The protagonist and narrator, Scout Finch, is a young girl who does not conform to the gender stereotypes of her time. In this patriarchal society, women are traditionally associated with looking their best to please men, being submissive and maintaining the domestic sphere.
As the novel begins, we understand that in Scout’s mind, girls can’t play boy’s games, cannot use foul language, and in general must be uptight and extremely careful about how they act at all times.
According to Scout, ‘Maycomb is a place where ‘ladies’ bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.’
Scout is having a difficult time conforming to the rules of the social decorum prescribed for ‘ladies’ in Maycomb.
Aunt Alexandra works tirelessly to help her make the leap from tomboy to a woman. Scout resists. Aunt Alexandra would prefer that Scout play with small stoves and tea sets, however, Scout puts up a fight every step of the way. Aunt Alexandra has moved in because, she says, ‘We decided it best for you to have some feminine influence.’
Atticus is fine with Scout being who she is, even if it means dressing in overalls and acting like a tomboy. He seems to hold the minority opinion. Their neighbour, Mrs Dubose, for example, makes her displeasure known. ‘What are you doing in those overalls? You should be in a dress and camisole, young lady!’
Harper Lee brings gender roles for young girls to light, providing voices on both sides of the argument. Atticus Finch believes she should be free to choose her path in life and that it will all work out as it should. Others in the town have different opinions and think that Scout should be forced to take on the gender role assigned to her.
The white ladies of Maycomb are seen as shallow and incapable of relating to what is happening to the black women in the town during Tom’s trial. When the women gather at the Finches for the Missionary Meeting, they are able to open their hearts for the needs of people halfway around the world, but they can’t see the needs of the black community. They show their true colors when they expect their black servants to carry on and be strong, in spite of the fact that Tom is put to death.
After hearing Mrs. Dubose call their father trash for defending Tom Robinson, Jem tore up her camellia bushes in anger. There was no getting past Atticus, and when he asked why he did it, Jem told him what she said. In Chapter 11, Scout and Jem question their father’s decision to defend Tom Robinson saying that most white people who are upset think they are right and Atticus is wrong. Atticus’ response is simple: he has to live with his decisions before he can care about what others think. Even if it is difficult or different than what others would do, Atticus has to be true to himself. He explains to Scout and Jem, They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
Jem’s punishment is that he must go over to Mrs. Dubose’s house and read to her every afternoon. After a month, Mrs. Dubose passes away and Atticus explains to Jem that she was addicted to morphine. She knew she was going to die and didn’t want to be addicted to anything when she died. The time Jem read to her was the time she was weaning herself off of the morphine. Although she may have had completely different views than Atticus, she showed such bravery in the way she wanted to leave this world, free of anything holding her back. This is what Atticus wanted Jem to learn from spending time with her. In Chapter 11, Atticus says to Jem, I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
After a guilty verdict is delivered, Jem and Scout’s visions of truth and justice are shattered. Jem cannot understand why the world would be so unfair. In Chapter 22, Miss Maudie invites Jem and Scout over for some cake and sees how upset Jem is. She tells Jem that although it seems unfair, brave people were put on this earth to help make other people see the truth, though it takes time. Atticus is one of these brave people. She explains, There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.