Walking in Another’s Skin: Failure of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird

The money quote: “In this essay, I argue that To Kill a Mockingbird fails to aptly demonstrate the practice of cross-radal empathy. As a consequence, readers cannot empathize with the (largely silent) black characters of the novel.”

Empathy–how it is discussed and deployed by both the characters in Mockingbird and by the author, Lee–is a useful lens to view the depictions of radal injustice in Mockingbird, because empathy is the moral fulcrum on which the narrative turns. In fact, each moment of tension in the book is driven by attempts to practice empathy: ]em’s relationship with the dying Mrs. Dubose. the late-night confrontation at the jail in which Scout forces the group to empathize with Atticus (if not with Tom), and even the moment when Atticus shoots the rabid dog and mourns the passing of the sick animal. In particular, empathy across racial lines, poses a challenge to the judge and jury in Tom’s case. The scenes in and around the courtroom best reveal the power that empathy holds over us as individuals and as a society. All citizens implicitly endorse our legal system and believe that it acts on our behalf. Since this system sends some individuals to prison and others to their death, it follows that we must take responsibility for these punishmenrs. Developing this sense of responsibility, I believe, is a central message of Lee’s novel. In this essay, I argue that To Kill a Mockingbird fails to aptly demonstrate the practice of cross-radal empathy. As a consequence, readers cannot empathize with the (largely silent) black characters of the novel. –Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: New Essays