Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a highly regarded work of American fiction. The story of the novel teaches us many lessons that should last any reader for a lifetime. The messages that Harper Lee relays to the reader are exemplified throughout the book using various methods. One of the most important and significant methods was the use of symbols such as the mockingbird image. Another important method was showing the view through a growing child’s (Scout Finch) mind, eyes, ears, and mouth. There is another very significant method that was used. In the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee utilizes the effects of irony, sarcasm, and hypocrisy to criticize a variety of elements in Southern life.
Harper Lee employs the effects of irony in To Kill a Mockingbird as a way to criticize the deficiency of public education. “Now tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind.” (pG. 22) Instead of praising Scout’s ability to read at an advanced level, Miss Caroline discourages it. This ironic example set by Miss Caroline seems to demonstrate the inadequate training that she had received for her occupation. Miss Caroline seems to have been instructed upon a strict standard on how her students are expected to behave, but when she encounters something different, such as Scout’s advanced ability to read, she advises Scout to stop being advanced, whereas a modern-day schoolteacher would capitalize on Scout’s ability to read and encourage her to read more. “You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.” (pg. 23) The strict, recipe-style, rubric method of teaching that Miss Caroline uses is once again emphasized here. Miss Caroline once again discourages Scout’s advanced abilities and regards Scout’s ability with contempt. “The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us which were printed ‘the,’ ‘cat,’ ‘rat,’ ‘man,’ and ‘you.'” (pg. 23) The Dewey Teaching Method was supposed to place an emphasis on “active” learning, yet the irony in Miss Caroline’s “use” of it was that her teaching method wasn’t “active” at all. It was, in fact, extremely passive. The students in the class didn’t do anything. They became extremely bored and learned very little. As I have established, the use of irony clearly reveals the deficiency of the public education system in the 1930’s. Teachers did not seem to be trained enough to handle the vast abilities of their students. Instead, they seemed to be trained to handle a narrowly confined amount of expected abilities. If Miss Caroline had recognized that Scout had advanced abilities, she could have allowed Scout to advance to a higher grade and save Scout from going through a school year that teaches her stuff that she has already learned. Public education is not the only element that Harper Lee uses irony to criticize, however. American political attitudes are also criticized using irony.
Harper Lee also uses sarcasm to criticize the American political attitudes that were clearly evident in the South. “(When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.)” (pg. 21) By listening to their parents and other adults, the young children of Maycomb have grown to despise Winston County for the same reason the adults despise it because it seceded from Alabama in 1861. It would seem pretty idiotic to most people to despise people based upon what their ancestors had done 70 years ago. “North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.” (pg. 21) Overheard from adults, most likely, Scout’s thoughts reflect the beliefs of a majority of the people in Maycomb. The political attitudes in the provincial South are criticized as the people seem to want to stick to their old ideas and beliefs. Evolving new ideas and beliefs are systematically rejected; anybody that adapts the new ideas are regarded as having “no background.” “People up there set ’em free, but you don’t see ’em settin’ at the table with ’em I think that woman, that Mrs. Roosevelt’s lost her mind-just plain lost her mind coming down to Birmingham and tryin’ to sit with ’em.” (pg. 237) The outright hypocrisy that Mrs. Merriweather states when referring to the North is one of the main elements that Harper Lee employs in criticizing the South’s political attitudes. There seems to be nothing that satisfies Mrs. Merriweather, who reflects the stereotypical southern woman-she despises the North no matter what they do up there. As is clearly evident, the use of irony, sarcasm, and hypocrisy proved to be a highly effective tool in criticizing American political attitudes in the South. Through the uses of irony, sarcasm, and hypocrisy, Harper Lee implies that a majority of the people in the South are close-minded upon their political views, never-changing and strictly one-sided. The use of irony and hypocrisy is most importantly used, however, upon the criticism of unjustified discrimination.
Unjustified discrimination, undoubtedly on of the main, key concepts of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a large element in which Harper Lee employs the effects of irony, sarcasm, and hypocrisy in criticizing it. “He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham-” (pg. 29) This is one of the first times in which Scout Finch encounters unjustified discrimination, and sadly, she fails to recognize it. When everybody invited to one’s house should be considered “company,” Scout redefines it as “people more important than a Cunningham.” Although she is at a rather young age, she already regards people as socially inferior. Mrs. Merriweather spent an afternoon at the Missionary Circle complaining about the plight of the poor Mrunas in Africa, but just a few moments later, she states, “Might’ve looked like the right thing to do at the time, I’m sure. I don’t know, I’m not read in that field, but sulkydissatisfied I tell you if my Sophy’d kept it up another day I’d have let her go.” (pg. 235) It is amazing that Mrs. Merriweather does not recognize her seemingly straightforward hypocrisy. Just a short while ago, she was complaining about the poor Mrunas in Africa not receiving enough help, then she does a complete turn-around and complains about Atticus Finch helping out the blacks in Maycomb. The use of Mrs. Merriweather’s hypocrisy greatly helps in Harper Lee’s denouncement and criticism of unjustified discrimination. “Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home.” (pg. 249-250) Scout had already heard Miss Gates say that it was “time somebody taught ’em (the blacks) a lesson.” Miss Gates is so engulfed in the myth of white superiority that she does not even remotely recognize her hypocrisy when she denounces Hitler and says that persecuting anybody is wrong. Apparently in Miss Gate’s case, blacks aren’t “anybody.” By having Scout ask that curious question to Jem, it is then implied that Scout is still young, she has not yet been effected by the myth of white superiority. She still has the ability to reason out the hypocrisy in Miss Gates, while Miss Gates does not see the hypocrisy herself. Harper Lee uses irony and hypocrisy to show how the people of Maycomb are so engulfed in a variety of elements that they unknowingly complete acts of unjustified discrimination. Scout Finch was so caught up in small town provincialism that she regarded a Cunningham as socially inferior. Mrs. Merriweather and Miss Gates were so entirely engulfed in the myth of white superiority that they don’t realize their hypocrisy when they state it. The use of irony and hypocrisy was exceptionally used well to criticize the facets of unjustified discrimination.
The effects that irony, sarcasm, and hypocrisy inhibit upon the readers’ mind is presumably the reason that Harper Lee employed them to criticize the various elements of life in Maycomb. It is one of the reasons that make To Kill a Mockingbird such an exceptional piece of literature. Just by itself, the employment of irony and sarcasm is great, but not that great. When combined with a wonderful and meaningful storyline, the use of symbols, and the various other concepts throughout the book, they combine to leave impressive ingredients in a magnificent recipe. Those are the reasons that make Harper Lee’s novel such an impressive novel.