Marx and Conflict in Maycomb County

In high school, when reading To Kill a Mockingbird was a requirement, I had paid no attention to one of the most prominent inhabitants of Maycomb County. In my defense, the name Karl Marx was never eluded to nor included as an actual character in the novel. Nonetheless, he had been there the whole time. And so, with Marx in mind, I thought I would examine Maycomb with a true Marxist fashion and take interest in class conflict.

In analyzing Maycomb County from a conflict perspective, it is important to take note of its aspects. In short, the conflict perspective is the idea that there is a conflict over limited resources, the control of those resources, and the power held by those that have control over the resources. The most obvious example of Marx’s theory pertains to the economic distribution within Maycomb County. In this situation, the people who hold the power are those like Scout’s Aunt Alexandra, Scout’s father Atticus Finch, and Lync Deas. Aunt Alexandra and Lync Deas hold power in this society because they own plantations and in turn, the means of production. Atticus also holds power and means of production, though on a smaller scale, since he employs Calpurnia as a live in maid. These people that have the means to do so, provide jobs for people in the working classes and then the work done is turned into the resources which the employers hold. This may represent the economic distribution in Maycomb in relation to Marx’s conflict theory, but there are other ways power is held.

There are a couple examples of other groups coming to possess and use power over others and how power is maintained in To Kill a Mockingbird. These examples are in reference to race and gender socialization. In the novel, Atticus keeps watch over an African American man, Tom Robinson, who is in jail prior to his trial, when a group from the working class come to harm Mr. Robinson. They tell Atticus to step aside and in the meanwhile Dill, Scout, and their friend Dill come to their father’s aid. At first the power held is from a concept of race. The social structure in the community of Maycomb is in part determined by the social construct of race. Since everyone in the group that show up to harm Tom are white, they hold power over him. In this instance, the conflict perspective would recognize those lacking a higher concentration of melanin in their skin as people in power, as well as the people in control of the resources seeing that the resource is the color of one’s skin. However, when Scout steps up and Atticus assists her, the people in power change. Now the power held is social rank in terms of class and persuasion abilities. Scout is able to empathize with Walter Sr. and strip away his power because the resource is no longer the color of one’s skin. Instead, the resource is economic class rank and an ability to persuade others with good speaking skills and a heightened vocabulary (in terms of Atticus).

An additional example is power in terms of gender socialization. In much of the novel, we see how Scout is more of a tomboy and enjoys participating in activities socially acceptable for boys to do. This power is neither economical nor racial, but rather in terms of gender. The times when Scout is able to wear the overalls she likes to adorn and participate in the same activities as boys, she holds more power. However, we see a change in Scout’s hold of power when Alexandra forces more socially acceptable gender roles onto Scout. For example, Aunt Alexandra encourages Scout to act like a lady which, in their society and many others, means she should wear dresses and not ‘play in the mud’. This act of encouraging Scout to act in a more socially acceptable way takes away the power Scout held at times when she wore her overalls and played with the boys as just ‘one of the boys’. And although she has more power when she dresses how she likes, I do recognize that even by being a girl she will not have the same power as either her brother or friend Dill at many times, she still has a significant amount more power when she breaks social norms and, in turn is not as hindered by gender socialization.

One last connection I want to address with Maycomb County and its most prominent inhabitant is that of dialectical materialism. After making the connection between Maycomb County’s economic system and the conflict perspective, I was then able to make another connection of their economy and how it fits into Marx’s idea that a person’s social existence determines his consciousness. Like previously discussed, people like Aunt Alexandra and Lync Deas hold a great deal of power in this society because they hold the means of production. They own the plantations where resources like cotton and tobacco are produced. The mode of production in Maycomb gives rise to the political arrangements and even then the ideology of the society. The social relationships in Maycomb as well as their ideology, in my opinion, revolve heavily on race and your ranking in social class.

In closings, after reflecting back on my latest reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was able to identify not only a new, unmentioned, character in a book written fifty-six years ago, but also see the roles in which the conflict perspective and dialectical materialism play within Maycomb County.


-Madeline Baumeister


3 thoughts on “Marx and Conflict in Maycomb County

  1. I like how you applied concepts of race and gender to conflict and Marx theory. There was a power shift that occurred like in Marxist theory when conflict needed to happen in order to create change. The relationship to the economy and production with To Kill A Mockingbird was more evident but you did well in addressing other points aside from the most obvious ones.

  2. I enjoyed how you were able to make connections from such a beloved story to the ideas and views of Marx theory. I liked how you were able to pick out the not so obvious conflicts within the story which has made myself rethink the events that occurred in To Kill A Mockingbird. By looking at To Kill A Mockingbird from different views you were able to understand the dynamics of the story more clearly. Good connects to our theory classes, this helped to explain Marx in a different way.

  3. Still, did Marx actually consider race to be an issue? Not so much – it was not part of his lived experience. There’s been an on-going debate about whether to interpret hierarchical societies in terms of class or race. Lots of people argue that race is just a mystification of class; others argue that race stereotyping and racial categories have their own processes. I do like this analysis of Macomb County in terms of class. Then we can ask – how did someone like Scout’s father come to NOT represent the interests of his own class?

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