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|TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD |
Harper Lee denotes the ways in which racial stratification relies on the perpetuation of specific embodiments of femininity and sexuality by divorcing the positive qualities often associated with womanhood-compassion, love, tenderness, caring--from those characters in the novel who most adamantly insist on the traditional trappings of femininity. Instead, these individuals are frequently associated with the negative aspect of racist discourse. (57) Recall, for example, the figures of Aunt Alexandra and the ladies of the Missionary Circle, the characters in the story whom most efficaciously personify the feminine, and who serve as the foils Miss Jean Louise Finch--Scout--is contrasted against. Scout contemplates with awe their perfect execution of the feminine role as she struggles to assimilate and gain societal approbation. (58) Yet, in the moments when these women anthropomorphize presumptively biological gender most acutely, Lee stresses the performative aspects of their practices and interpolated racism into the dialogue.
Following the trial of Tom Robinson, Scout is privy to a gathering where the women of the Circle, sheathed in pastel prints, have "put on their hats to go across the street." (59) They smell heavenly and achieve femaleness through artificial means which they nonetheless pass off as unstaged. (60) Their faces are "heavily powdered but unrouged," and wear masks of "Tangee Natural" lipstick accompanied by "Cutex Natural" nail polish. (61) This elaborate paradox between "natural" essence but fastidiously contrived aesthetics and mannerisms (62) also occurs in the same scene where the women express opprobrium for "a sulky darky" and discuss those "poor Mrunas." (63) They condemn Helen (Tom Robinson's wife), and congratulate themselves by commenting that "[a]t least we don't have the deceit to say to 'era yes you're as good as we are but stay away from US." (64) Manifesting the internalization of the South's rape complex and the ways it precipitated sexual self-monitoring, Mrs. Farrow, with her "fresh permanent wave," complains, "there's no lady safe in her bed these nights." (65)
It is informative to compare this stream of commentary with Lee's depiction of these women as visually pleasing, as the only (white) mothers in the story, as religious moralists, and as, also importantly, the wealthy women of Maycomb County. The characteristics ubiquitously associated with femininity are vested solely in women of the Circle. Conversely, Scout has no mother, nor do the impoverished Ewells, who are denigrated by their racial peers as responsible for their own economic demise. (66) Miss Maudie Atkinson is both a bachelorette and childless. (67) With these comparisons, Lee illustrates how porous the boundaries of femininity can be. The women's strict adherence to the performance of "femaleness," dominated by ideologies of innateness, decorum, and asexuality, is one of Lee's most prominent examples of the constructed nature of gender. Femaleness is not a natural occurrence--it is a complex, ongoing process that evolves along with, and takes account of, revolutions in counterpart social norms.
The women of the Missionary Circle are not the only representatives in Mockingbird whom Lee reprimands for rigidly adhering to gender norms under the guise of authenticity. Lee further links gender conventionality with racism in the character of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose. Mrs. Dubose warns Scout that wearing overalls is unladylike behavior that dishonors the Finch lineage and augurs future sexual degradation: "a Finch waiting on tables at the O.K. Cafe--hah!" Mrs. Dubose threatens. (68) Scout reacts appropriately: "I was terrified. The O.K. Care was a dim organization on the north side of the square." (69) Simultaneously, Mrs. Dubose attacks Atticus for associating with African Americans and representing them in court. "Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for niggers ... Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for." (70)
Lee's insights into gender tropes are subtler than her observations on race; she pens her characters in such a fashion that their gendered characteristics are less instantaneously obvious. Representations of Tom Robinson and his wife Helen, Calpumia and her son Zeebo, the Reverend Sykes, and even the African American community of Maycomb at large are positive with only a few minor exceptions (71)--effectively combating caricatures of the black community that were prevalent at the time the book was released. Explicitly linking her critique of gender (or sexuality) with the racial politics of the era would have radicalized the novel to the point of alienating her mainstream target audience, so Lee obnubilated these subtexts, expositing their prominence in the politics of the time period discretely while making primarily legible her protests against dominant white imaginaries of African Americans. Lee's choice explains why Mockingbird was initially celebrated for its overt commentaries on race, and it is only now that critical assessors have begun to focus on the role gender and sexuality played within her book and critiques of racism.
Professor Claudia Durst Johnson notes in her comprehensive examination, To Kill a Mockingbird. Threatening Boundaries, (72) that the importance of the novel, at least in part, "arises from its challenge of the southerner's stereotype of African-Americans." (73) In defending the family's continuing relationship with Calpurnia, Atticus tells Alexandra that, in his wife's absence, Calpurnia is more than just a cook--she is the closest approximation to a maternal force that exists in Jem's and Scout's lives; although not a substitute for their mother, she is pivotal to their successful upbringing. (74) The Reverend Sykes, another positive image, preaches nonviolence and exudes an ethos of compassion towards both his congregation and the white citizens of Maycomb. Without apprehension, he welcomes Jem and Scout into his church, and later into the area of the courtroom to which the African American community is restricted. (75) The black citizens of Maycomb rise as one, silently, in respect for Atticus as he completes the trial, exiting the courtroom. The next morning, Atticus awakes to find such a multitude of gifts of appreciation from the poverty-stricken community that it brings tears to his eyes. (76) Though on trial for allegedly raping a woman, Tom, ultimately, is the most beneficent character of the novel. Without claim to the youthful innocence granted to child protagonists in most literature, he yet still shows more kindness to Mayella Ewell than she receives from the state, or from her own family and white neighbors. He volunteers to assist with her regular household chores, expecting nothing in return. (77) All the while, he maintains an impeccable work record, despite his physical disability, and earns praise for his work ethic even from sectors of the white citizenry. (78)
Lee juxtaposes these images with several depictions of degenerate white characters who exhibit blatant bigotry and violence. Bob Ewell, for example, is not only exceedingly racist, but is also indolent, proudly uneducated, an abusive father, and a scofflaw. In due course he reveals himself as a coward as well; he hunts deer off-season, pulls his sons from school, lives unabashedly off the government dole, and targets children as the objects of his fatal violence. (79)
But the axis of segregation is not race as a self-contained category. Rather, it is the prohibition of miscegenation. Without this restriction, the racial classification system risked being rendered meaningless. Miscegenation threatened to destabilize and ultimately render illegible what society understood as race. (80) Lee comprehends this foundational rule of racism and uses her writing to target the structures that police racial borders through gender and sexual norms. The apprehension surrounding interracial intercourse that is evidenced by Maycomb's white society (81) girds the statutory circumscription of cross-race sexual relationships for centuries.
Collette Guillaumin unmasks these operations in her work Race and Nature." The System of Marks by provocatively asking the question: What "natural group" did the children of slaves and masters fall into during the eighteenth century? (82) In answering the question, Guillaumin exposes the fallacy of presuming that the morphological "markings" of a body, the ostensible basis for race, arise from immutable inheritances or natural law. (83) Instead, she exposits that the mark of race, and therefore slavery, is relational: it did not pre-exist the social condition of enslavement. (84) Biracial children exposed the artificiality of the racialized body by falling into more than one column of the rubric at once. Thus, their destabilizing potential, rather than their physiognomy, explains their treatment. (85) Such a premise better explains the motivation behind placing children in a variant of servitude--either indentured service or slavery--regardless of their biological forbears' status. Typically, a child born to an enslaved black mother was bound because it was argued the baby's identity could not be severed from that of the maternal biology. (86) In Virginia, biracial children's legal status was derived from their mother as a matter of law. (87) If the child was born to an enslaved woman it would likewise be deemed a slave. (88) However--still invoking the rationale of maternal lineage--if the biracial child was born to a white woman, despite her independence, the offspring would be forced into indentured servitude until the age of thirty. (89) Likewise, Maryland law, although purporting to align with paternal blood, evolved to render all mixed race children slaves, even those born to white women. (90) South Carolina forced all biracial children to work as indentured servants until adulthood, even after adopting the maternal lineage rule in 1740. (91)
The precept that morphological markings of the body precede an individual's social relationships was essential for the viability of slavery as an institution and for continued subordination of African Americans under Jim Crow regimes. Aunt Alexandra's preoccupation with, and insistence on, models of heredity captures this ideology. (92) White supremacy relied heavily upon theories of hermetic reproduction and replication, physiologically closed borders between races, and distinguishing physical characteristics. (93) As Guillaumin states:
The social idea of a natural group rests on the ideological
postulation that there is a closed unit, endo-determined
[determined from within], hereditary and dissimilar to other social
units. This unit, always empirically social, is supposed to
reproduce itself and within itself. All this rests on the clever
finding that whites bear whites and blacks bear blacks, that the
former are the masters and the latter the slaves, etc. and nothing
can happen, and that nothing does happen, to trouble this
impeccable logic. The children of slaves are slaves, as we know,
while the children of slaves can also be--and often are--the
children of the master. What 'natural' group do they belong to?
Gender was therefore cardinal in maintaining the South's racial caste system. Anti-miscegenation was enforced by scripting "woman"--always white--as sexually passive and virginal in order to support the cultural mythology underlying segregation and black inferiority. As Lillian Smith unpacks:
[C]onventional white southern fears of black sexuality, which drove
the South ... superimpose[d] the semiotics of Jim Crow
upon the white female body[;] ... part[s] of [her] body are
segregated areas which [she] must stay away from and keep others
away from. These areas [she] touch[es] only when necessary. In
other words, [she] cannot associate freely with them any more than
[she] can associate freely with colored children. (95)
Reinforcing her critique, Lee conversely narrates those white characters in the novel who contest dominant conceptions of gender and sexuality as the most enlightened individuals in terms of the South's overarching race problem. A host of positive white characters reinforce Lee's argument that gender and its behaviors are socially constructed. Unlike the members of the Missionary Circle, however, these figures do not participate in the model blindly, but by appraising the process of gender assimilation and either consciously attempting to emulate it or by repudiating parts of the performance entirely. Scout, in particular, interrogates the process of achieving femaleness. Attempting to reconstitute herself as feminine, a role she finds exceedingly difficult to fulfill, (96) she watches Calpurnia cooking and "beg[ins] to think there [i]s some skill involved in being a girl." (97) Being female, Scout intuitively comprehends, is an acquired proficiency. The essentialized woman does not inevitably exist. Rather, she is an ideal--one that female children aspire to become; a stage "where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water;" (98) and "a polite fiction at the expense of human life." (99)
Likewise, the inspiration for Charles Baker Harris--better known as Dill--is known to be Harper Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote, the openly gay author of the classic In Cold Blood. (100) In the scenes when Dill's effeminacy and queerness are most pronounced, Lee reflects on the procedures of racism most explicitly. During Tom's trial, for example, Dill's protracted sobs reverberate so audibly and that Scout must escort him from the courthouse. She is tearless, despite belonging to the sex considered too "frail" to serve on Alabama juries. (101) But Dill, in a visceral response to the racism of the trial, falls physically ill. (102) His epicene behavior is a response to the degrading cross-examination that Tom had been subjected to moments earlier. Dill's nonconformity testifies to the utter wrongness of the South's behavior. Dolphus Raymond, who escapes punishment for trespassing color barriers only by feigning alcoholism, (103) remarks as Dill vomits, "[t]hings haven't caught up with that one's instinct yet. Let him get a little older ... he won't cry ... not when he gets a few years on him." (104) Mr. Raymond's insights into masculinity echo Scout's earlier musings on becoming female. It is a learned behavior. Mr. Raymond's words also serve as a warning to Dill about what assimilating into masculinity means within the contours of southern social codes: losing part of his humanity.
Almost immediately, the costs of his increasing acculturation become evident as Dill moves to erase his effeminacy by expunging his race consciousness. "'Cry about what, Mr. Raymond?' Dill's maleness was beginning to assert itself." (105) Scout's observation speaks on two levels. In one sense, the essence of masculinity is exposed. Maleness, like femaleness, is not a natural state but is rather an institution into which children are recruited. At the same time, Scout's prognostications elucidate the ways in which race is marginalized upon entry into the sphere of the quintessential male who, like the female, is always white in the southern imagination. To acquire admission, boys must revisit their relationship with inequality, become inured to the violence of racism, and make whiteness the universal experience--the same way in which whiteness serves as the focal point of femininity.
Representations of Atticus--his age, eyesight, profession, mannerisms and hobbies (106)--function to undermine assumptions about straight maleness by associating his self-aware aberrance from masculine norms with more noble racial aspirations, against the backdrop of a hostile racial climate. Lee writes:
Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty.... Our father didn't do
anything. He worked in an office, not a drugstore. Atticus did not
drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did
not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possibly
arouse admiration of anyone. Besides that, he wore glasses ... he
never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or
smoke. He sat in the livingroom and read. (107)
As with Dill, it is in the scenes where Atticus loses or rejects his claims to heteronormative maleness that masculinity is most lucidly stripped down to structural violence by whites and systemic subordination of blacks. When Atticus's eyes "fill with tears" it is in response to the generosity of Maycomb's African American community, (108) despite contrary perceptions of them among the white citizens of Maycomb as "dissatisfied," "sulky," unintelligent, and living in "sin and squalor." (109) Later, when the citizens of Maycomb attempt to lynch Tom, Atticus suffers an almost maternal "flash of plain fear" and "trembling" for his imperiled children. (110) In bare contrast, at the same moment, the white residents of Old Suram who comprise the lynch mob are represented, at least initially, as homicidal, dishonest, threatening to youth, "cold-natured," and "sullen-looking." (111)
Through the repeated collocation of hyper-masculinity with problematic racial politics, Lee succeeds in demonstrating the mutual influence these phenomena have on each other. She uses an analogous technique in associating femininity with racism through the women of the Missionary Circle. But, it is also important to note that Lee's gender narratives are not always as monolithic as they might seem at first glance. By presenting inconsistencies, she illustrates the malleability of identity and thus allows for the possibility of a changed future--an impossible trajectory without recognition of the potential for human agency, consciousness, and capacity for transformation. Thus, there are instances when her characters transgress the tropes originally assigned to them. Atticus, for example, clearly harbors certain skills classically associated with masculine identity. This is demonstrated by his single-shot confrontation with the rabid dog, Tim Johnson--a feat so impressive that even the county sheriff defers to Atticus's skill. (112) As Miss Maudie tells it, "Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time.... His nickname was Ol' One-Shot ... If he shot fifteen times and hit fourteen doves he'd complain about wasting ammunition." (113) Similarly, Mrs. Dubose functions as another such exemplar, frustrating her own gender normative and sexuality normative rhetoric with her markedly unladylike qualities. Before her death, Mrs. Dubose is vindictive, vicious, uncharacteristically loud, dishonest, and belligerent. (114) Unlike the women of the Missionary Circle, she is not graceful or beautiful. After rebuking Scout for her undesirable trajectory in life, she "put her hand to her mouth. When she drew it away, it trailed a long silver thread of saliva." (115) Descriptions of Mrs. Dubose are often grotesque, itemizing her monstrosity; Mrs. Dubose had a face
the color of a dirty pillowcase[;] ... her mouth glistened wet ....
Old-age liver spots dotted her cheeks and her pale eyes had black
pinpoint pupils[;] ... cuticles were grown up over her fingernails.
Her bottom plate was not in, and her upper lip protruded[;] ... she
would draw her nether lip to her upper plate.... This made the wet
move faster. (116)
The incongruities between these characters and the idealized norms of the time delineate the lapses between personal experience and institutional agendas. In so doing, Lee's imagery outlines a space for reconstituting gender through the very act of making visible its performative disposition. Further, by illustrating the traumatic psychological, economic, and emotional toll exacted from the characters, who despite their best efforts fail to satisfy institutional dictates, Lee illuminates the assiduous efforts undertaken by society in maintaining the legitimacy of governing gender norms. Atticus compliments Mrs. Dubose, "Good Evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening." (117) The praise observes that femaleness is always about visage--it is about being a picture, an image which is widely propagated, internalized, and believed. Between the elaborate artifice of the women of the Circle, Atticus, and Mrs. Dubose's inconsistent performances, Lee illuminates the disjuncture between individual and ideology. Yet simultaneously, Mrs. Dubose's victory over drug addiction just prior to her death fulfills Lee's second ambition--to prove the existence of free will and the potential for positive change within even the most entrenched players.
Due to Lee's understanding of gender as a schooling normative force in the structures of racism, it is unsurprising that few of her characters fulfill the criteria of successful gender performance. Mrs. Dubose's alienation, drug addiction, and ninety-eight pound flame prove unequivocally that when characters involuntarily fail to conform, the price exacted is a heavy one. (118) Through punitive cultural censure, the strict hierarchies and power arrangements are achieved and maintained. But there is no better representative of the dangers of failure than Mayella Ewell who, in Kathryn Lee Seidel's words, embodies the "destructiveness of the belle gone wild." (119)
Mayella Ewell serves as the focal point of the southern rape complex in the novel both because of her gender and, crucially, because of the control exercised over her sexuality by law, culture--even her own father--in part for racist purposes. White society has utterly abandoned the Ewells in all other aspects, especially Mayella, who despite her attempts to assimilate into it--her red geraniums, efforts at cleanliness, literacy, and desire for intimacy--is not permitted entrance. (120) The Ewell men ostensibly fail even to try: the truancy police require but a single day of schooling for the children, none of whom are functionally literate (with the exception of Mayella). (121) The family lives surrounded by dirt and trash near the community dump, closer in physical location to the black citizens of Maycomb than to the white ones--living, even, in a house once occupied by a black owner. (122) Lee depicts the Ewells as choosing this state with the ambiguous exception of Mayella. She portrays them as indolent, black hearted, and dishonest (123)--wards of the state who revel in their circumstances and who harbor no intent or desire to change it. (124) They are blamed for their own inhumane conditions a refrain common in today's contemporary discourse on poverty; (125) the family is forgotten, reviled, and distanced until the white community requires a temporarily alliance in the face of racial integration.
Mayella is, for this reason, partially identified with Boo Radley, the mysterious secondary protagonist of the novel. Both characters exist on the fringes of society. Mayella is marginalized both because she desires--but fails--to realize southern standards of femininity and because of her family's poverty, the latter being a status that her racial peer group deems deserved and thus a sufficient excuse and justification for ostracizing her. In contrast, Boo is a voluntary outcast, understanding the brutality of assimilation and wishing not to conform to the predominant social directives, and choosing instead to remain secluded at the closing of the novel. Boo aspires only to reclusiveness. "Will you take me home?" he asks Scout, "in the voice of a child afraid of the dark." (126) He enters his house, closing the door behind him, and Scout "never [sees] him again." (127) In his brief, violent exchange with the outside world, Boo fatally stabs Bob Ewell in order to defend the Finch children. He then self-consciously touches Jem's head as the boy lies injured and unconscious, a gesture that appreciates the innocence of youth and its inevitable violent loss. (128) Immediately thereafter he returns to his own psychological (and physical) ambit, never to emerge again. By linking Boo and Mayella in their relationship to society, Lee questions the role of violence and sexuality in the maintenance of racial subordination, positioning sex as integral to gender and racial personality. Both characters share a similar past: they enter the story as hyper-sexualized, aggressive incarnations of their respective genders. Maycomb speculates that Boo, falling in with a "bad" crowd, stabbed his father in rebellion against the discipline the patriarch represented and in the youth's attempt to gain independence and ascendancy. (129) Mayella, despite clutching to racism, still proves willing to miscegenate in order to satisfy her desire for sexual intimacy. Moreover, she is the character in the book depicted as most overtly sexual and least benignly domestic. Both Boo and Mayella are consequently punished through the mechanism of exclusion from the community; Boo is physically confined to his home, while Mayella is socially ostracized.
Because of his maleness, Boo's hermitic existence functions differently. He cannot be dominated by his father male sentry as completely as Mayella can by hers. His confinement emasculates and asexualizes him, penalizing him for his youthful offenses, but it also facilitates his redemption by distancing him from the degrading racial politics of the era. The threat of his masculinity now eviscerated, it is Boo who ultimately kills Bob Ewell, even though both are white, because Boo retains a degree of autonomy and self-control by divorcing himself from the requirements of his gender--and consequently of his race. Conversely, Mayella is trapped because she does not want to estrange herself from her gender. Lee reveals how Mayella's gender facilitates her sexual exploitation as she is abandoned to incestuous sexual violence while trapped, like Boo, in the private, familial sphere--the traditional realm of male authority. Her acculturation thus takes a very different path from Boo's and eventually culminates in the false rape claim she levies against Tom.
The constructions of gender--both masculine and feminine--which Lee critiques are reflective not only of race but also of the enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality and female sexual subordination. As the theory of intersectionality predicts, sexual behavior plays a prominent role in molding other social classifications and is itself a manifestation of ideological forces, completely divorced from any claims to natural inclination. Lee's narratives of heterosexual intimacy are either violent and repulsive or are completely absent where they might otherwise be represented positively. This sexual landscape not only implicates configurations of gender and race, but also insinuates that law, a central force in
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