To Kill a Mockingbird is about two deeply disturbing subjects: r-a-p-e and racism. Lee addresses both subjects with grave sensitivity. The details regarding Mayella Ewell’s alleged rape come to light during the trial scenes, with Atticus gently guiding the proceedings. Although these details are not explicitly described, there is the suggestion of incest-that Bob Ewell not only beat his daughter but raped her as well. Since the story is being filtered through Scout, all of this information is related subtly and succinctly.
The novel also reflects the reality of racism in segregated southern towns in the 1930s, some thirty years before the civil rights movement. Blacks are commonly referred to as “niggers” and are considered below the law. Many members of the white society feel justified in inflicting their own form of justice on blacks, particularly on those, such as Robinson, whom they believe have violated racist sexual taboos. By confessing his sympathy for Mayella, Tom Robinson-a black man who has the gall to feel sorry for a white woman-offends the ignorant bigots of the town. A mob of townspeople gather at the jail in hopes of pulling Robinson from his cell and lynching him.
In her measured, deliberate style, Lee exposes the ugliness of this racist society and holds Atticus up as an example of enlightenment and compassion. Still, her comparison of Tom Robinson to a mockingbird, a harmless bird described as existing “only to sing his heart out for us,” may strike some readers as patronizing and somewhat racist, for it reinforces the notion of the black man’s role as servant, and does not allow for the intellectual equality of blacks.