The central issue in the play by Christopher Sergel, which is based on the text by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, is that of injustice, especially as it is connected to intolerance. In the case of this play, the sense of injustice that many of the main characters feel is based on their observations of the hypocrisy in their community and the overt racism that overrides their sense of moral judgment.
While on the one hand characters in the Finch family represent moral and just decision making (this is best exemplified by Atticus–full character analysis of Atticus here) some of the characters in the town of Maycomb represent exactly the opposite; they are narrow-minded and unable to see past the cemented social structure in the town that is highly based on race (like so many other great American novels) and, to a lesser extent, economic class status. What the representation of this struggle with blatant injustice suggests is that fighting for what is right and just is difficult. However, by setting the example and rising above negative aspects that dominate one’s community (or society in general) a resolution to the conflict between justice and its opposite can begin to emerge.
The characters who are most concerned with the racial inequality in the town are, for the most part, people who are in or are already close to the Finch family. Scout and Jem in particular have the most difficult time reconciling what they perceive to be the intolerance and general meanness of their community when it comes to issues of race. This harsh and intensely defensive reaction from their community against what they see to be defense of people unworthy of justice intensifies with Atticus’ representation of Tom Robinson. This trial and its aftermath subjects the children to insults that range from the threatening, to the vulgar (the use of nigger) to the shaming, such as when a young boy tells Scout that “everyone says your daddy’s a disgrace!" (9). Even some of the adult townspeople such as Mrs. Dubose throw insults at the children. In her case, Jem is so angry that he destroys her flowers because she said his father “lawed for niggers" (39). There seems to be no standard of moral behavior when it comes to the issue of racial intolerance and through the dialogue, it appears that Maycomb is the very picture of Southern civility until race emerges as an issue and then the division in the community is glaringly apparent.
In many ways, the children are affected by the dominant issue of injustice in two important ways. First, they are, as already stated, the target of verbal and other attacks from their peers as well as adults in their community. They are forced to live outside of their mainstream society because of their father’s (and as the play goes on, their own) strong convictions and commitment to justice. Secondly, the children are affected because through their father’s place at the center of a heated trial, they are drawn into the complexity of choosing between what is just and their community. They are, at a very young age, forced to confront some incredibly complex questions about hypocrisy and intolerance and thus are forced to grow up rather quickly in this sense. The Finch children find themselves isolated in their community more generally, but have developed close bonds with the black community through Calpurnia, for instance and with a few others who are also in many ways on the fringe, such as the young Dill. While their father has a great moral influence on the children and they are far more independent than their peers, this is not always an easy position for them to be in, although by the end they come to see the value of social justice and standing up for what is right.
In terms of how characters are affected by the overwhelming injustice in the play, especially as it relates to the trial of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch is the most composed and steady in his response and while he is affected by the apparent lack of justice, the fact that the unjust outcome of the trial only shows there is not any real justice when race is concerned. “Heck, that boy might go to the chair, but he’s not going till the truth’s told" (43) he says, knowing rather well that no matter how convincing the evidence, there will be only a slim chance of an acquittal. For Atticus, the point of the trial is not necessarily to clear Tom Robinson of the charges since it is almost a guarantee that the all-white jury (a representation of particular injustice in practice) will convict him—it is to make a point. This character trait that Atticus possesses is at the heart of the play and emerges in the dialogue when Atticus tells Jem as they observe Bob Ewell, “Courage isn’t a man with a knife in his hand—it’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win—but sometimes you do" (93). In other words, what he is telling his son is that while winning is always a fortunate occurrence, it is having the courage to undertake something great and challenging that is the most important. Atticus manifests this philosophy throughout the novel and even though he is criticized by many of the townspeople, he still remains an upstanding citizen and someone who manages to set an example apart from the cycle of intolerance and hatred in Maycomb.
Clearly, the solution to the problem of injustice in the fictional town of Maycomb is for people to think like Atticus and take his lead and become independent thinkers who consider what life is like outside of their own small world. As a man committed to representing every viewpoint and one who is dedicated to fairness and justice, regardless of color or status, Atticus seems more concerned with setting an example than anything and encourages others to do the same. For example, while Atticus is talking about the children’s morbid curiosity about Boo Radley, Atticus tells them, “You see, you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" (21). While this certainly applies to the context of their conversation about the man who never leaves his house, this is an important quote in the play because it symbolizes part of what makes Atticus and, because of their father’s teachings, drastically different than others in Maycomb. Unlike many of the racist members of the community, Atticus is willing to step outside the norm and create a new standard by seeing things from more than one perspective. As a man representing the law, this ability makes him the character most committed to justice, even though there are times he knows that there will be no justice in earnest.
With all of these complex issues at play, it almost becomes easy to lose sight of the meaning of the title, especially as it relates to the theme of injustice. As Miss Maudie states in Act I, “Mockingbirds just make music. They don’t eat up people’s gardens; don’t nest in corncribs; they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird" (8). The mockingbirds are a metaphor for the black community in Maycomb (in terms of their status as being undesired, even though they are causing no harm) and more specifically, for the persecution of a man like Tom Robinson. He never had any desire to harm anyone and by feeling compassion for another person– by feeling sorry for her (which ended up being his worst mistake; at least in saying it out loud) and allowing his heart to “sing" with human kindness, he made an unwitting decision to help Mayella, never harming her and never knowing what was coming.
Killing Tom Robinson, like killing a mockingbird, should be seen as a sin within the context of the play, not only because he was clearly wrongfully convicted and fatally wounded, but because he was a harmless creature, just as harmless as Boo Radley. The problem is, in the town of Maycomb, many people were unwilling to see African Americans as human beings with rights and complexity and in this lies an ever greater and more wide-spread injustice. The play ends with the idea that although there is certainly a fair amount of hatred, intolerance, and above all, extreme injustice, by rising above it and standing up for what is right (even though it can come with threats and danger, either social or physical) this sets the standard and with enough people doing the same, can end the kind of injustice that is one of the most dominant themes in the play.