A Gender Reading

Here are some moments and other aspects of the text, which give a good basis for a gender reading of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, addressing attitudes regarding Women, their role and those allotted to men.

All page numbers refer to the Arrow Books 50th Anniversary edition.  See the bottom of the page for the list of chapters by page number.


Being a girl

Jem is dismissive: ‘sometimes you act so much like a girl, it’s mortifyin’ (42) and exasperated when he says ‘I declare to the Lord that you are getting more like a girl everyday!’ (57).  Scout, however,can maintain a silent superiority: ‘There was more to it than he knew, but I decided not to tell him.’ (42).   As Jem becomes older, his frustration derives not from Scout being a sissy but from his view that, ‘It’s time you started bein’ a girl and acting right!’ (127): he is now confused that she is not fitting into the female stereotype.  He suggests that she takes up ‘sewin’ or somethin” and explains to Scout that Aunt Alexandra is trying to make her a lady (249): Scout understands that being asked to stay with the women’s circle (253) is part of Aunt Alexandra’s ‘campaign to make [her] a lady’.

Scout is ‘marked as [Dill’s] property.’  He said ‘I was the only girl he would ever love, then he neglected me.’  This is a humorous parody of adult life and, for his disregard, Scout ‘beats him up twice’.  However, this is also a severe criticism of male behaviour: the beatings ‘did no good’ and ‘foolhardy schemes continued’.  Scout’s only recourse is to ‘remain aloof’ and sit passively on Miss Maudie’s front porch.. (46)

Simon Finch is ironically said to have ‘absolute trust’ in his daughters yet he arranges the house so that his daughters can only reach their bedrooms through that of their parents; this does not apply to the sons’ rooms.  Scout also finds that the distrust of women and the ‘Impurity doctrine…seemed to preoccupy all clergymen.’ (134)  The dramatic irony of the narrator not knowing the significance of what she is innocently saying is not lost on the observant reader.

Women as Gossips

Miss Stephanie is the key gossip-monger: for instance, she concentrates on the children being in the courtroom instead of more important matters when she ‘was busy telling it to Miss Maudie Atkinson and Mr Avery’. (236)  The author uses Miss Maudie to criticise this pettiness when she rebukes Miss Stephanie with alliteratively ‘deadly’ diction and dismisses both her and Mr Avery, in favour of being with the children (237).

Miss Stephanie, herself, is used to narrate the confrontational incident when Mr Ewell calls Atticus ‘a nigger-lovin’ bastard’.  This serious moment identifies the motivation for Ewell’s subsequent attempt to murder Jem and Scout, which is a key aspect of the novel’s plot.   At the same time, the author maintains her implied criticism of the gossip by showing how Miss Crawford fabricates and embellishes her account: ‘Miss Stephanie (who by the time she had told it twice was there and had seen it all – passing by form Jitney Jungle she was)’ (239).  Lee’s phrasing also directs the reader towards a humorous response in such moments as when ‘Miss Stephanie said Atticus said..’ (240)

No women are in positions of social responsibility

Domestic matters

Miss Maudie is praised for her cake making and an Aunt Alexandra for her cooking (89/90)

Being a lady

Aunt Alexandra is the model of what is considered to be ‘a lady’.  Her view is  that Scout should not ‘be doing things that required pants’, had to ‘behave like a sunbeam’  (90).  Mrs Dubose who in a rant declares ‘you should be in a dress and camisole, young lady!’ , believes that otherwise she will grow up to ‘wait on tables at the OK cafe’ (112).    124 249, 253, 262, 268 and Southern womanhood 162

The missionary circle and their interest in the Mrunas (Chapter 24) is an ironic and satirical portrait of ‘genteel ladies’.

Irony appears in their expressed sympathy for the poor native Mrunas in distant Africa whilst treating their own black fellow citizens with, at the very least, total disregard.  Mrs Farrow, ironically the ‘second most devout lady in Maycombe’, goes much further when she declares that no ‘lady [is] safe is her bed these nights’.  Mrs Merriweather, whose very name itself is ironic, insults her servant by referring to ideas not entering ‘that wool of hers’ and pretends that employing her is solely an act of financial generosity in The Depression (257).

The satire lies in the overt criticism that Harper Lee is making of the people that this group of women represent: the function of the chapter is firstly to ridicule the naiveté of such groups who are firstly taken in by the missionary zeal of charlatans, such as Grimes Everett,  and secondly to expose their both their insincerity and lack of humanity.  Scout says that Aunt Alexandra ‘let Claphurnia serve’ – well, how munificant (generous) is that!  The juxtapositioning of the ‘ladies” digust of the Mrunas getting drunk on spewed-out bark and being subjected to terrible ordeals at thirteen with them ‘adjourning for refreshments’, exposes their shallow natures.  Harper Lee uses her narrator to voice her disapproval of the endemic duplicity (the often found deceitfulness) in women’s groups:

‘I was more at home in my father’s world.  People did not trap you with innocent questions to make fun of you.’ (258)

Interestingly, Miss Maudie’s correction of Aunt Alexandra when she despairs for Atticus and bewails (complains about) the town’s perfidy (treachery) takes place out of the missionary circle’s earshot.  The Christian ethical value that ‘fairplay is not marked White Only’ is ironically not for their ears.

Scout as reflects at the end of chapter 24 that if ‘Aunty could be a lady at a time like this’ when injustice and racial prejudice is rife, she herself could demonstrate her ‘very best manners’.  In this way,  manners are shown to be the key criterion of being a lady.  ‘To KIll a Mockingbird’ is a story about growing up, a bildungsroman. This is key moment in the novel is carefully placed at the very end of the chapter, its the most effective point.

According to Atticus, being a lady involves moral courage.  Mrs Dubose is brave in that she is determined to conquer her addiction to morphine before she dies ‘beholden to nothing and nobody’  (123).  This is an unusual portrayal of courage: it is personal and private with no wish for acclaim or praise; it concerns strength of character and certainly not derring-do.  Might one consider this to be just the feminine version of courage?  What are the implications of seeing in such a way?  Do you think it is as admirable as a man standing up against a mob?

Do read : The Female Voice in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.  It deals with how women are presented in the novel and film.

Men’s roles:

Responsible positions

Judge, police, jury 224, Attorneys: prosecutor and defender of the right to a fair trial

Men have the monopoly on active roles

These include varied activities: shooting Tim Johnson, the rabid dog’; Ewell’s violent assaults; the town’s people rescuing Miss Maudie’s furniture (77); the mob seeking to lynch Tom Robinson

Inability on domestic front

Through the voice of Francis, we discover that Aunt Alexandra holds the view that ‘ all men should learn to cook, that men oughta be careful with their wives and wait on ’em when they don’t feel good.’ (90).  Admirable though this sentiment might be, it still falls a long was short of equality between the sexes: Francis is not relaying a view that men should be doing the daily cooking nor that they should look after the their wives and the home, as a matter of course.

Fathers as lone parents.  Atticus’s attempt to instil the idea of behaving with the decorum of ‘several generations’ gentle breeding’ (147) into Jem and Scout fails utterly because ‘he was only a man’ who is not concerned by how others view his family (148), providing they follow their consciences.  Scout observes that ‘it takes a woman to do that kind of work’ (147).   What would you say is being presented as woman’s work here?       When talking with Heck Tate, Atticus admits he  ‘Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent’ (301) and it is true that he has not been a strict father who observes conventions; Lee does however show a man who values moral integrity:

‘Before Jem looks at anyone else, he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so that I can look squarely back at him.’  (301)

Being a gentleman

In response to Jem’s anger at Mrs Dubose’s behaviour, Atticus advises him to ‘just hold your head high and be a gentleman’ (111)

Courage and conscience

Atticus, the novel’s key role model, is ironically said to be ‘the bravest man who ever lived’ by his naively admiring daughter (111).  Defending Tom Robinson is said to be, however, more a case of ‘conscience’ (116) than bravery per se (for itself).   Self belief and determination is also a form of courage: Atticus says ‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.’ (84); also consider the bravery of Mrs Dubose, above.

Chapters by page number




































































For more of my pages on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, click Lee tab at the top of the page.


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