" Only Children Weep"
by Jereme M. Allison
Prejudice has infected humankind since the beginning of time. The ancient Greeks believed that they were the only civilized culture and that all other nations were barbarians. The ancient Romans also believed that they were superior to all other races, and even the poorest of Romans looked down his nose at even the richest of foreigners. During the 1930s and 40s, Adolf Hitler was able to convince the entire German nation to attempt willingly to wipe out the Jews. In the United States, Africans were brought here as slaves. After the Civil War and the African Americans had won their freedom, prejudice against them pervaded society, and African Americans were treated as second-class citizens. Even in this day, despite countless civil and equal rights movements and hundreds of laws being passed, prejudice still exists in this country against people based on race, creed, sex, or socio-economic status. In 1960, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Harper Lee wrote the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Commenting on a display of prejudice, Atticus, one of the characters in the novel, says, "’They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep’" (Lee 224). Unfortunately, what Atticus says is true. Despite the terrible injustices that have happened in history because of prejudice, humankind has not learned from the past and continues to repeat the same injustices over and over. Through Arthur "Boo" Radley and Tom Robinson, two of the characters in the novel, Harper Lee warns of how prejudice can cloud a person’s judgment and cause him or her to do irrational things.
First of all, by means of the backgrounds of Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson, Harper Lee shows how prejudice can influence the way a person is treated. The Radleys are a family of White people that live several doors down from Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, the principle character in the novel and the one by whom the story is told. While the Radleys are a respected family in the community, the family stays to itself, which is viewed as alien in the town, and Mr. Radley has no known form of employment (Lee 9). Before Scout was born, Arthur Radley had gotten into trouble when, as a teenager, he and a group of boys had locked the Sheriff in the courthouse outhouse. Because of his family, he was released to his father who promised the judge that Arthur would give no further trouble. Arthur was not seen or heard from for fifteen years. But again he received preferential treatment when he was arrested for stabbing his father in the leg with a pair of scissors when the sheriff refused to put him in the jail alongside Negroes. Instead, he locked Arthur in the courthouse basement. Once again the city released Arthur to the care of his father (Lee 10-11). It is obvious that Arthur received this preferential treatment because he and his family are White.
Conversely, Tom Robinson is Black. Despite the fact that he is a hard worker, that he goes to church, and that he is liked by many in the community, he and his family are forced to live in the Negro village, a place of small houses by the county dump (Lee 253). The little work that is available for him consists of hard physical labor in the fields or menial yard work (Lee 200). Because he is Black, he receives no education and is unable to read or write (Lee 132). During his trial, he is derogatorily referred to as "boy" (Lee 207-209). The way that Tom is forced to live is the standard for the treatment that most Colored people received in the 1930s. By contrasting the backgrounds of these two people, Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson, Harper Lee describes how the people of the town of Maycomb allow their personal prejudiceabout race to influence the way they treat others.
Second, through the opinions of the children, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, Jeremy "Jem" Finch, and Charles Baker "Dill" Harris, toward Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson, Harper Lee reveals how personal prejudice can influence a person’s judgment. Because so little is known about the Radley family because of their reclusive nature and because Arthur Radley has been kept in seclusion from the community for so long, the children have formed a very vivid fantasy based on the rumors that surround the Radley family and based on their own imaginations. When Dill first comes to Maycomb, he is intrigued by the idea of Arthur Radley, so Jem and Scout tell him all they have heard and think they know about him:
"Wonder what he does in there," [Dill] would murmur. "Looks like he’d just stick his head out the door."
Jem said, "He goes out all right, when it’s pitch-dark. Miss Stephanie Crawford said she woke up in the middle of the night one time and saw him looking straight through the window at her . . . said his head was like a skull lookin’ at her."
"Wonder what he looks like?" said Dill.
Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo: Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, . . . he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained . . . . There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time. (Lee 12-13)
Because the Radley family is different from what is considered the social norm of Maycomb society and because of Arthur’s seclusion, the children allow themselves, through their imagination and their innocence of how they should treat people, to form an extremely prejudiced view of Arthur. Yet this same innocence allows them to see Tom Robinson for who he really is. Because of the influence of their parents, many of the children that Jem and Scout go to school with are prejudiced. Because Atticus, Jem and Scout’s father, is appointed to defend Tom Robinson in his trial, throughout the school year the children are taunted by their classmates that "’Scout Finch’s daddy defended niggers’" (Lee 79). Even their own cousin taunts Scout by referring to Atticus as "’nothin’ but a nigger lover’" (Lee 87). Yet during the trial, Scout, Jem, and Dill are disgusted by the way that Tom is treated. During the trial, Mr. Gilmer, the prosecuting attorney, keeps referring to Tom as "boy" and accusing him of lying. When this occurs, Dill begins to cry, and he and Scout leave the courthouse. When Scout tries to rationalize the behavior of Mr. Gilmer by the fact that the job of a prosecuting attorney is to question the accused, Dill responds, "’The way that man called him ‘boy’ all the time and sneered at him, an’ looked around at the jury every time he answered—. . . It ain’t right, somehow it ain’t right to do’em that way. Hasn’t anybody got any business talkin’ like that—it just makes me sick’" (Lee 210). So, too, with Jem, when Tom is wrongly convicted for rape, Jem keeps asking Atticus, "’How could they do it, how could they?’" (Lee 224). Scout, Jem, and Dill are able to look beyond the color of Tom’s skin. They see the truth, that he is on trial because of the color of his skin. While the children allow prejudice to influence their ideas about Arthur Radley, they understand how prejudice influences the townspeople against Tom Robinson.
Next, by the actions of Scout, Jem, and Dill towards Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson, Harper Lee exposes how prejudice against someone can influence a person’s behavior toward him or her. Because of their ideas about Arthur Radley, the children make him out to be a monster. Speaking of this, Claudia Johnson states,
The fear of the barbaric is . . . apparent in the children’s fear of and attraction to something primordially supernatural on the other side of the protective wall of civilized rationality. . . . The children’s paranoia over Boo Radley" is of that of a ghost that "will not remain confined to the spirit world of the dead, but will pass through the protective barriers to mix with the living. (Threatening 66)
It can be seen that they think of Arthur as a ghost because Jem refers to Boo Radley as a "haint" and says, "’He died years ago and they stuffed him up the chimney’" (Lee 23, 40). "It is significant that the first discussion that the children have about "Hot Steams" or ghosts takes place as they are staring at the Radley house" (Johnson, Threatening 75). This paranoia causes the children to run by his house on the way to school (Lee 35). When Dill dares Jem to run up and touch the Radley house, Jem says, "’I hope you’ve got it through your head that he’ll kill us each and every one, Dill Harris. Don’t blame me when he gouges your eyes out. You started it, remember’" (Lee 13). Yet their fear of Arthur causes the children to have an overwhelming curiosity to see him. One of their plans so that they can see Arthur is to use a fishing pole to put a note on his windowsill (Lee 49). Their second plan is to sneak up to his house late at night and peek through the windows and try to catch a glimpse of Arthur (Lee 55). Because of their preconceived ideas of Arthur, the children treat him with fear and think of him as something odd and unnatural, like an animal in a zoo, to be looked at from a distance.
On the other hand, despite the prevailing attitude toward Negroes in the town, the children’s actions toward Tom Robinson are ones of respect. Before Tom’s trial, Scout and Jem go with Calpurnia, their housekeeper, to the Colored church on Sunday. At the church, the minister is taking up a collection to help Tom’s family since he is in jail and unable to work. Scout and Jem willingly put their dimes in as a donation (Lee 130). At the trial, because of the treatment that Tom is receiving from the prosecuting attorney, Dill begins to cry (Lee 210). After the trial when Tom is convicted, "[i]t was Jem’s turn to cry. His face was streaked with angry tears as we made our way through the cheerful crowd" (Lee 223). After Tom was shot trying to escape from jail, Scout tries to talk to Jem about the trial. "Jem was suddenly furious. He leaped off the bed, grabbed me by the collar and shook me. ‘I never wanta hear about the courthouse again, ever, ever, you hear me? . . . Don’t you ever say one word to me about it again, you hear?’" (Lee 260). Jem lashes out in anger as a way to deal with his emotions over the treatment that Tom has received by the unfair trial and his subsequent death. Also, Scout, when she hears that Tom has been shot, starts shaking uncontrollably (Lee 250). "Scout’s shaking results probably from the visual image of the killing she is able to create for herself . . . The size of the [Enfield Prison] yard, the picture of a man with the use of only one arm attempting to climb the fence, the claim by the guards that Tom had nearly escaped, the seventeen shots used to stop him—all suggested a killing with a motive other than simply preventing Tom from fleeing" (Chura 7-8). Even Scout could see that the shooting of Tom was murder. Thus, the children’s actions toward Arthur Radley show how a person’s prejudice can cause him or her to do illogical things toward another person. Contrasting nicely, the children’s actions toward Tom Robinson are illogical according to the social norm and prejudice of the 1930s because they are able to see him as a human being.
Contrasting the children’s ideas of Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson are the opinions and ideas of the townspeople of Maycomb, whom Harper Lee uses to show the prevailing attitudes of the time. Because of the reclusive nature of the Radley family, many of the ideas that the children have of Arthur Radley come from rumors started by the town people.
People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people’s chickens and household were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned herself in Barker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions. (Lee 8-9)
Yet the residents are reasonably respectful of the Radleys. When told the rumors by Scout, Miss Maudie, Scout’s neighbor, responds, "’That is three-fourths colored folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford’" (Lee 47). When Arthur Radley got in trouble when he locked the Sheriff in the outhouse, he was released by the judge to the custody of his father because Mr. Radley promised that Arthur would cause no further trouble, and the judge knew that Mr. Radley’s word was his bond. The treatment that Arthur receives is due to his being White. Conversely, the town’s attitude toward Tom Robinson is the standard for the attitude toward Negroes in the 1930s.
During the trial of Tom Robinson, the truth comes out that Mayella Ewell, Bob Ewell’s daughter, kissed Tom. Since it was taboo for a White person to kiss a Black man, Bob and Mayella lie and accuse Tom of rape rather than admit the truth. Mr. Gilmer, throughout the trial, refers to Tom as "boy." Commenting on this appellation, Claudia Johnson states that in the 1930s, "African-Americans were regarded by White people as children and as scarcely civilized . . . Grown African-Americans males were invariably called ‘boys’" (Johnson, Understanding 86). So, Mr. Gilmer is following the prejudicial social norms of his day. In fact, because Tom is Black, the people of Maycomb become like Tim Johnson, the rabid dog. "Like the dog infected with rabies, the citizens of Maycomb are infected with Maycomb’s ‘usual disease,’ racism, which makes them just as irrational as Tim Johnson" (Jones 36). Fittingly, Atticus says, "’There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried’" (Lee 231). Similarly, when Tom is shot for trying to escape from jail after he is convicted, the gossip of the town shows the general attitude of the time:
To Maycomb, Tom’s death was typical. Typical of a nigger to cut and run. Typical of a nigger’s mentality to have no plan, no thought for the future, just run blind first chance he saw. Funny thing, Atticus Finch may have got him off scott-free, but wait--? Hell, no. You know how they are. Easy come, easy go. Just shows you, that Robinson boy was legally married, they say he kept himself clean, went to church and all that, but when it comes down to the line the veneer’s mighty thin. The nigger always comes out in’em. (Lee 253-254)
This is the general attitude displayed in the town toward African Americans. Very few of the townspeople see them as humans. Interestingly enough, the townspeople see Tom’s crime as even extending to his family. At the missionary tea, the ladies "are peevish and self-righteous in their plan to ‘convert’ Tom Robinson’s wife, regarding the Black woman’s membership in her own church as somewhat beside the point. They also grudgingly agree to ‘forgive’ her for being the widow of a black man wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman" (Johnson, Threatening 104). The contrasting of Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson identifies how racial prejudice can influence a person’s opinion of another person.
Finally, by means of the townspeople’s actions toward Arthur and Tom, the novel shows how prejudice can irrationally influence the actions of a person. Arthur Radley was released twice from jail to the care of his father. In the end, when Bob Ewell is killed when he attempts to kill Jem and Scout to get back at Atticus, even though the evidence points toward Arthur’s having killed Bob, the sheriff chooses instead to cover it up to protect Arthur. It is obvious that the decent treatment Arthur receives is because he is White. In contrast, the treatment that Tom receives because he is Black is terrible. Because of the color of his skin, the only job that Tom can get is working in the fields or menial yard work (Lee 200). He is not taught how to read or write, and Tom and his family have to live in the Negro village by the county dump (Lee 132, 253). When Tom is arrested for rape, a mob appears outside the jail where he is being held and wants to lynch him (Lee 158-161). More importantly, Tom is convicted of raping Mayella Ewell, a crime punishable by death, despite the fact that the evidence shows him to be innocent. The fact, too, that Tom is shot "seventeen times by prison guards—his death ostensibly the result of an attempt to flee from the Enfield Prison . . . [indicates that]–the killing . . . is almost certainly racially motivated" (Chura 7). Even Tom’s treatment in prison shows the racial prejudice of the 1930s. So the actions of the people of Maycomb toward Arthur and Tom clearly contrast how racial prejudice can influence the way a person is treated.
Harper Lee uses the novel To Kill a Mockingbird to portray how terribly prejudice can clog a person’s mind and cause him or her to do irrational things toward another person. Jem, Scout, and Dill allow themselves to develop a prejudice against Arthur Radley because he is different, and they act as if he is something odd and unnatural in their actions toward him. Conversely, the townspeople of Maycomb allow their racial prejudice to show by convicting Tom Robinson, despite his obvious innocence. The day after the trial, Miss Maudie says, "’I was sittin’ there on the porch last night, waiting . . . and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step—it’s just a baby step, but it’s a step’" (Lee 227). Yet here it is seventy years later, and human nature remains the same. Despite the innumerable baby steps made, the innumerable laws passed, and the innumerable movements demonstrated, deep down every person struggles, to hide or suppress, with some sort of prejudice. But prejudice is something that is learned. That is why young children, in their innocence of how people are, are the exception to this rule. Children do not see others as Black or White, Jew or Christian, rich or poor, but instead they see them only as people. Perhaps that is why, as Atticus said, "’when they do it—seems that only children weep’" (Lee 224).
Jones, Carolyn. "The Mad Dog as Symbol." The Southern Quarterly
Summer 1996. Rpt. in Readings
Johnson, Claudia Durst. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. New York: Twayne, 1994.
___. Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1960. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, 1983.
Chura, Patrick. "Prolepsis and Anachronisim: Emmet Till and the
Historicity of To Kill a
"‘Only Children Weep’" is an essay written by Jereme M. Allison in Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class in fall 2004 semester. At the time of this writing, Mr. Allison was a sophomore majoring in Nursing.