PENGUIN BRIEF: RESEARCH

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family, her neighbours and an event that occurred near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

The novel is renowned for its warmth and humour, despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers.

he novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers.

The primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence.
Lee also issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South.

The story takes place during period of the Great Depression in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, the seat of Maycomb County. It focuses on six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), who lives with her older brother, Jeremy (nicknamed Jem), and their widowed father, Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer. Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Dill, who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt each summer. The three children are terrified yet fascinated by their neighbor, the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley. The adults of Maycomb are hesitant to talk about Boo, and few of them have seen him for many years. The children feed one another’s imagination with rumors about his appearance and reasons for remaining hidden, and they fantasize about how to get him out of his house. After two summers of friendship with Dill, Scout and Jem find that someone leaves them small gifts in a tree outside the Radley place. Several times the mysterious Boo makes gestures of affection to the children, but, to their disappointment, he never appears in person.
Judge Taylor appoints Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. Although many of Maycomb’s citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend Tom to the best of his ability. Other children taunt Jem and Scout for Atticus’s actions, calling him a “nigger-lover”. Scout is tempted to stand up for her father’s honor by fighting, even though he has told her not to. Atticus faces a group of men intent on lynching Tom. This danger is averted when Scout, Jem, and Dill shame the mob into dispersing by forcing them to view the situation from Atticus’ and Tom’s perspective.
Atticus does not want Jem and Scout to be present at Tom Robinson’s trial. No seat is available on the main floor, so by invitation of the Rev. Sykes, Jem, Scout, and Dill watch from the colored balcony. Atticus establishes that the accusers—Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, the town drunk—are lying. It also becomes clear that the friendless Mayella made sexual advances toward Tom, and that her father caught her and beat her. Despite significant evidence of Tom’s innocence, the jury convicts him. Jem’s faith in justice becomes badly shaken, as is Atticus’, when the hapless Tom is shot and killed while trying to escape from prison.
Despite Tom’s conviction, Bob Ewell is humiliated by the events of the trial, Atticus explaining that he “destroyed [Ewell’s] last shred of credibility at that trial.”Ewell vows revenge, spitting in Atticus’ face, trying to break into the judge’s house, and menacing Tom Robinson’s widow. Finally, he attacks the defenseless Jem and Scout while they walk home on a dark night after the school Halloween pageant. Jem suffers a broken arm in the struggle, but amid the confusion someone comes to the children’s rescue. The mysterious man carries Jem home, where Scout realizes that he is Boo Radley.
Sheriff Tate arrives and discovers that Bob Ewell has died during the fight. The sheriff argues with Atticus about the prudence and ethics of charging Jem (whom Atticus believes to be responsible) or Boo (whom Tate believes to be responsible). Atticus eventually accepts the sheriff’s story that Ewell simply fell on his own knife. Boo asks Scout to walk him home, and after she says goodbye to him at his front door he disappears again. While standing on the Radley porch, Scout imagines life from Boo’s perspective, and regrets that they had never repaid him for the gifts he had given them.
Scout then goes back home to Atticus and stays up with him for a while in Jem’s room. Soon Atticus takes her to bed and tucks her in, before leaving to go back to Jem.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes

The Coexistence of Good and Evil

The most important theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is the book’s exploration of the moral nature of human beings—that is, whether people are essentially good or essentially evil. The novel approaches this question by dramatizing Scout and Jem’s transition from a perspective of childhood innocence, in which they assume that people are good because they have never seen evil, to a more adult perspective, in which they have confronted evil and must incorporate it into their understanding of the world. As a result of this portrayal of the transition from innocence to experience, one of the book’s important subthemes involves the threat that hatred, prejudice, and ignorance pose to the innocent: people such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are not prepared for the evil that they encounter, and, as a result, they are destroyed. Even Jem is victimized to an extent by his discovery of the evil of racism during and after the trial. Whereas Scout is able to maintain her basic faith in human nature despite Tom’s conviction, Jem’s faith in justice and in humanity is badly damaged, and he retreats into a state of disillusionment.

The moral voice of To Kill a Mockingbird is embodied by Atticus Finch, who is virtually unique in the novel in that he has experienced and understood evil without losing his faith in the human capacity for goodness. Atticus understands that, rather than being simply creatures of good or creatures of evil, most people have both good and bad qualities. The important thing is to appreciate the good qualities and understand the bad qualities by treating others with sympathy and trying to see life from their perspective. He tries to teach this ultimate moral lesson to Jem and Scout to show them that it is possible to live with conscience without losing hope or becoming cynical. In this way, Atticus is able to admire Mrs. Dubose’s courage even while deploring her racism. Scout’s progress as a character in the novel is defined by her gradual development toward understanding Atticus’s lessons, culminating when, in the final chapters, Scout at last sees Boo Radley as a human being. Her newfound ability to view the world from his perspective ensures that she will not become jaded as she loses her innocence.

 

The Importance of Moral Education

Because exploration of the novel’s larger moral questions takes place within the perspective of children, the education of children is necessarily involved in the development of all of the novel’s themes. In a sense, the plot of the story charts Scout’s moral education, and the theme of how children are educated—how they are taught to move from innocence to adulthood—recurs throughout the novel (at the end of the book, Scout even says that she has learned practically everything except algebra). This theme is explored most powerfully through the relationship between Atticus and his children, as he devotes himself to instilling a social conscience in Jem and Scout. The scenes at school provide a direct counterpoint to Atticus’s effective education of his children: Scout is frequently confronted with teachers who are either frustratingly unsympathetic to children’s needs or morally hypocritical. As is true of To Kill a Mockingbird’s other moral themes, the novel’s conclusion about education is that the most important lessons are those of sympathy and understanding, and that a sympathetic, understanding approach is the best way to teach these lessons. In this way, Atticus’s ability to put himself in his children’s shoes makes him an excellent teacher, while Miss Caroline’s rigid commitment to the educational techniques that she learned in college makes her ineffective and even dangerous.

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