raised, including the racial, class, and gender issues. Due to its major influence on the social landscape, the book remains one of the greatest literary works of all time.
Bjerre, Thomas Æ. “Southern Gothic Literature.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, 2017. Web.
Gil, Ricard, and Justin Marion. “Residential segregation, discrimination, and African-American theater entry during Jim Crow.” Journal of Urban Economics, vol. 108, 2018, pp. 18-35.
Hartsell-Gundy, Arianne A. “Book Review: Reading Harper Lee: Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.” Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4, 2019, p. 267.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Random House, 2015.
Pessin, Léa. “Changing Gender Norms and Marriage Dynamics in the United States.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 80, no. 1, 2017, pp. 25-41.
Williams, Andrew D., et al. “Racial residential segregation and racial disparities in stillbirth in the United States.” Health & Place, vol. 51, 2018, pp. 208-216.