#6 To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbirdis a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was instantly successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.
The 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. One critic explains the novel’s impact by writing, “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.”
As a Southern Gothic novel and a Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Scholars have noted that Lee also addresses issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South. The book is widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice. Despite its themes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been subject to campaigns for removal from public classrooms, often challenged for its use of racial epithets. Scholars also note the black characters in the novel are not fully explored, and some black readers receive it ambivalently, although it has an often profound effect on many white readers.
Reception to the novel varied widely upon publication. Literary analysis of it is considerably sparse compared to the number of copies sold and its use in education. Author Mary McDonough Murphy, who collected individual impressions of the book by several authors and public figures, calls To Kill a Mockingbird “an astonishing phenomenon”. In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one “every adult should read before they die”. It was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. Since 1990, a play based on the novel has been performed annually in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. To date, it is Lee’s only published novel, and although she continues to respond to the book’s impact, she has refused any personal publicity for herself or the novel since 1964.
Ultimately, Lee spent two and a half years writing To Kill a Mockingbird. A description of the book’s creation by the National Endowment for the Arts relates an episode when Lee became so frustrated that she tossed the manuscript out the window into the snow. Her agent made her retrieve it. The book was published on July 11, 1960. It was initially titled Atticus, but Lee renamed it to reflect a story that went beyond a character portrait. The editorial team at Lippincott warned Lee that she would probably sell only several thousand copies. In 1964, Lee recalled her hopes for the book when she said, “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird.’ … I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” Instead of a “quick and merciful death”, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books chose the book for reprinting in part, which gave it a wide readership immediately. Since the original publication, the book has never been out of print.
Lee has said that To Kill a Mockingbird is not an autobiography, but rather an example of how an author “should write about what he knows and write truthfully”. Nevertheless, several people and events from Lee’s childhood parallel those of the fictional Scout. Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was an attorney, similar to Atticus Finch, and in 1919, he defended two black men accused of murder. After they were convicted, hanged, and mutilated, he never tried another criminal case. Lee’s father was also the editor and publisher of the Monroeville newspaper. Although more of a proponent of racial segregation than Atticus, he gradually became more liberal in his later years. Though Scout’s mother died when she was a baby, and Lee was 25 when her mother died, her mother was prone to a nervous condition that rendered her mentally and emotionally absent. Lee had a brother named Edwin, who — like the fictional Jem — was four years older than his sister. As in the novel, a black housekeeper came daily to care for the Lee house and family.
The character of Dill was modeled on Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, known then as Truman Persons. Just as Dill lived next door to Scout during the summer, Capote lived next door to Lee with his aunts while his mother visited New York City. Like Dill, Capote had an impressive imagination and a gift for fascinating stories. Both Lee and Capote were atypical children: both loved to read. Lee was a scrappy tomboy who was quick to fight, but Capote was ridiculed for his advanced vocabulary and lisp. She and Capote made up and acted out stories they wrote on an old Underwood typewriter Lee’s father gave them. They became good friends when both felt alienated from their peers; Capote called the two of them “apart people”. In 1960, Capote and Lee traveled to Kansas together to investigate the multiple murders that were the basis for Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood.
Down the street from the Lees lived a family whose house was always boarded up; they served as the models for the fictional Radleys. The son of the family got into some legal trouble and the father kept him at home for 24 years out of shame. He was hidden until virtually forgotten and died in 1952.
The origin of Tom Robinson is less clear, though many have speculated that his character was inspired by several models. When Lee was 10 years old, a white woman near Monroeville accused a black man named Walter Lett of raping her. The story and the trial were covered by her father’s newspaper, and Lett was convicted and sentenced to death. After a series of letters appeared claiming Lett had been falsely accused, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died there of tuberculosis in 1937. Scholars believe that Robinson’s difficulties reflect the notorious case of the Scottsboro Boys, in which nine black men were convicted of raping two white women on very poor evidence. However, in 2005 Lee stated that she had in mind something less sensational, although the Scottsboro case served “the same purpose” to display Southern prejudices. Emmett Till, a black teenager who was murdered for flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, and whose death is credited as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, is also considered a model for Tom Robinson.
Despite the novel’s immense popularity upon publication, it has not received the close critical attention paid to other modern American classics. Don Noble, editor of a book of essays about the novel, estimates that the ratio of sales to analytical essays may be a million to one. Christopher Metress writes that the book is “an icon whose emotive sway remains strangely powerful because it also remains unexamined”. Noble suggests it does not receive academic attention because of its consistent status as a best-seller (“If that many people like it, it can’t be any good.”) and that general readers seem to feel they do not require analytical interpretation.
Harper Lee has remained famously detached from interpreting the novel since the mid-1960s. However, she gave some insight into her themes when, in a rare letter to the editor, she wrote in response to the passionate reaction her book caused: “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”
When the book was released, reviewers noted that it was divided into two parts, and opinion was mixed about Lee’s ability to connect them. The first part of the novel concerns the children’s fascination with Boo Radley and their feelings of safety and comfort in the neighborhood. Reviewers were generally charmed by Scout and Jem’s observations of their quirky neighbors. One writer was so impressed by Lee’s detailed explanations of the people of Maycomb that he categorized the book as Southern romantic regionalism. This sentimentalism can be seen in Lee’s representation of the Southern caste system to explain almost every character’s behavior in the novel. Scout’s Aunt Alexandra attributes Maycomb’s inhabitants’ faults and advantages to genealogy (families that have gambling streaks and drinking streaks), and the narrator sets the action and characters amid a finely detailed background of the Finch family history and the history of Maycomb. This regionalist theme is further reflected in Mayella Ewell’s apparent powerlessness to admit her advances toward Tom Robinson, and Scout’s definition of “fine folks” being people with good sense who do the best they can with what they have. The South itself, with its traditions and taboos, seems to affect the plot more than the characters.
The second part of the novel deals with what book reviewer Harding LeMay termed “the spirit-corroding shame of the civilized white Southerner in the treatment of the Negro”. In the years following its release, many reviewers considered To Kill a Mockingbird a novel primarily concerned with race relations. Claudia Durst Johnson considers it “reasonable to believe” that the novel was shaped by two events involving racial issues in Alabama: Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her seat on a city bus to a white person, which sparked the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the 1956 riots at the University of Alabama after Autherine Lucy and Polly Myers were admitted (Myers eventually withdrew her application and Lucy was expelled, but reinstated in 1980). In writing about the historical context of the novel’s construction, two other literary scholars remark: “To Kill a Mockingbird was written and published amidst the most significant and conflict-ridden social change in the South since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Inevitably, despite its mid-1930s setting, the story told from the perspective of the 1950s voices the conflicts, tensions, and fears induced by this transition.”
Scholar Patrick Chura, who suggests Emmett Till was a model for Tom Robinson, enumerates the injustices endured by the fictional Tom that Till also faced. Chura notes the icon of the black rapist causing harm to the representation of the “mythologized vulnerable and sacred Southern womanhood”. Any transgressions by black males that merely hinted at sexual contact with white females during the time the novel was set often resulted in a punishment of death for the accused. Tom Robinson’s trial was juried by poor white farmers who convicted him despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, as more educated and moderate white townspeople supported the jury’s decision. Furthermore, the victim of racial injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird was physically impaired, which made him unable to commit the act he was accused of, but also crippled him in other ways. Roslyn Siegel includes Tom Robinson as an example of the recurring motif among white Southern writers of the black man as “stupid, pathetic, defenseless, and dependent upon the fair dealing of the whites, rather than his own intelligence to save him”. Although Tom is spared from being lynched, he is killed with excessive violence during an attempted escape from prison, when he is shot seventeen times.
The theme of racial injustice appears symbolically in the novel as well. For example, Atticus must shoot a rabid dog, even though it is not his job to do so. Carolyn Jones argues that the dog represents prejudice within the town of Maycomb, and Atticus, who waits on a deserted street to shoot the dog, must fight against the town’s racism without help from other white citizens. He is also alone when he faces a group intending to lynch Tom Robinson and once more in the courthouse during Tom’s trial. Lee even uses dreamlike imagery from the mad dog incident to describe some of the courtroom scenes. Jones writes, “[t]he real mad dog in Maycomb is the racism that denies the humanity of Tom Robinson…. When Atticus makes his summation to the jury, he literally bares himself to the jury’s and the town’s anger.”
“One of the amazing things about the writing in To Kill a Mockingbird, is the economy with which Harper Lee delineates not only race—white and black within a small community—but class. I mean different kinds of black people and white people, both from poor white trash to the upper crust—the whole social fabric.
In a 1964 interview, Lee remarked that her aspiration was “to be … the Jane Austen of South Alabama.” Both Austen and Lee challenged the social status quo and valued individual worth over social standing. When Scout embarrasses her poorer classmate, Walter Cunningham, at the Finch home one day, Calpurnia, their black cook, chastises and punishes her for doing so. Atticus respects Calpurnia’s judgment, and later in the book even stands up to his sister, the formidable Aunt Alexandra, when she strongly suggests they fire Calpurnia. One writer notes that Scout, “in Austenian fashion”, satirizes women with whom she does not wish to identify. Literary critic Jean Blackall lists the priorities shared by the two authors: “affirmation of order in society, obedience, courtesy, and respect for the individual without regard for status”.
Scholars argue that Lee’s approach to class and race was more complex “than ascribing racial prejudice primarily to ‘poor white trash’ … Lee demonstrates how issues of gender and class intensify prejudice, silence the voices that might challenge the existing order, and greatly complicate many Americans’ conception of the causes of racism and segregation.” Lee’s use of the middle-class narrative voice is a literary device that allows an intimacy with the reader, regardless of class or cultural background, and fosters a sense of nostalgia. Sharing Scout and Jem’s perspective, the reader is allowed to engage in relationships with the conservative antebellum Mrs. Dubose; the lower-class Ewells, and the Cunninghams who are equally poor but behave in vastly different ways; the wealthy but ostracized Mr. Dolphus Raymond; and Calpurnia and other members of the black community. The children internalize Atticus’ admonition not to judge someone until they have walked around in that person’s skin, gaining a greater understanding of people’s motives and behavior.
The novel has been noted for its poignant exploration of different forms of courage. Scout’s impulsive inclination to fight students who insult Atticus reflects her attempt to stand up for him and defend him. Atticus is the moral center of the novel, however, and he teaches Jem one of the most significant lessons of courage. In a statement that foreshadows Atticus’ motivation for defending Tom Robinson and describes Mrs. Dubose, who is determined to break herself of a morphine addiction, Atticus tells Jem that courage is “when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what”.
Charles Shields, who has written the only book-length biography of Harper Lee to date, offers the reason for the novel’s enduring popularity and impact is that “its lessons of human dignity and respect for others remain fundamental and universal”. Atticus’ lesson to Scout that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb around in his skin and walk around in it” exemplifies his compassion. She ponders the comment when listening to Mayella Ewell’s testimony. When Mayella reacts with confusion to Atticus’ question if she has any friends, Scout offers that she must be lonelier than Boo Radley. Having walked Boo home after he saves their lives, Scout stands on the Radley porch and considers the events of the previous three years from Boo’s perspective. One writer remarks, “… [w]hile the novel concerns tragedy and injustice, heartache and loss, it also carries with it a strong sense [of] courage, compassion, and an awareness of history to be better human beings.”
Just as Lee explores Jem’s development in coming to grips with a racist and unjust society, Scout realizes what being female means, and several female characters influence her development. Scout’s primary identification with her father and older brother allows her to describe the variety and depth of female characters in the novel both as one of them and as an outsider. Scout’s primary female models are Calpurnia and her neighbor Miss Maudie, both of whom are strong willed, independent, and protective. Mayella Ewell also has an influence; Scout watches her destroy an innocent man in order to hide her own desire for him. The female characters who comment the most on Scout’s lack of willingness to adhere to a more feminine role are also those who promote the most racist and classist points of view. For example, Mrs. Dubose chastises Scout for not wearing a dress and camisole, and indicates she is ruining the family name by not doing so, in addition to insulting Atticus’ intentions to defend Tom Robinson. By balancing the masculine influences of Atticus and Jem with the feminine influences of Calpurnia and Miss Maudie, one scholar writes, “Lee gradually demonstrates that Scout is becoming a feminist in the South, for with the use of first-person narration, she indicates that Scout/ Jean Louise still maintains the ambivalence about being a Southern lady she possessed as a child.”
Absent mothers and abusive fathers are another theme in the novel. Scout and Jem’s mother died before Scout could remember her, Mayella’s mother is dead, and Mrs. Radley is silent about Boo’s confinement to the house. Apart from Atticus, the fathers described are abusers. Bob Ewell, it is hinted, molested his daughter, and Mr. Radley imprisons his son in his house until Boo is remembered only as a phantom. Bob Ewell and Mr. Radley represent a form of masculinity that Atticus does not, and the novel suggests that such men as well as the traditionally feminine hypocrites at the Missionary Society can lead society astray. Atticus stands apart from other men as a unique model of masculinity; as one scholar explains: “It is the job of real men who embody the traditional masculine qualities of heroic individualism, bravery, and an unshrinking knowledge of and dedication to social justice and morality, to set the society straight.”
Allusions to legal issues in To Kill a Mockingbird, particularly in scenes outside of the courtroom, has drawn the attention from legal scholars. Claudia Durst Johnson writes that “a greater volume of critical readings has been amassed by two legal scholars in law journals than by all the literary scholars in literary journals”. The opening quote by the 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb reads: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” Johnson notes that even in Scout and Jem’s childhood world, compromises and treaties are struck with each other by spitting on one’s palm and laws are discussed by Atticus and his children: is it right that Bob Ewell hunts and traps out of season? Many social codes are broken by people in symbolic courtrooms: Mr. Dolphus Raymond has been exiled by society for taking a black woman as his common-law wife and having interracial children; Mayella Ewell is beaten by her father in punishment for kissing Tom Robinson; by being turned into a non-person, Boo Radley receives a punishment far greater than any court could have given him. Scout repeatedly breaks codes and laws and reacts to her punishment for them. For example, she refuses to wear frilly clothes, saying that Aunt Alexandra’s “fanatical” attempts to place her in them made her feel “a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on [her]”. Johnson states, “[t]he novel is a study of how Jem and Scout begin to perceive the complexity of social codes and how the configuration of relationships dictated by or set off by those codes fails or nurtures the inhabitants of (their) small worlds.”
Songbirds and their associated symbolism appear throughout the novel. The family’s last name of Finch also shares Lee’s mother’s maiden name. The titular mockingbird is a key motif of this theme, which first appears when Atticus, having given his children air-rifles for Christmas, allows their Uncle Jack to teach them to shoot. Atticus warns them that, although they can “shoot all the bluejays they want”, they must remember that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”. Confused, Scout approaches her neighbor Miss Maudie, who explains that mockingbirds never harm other living creatures. She points out that mockingbirds simply provide pleasure with their songs, saying, “They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” Writer Edwin Bruell summarized the symbolism when he wrote in 1964, “‘To kill a mockingbird’ is to kill that which is innocent and harmless—like Tom Robinson.” Scholars have noted that Lee often returns to the mockingbird theme when trying to make a moral point.
Tom Robinson is the chief example among several innocents destroyed carelessly or deliberately throughout the novel. However, scholar Christopher Metress connects the mockingbird to Boo Radley: “Instead of wanting to exploit Boo for her own fun (as she does in the beginning of the novel by putting on gothic plays about his history), Scout comes to see him as a ‘mockingbird’—that is, as someone with an inner goodness that must be cherished.” The last pages of the book illustrate this as Scout relates the moral of a story Atticus has been reading to her, and in allusions to both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson states about a character who was misunderstood, “when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things … Atticus, he was real nice,” to which he responds, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
The novel exposes the loss of innocence (and innocents) so frequently that reviewer R. A. Dave claims it is inevitable that all the characters have faced or will face defeat, giving it elements of a classical tragedy. In exploring how each character deals with his or her own personal defeat, Lee builds a framework to judge whether the characters are heroes or fools. She guides the reader in such judgments, alternating between unabashed adoration and biting irony. Scout’s experience with the Missionary Society is an ironic juxtaposition of women who mock her, gossip, and “reflect a smug, colonialist attitude toward other races” while giving the “appearance of gentility, piety, and morality”. Conversely, when Atticus loses Tom’s case, he is last to leave the courtroom, except for his children and the black spectators in the colored balcony, who rise silently as he walks underneath them, to honor his efforts.
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 forces of good and evil in To Kill a Mockingbird seem larger than the small Southern town in which the story takes place. Lee adds drama and atmosphere to her story by including a number of Gothic details in the setting and the plot. In literature, the term Gothic refers to a style of fiction first popularized in eighteenth-century England, featuring supernatural occurrences, gloomy and haunted settings, full moons, and so on. Among the Gothic elements in To Kill a Mockingbird are the unnatural snowfall, the fire that destroys Miss Maudie’s house, the children’s superstitions about Boo Radley, the mad dog that Atticus shoots, and the ominous night of the Halloween party on which Bob Ewell attacks the children. These elements, out of place in the normally quiet, predictable Maycomb, create tension in the novel and serve to foreshadow the troublesome events of the trial and its aftermath.
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.
Differences in social status are explored largely through the overcomplicated social hierarchy of Maycomb, the ins and outs of which constantly baffle the children. The relatively well-off Finches stand near the top of Maycomb’s social hierarchy, with most of the townspeople beneath them. Ignorant country farmers like the Cunninghams lie below the townspeople, and the white trash Ewells rest below the Cunninghams. But the black community in Maycomb, despite its abundance of admirable qualities, squats below even the Ewells, enabling Bob Ewell to make up for his own lack of importance by persecuting Tom Robinson. These rigid social divisions that make up so much of the adult world are revealed in the book to be both irrational and destructive. For example, Scout cannot understand why Aunt Alexandra refuses to let her consort with young Walter Cunningham. Lee uses the children’s perplexity at the unpleasant layering of Maycomb society to critique the role of class status and, ultimately, prejudice in human interaction.
Counterbalancing the Gothic motif of the story is the motif of old-fashioned, small-town values, which manifest themselves throughout the novel. As if to contrast with all of the suspense and moral grandeur of the book, Lee emphasizes the slow-paced, good-natured feel of life in Maycomb. She often deliberately juxtaposes small-town values and Gothic images in order to examine more closely the forces of good and evil. The horror of the fire, for instance, is mitigated by the comforting scene of the people of Maycomb banding together to save Miss Maudie’s possessions. In contrast, Bob Ewell’s cowardly attack on the defenseless Scout, who is dressed like a giant ham for the school pageant, shows him to be unredeemably evil.
The title of To Kill a Mockingbird has very little literal connection to the plot, but it carries a great deal of symbolic weight in the book. In this story of innocents destroyed by evil, the “mockingbird” comes to represent the idea of innocence. Thus, to kill a mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Throughout the book, a number of characters (Jem, Tom Robinson, Dill, Boo Radley, Mr. Raymond) can be identified as mockingbirds—innocents who have been injured or destroyed through contact with evil. This connection between the novel’s title and its main theme is made explicit several times in the novel: after Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds,” and at the end of the book Scout thinks that hurting Boo Radley would be like “shootin’ a mockingbird.” Most important, Miss Maudie explains to Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That Jem and Scout’s last name is Finch (another type of small bird) indicates that they are particularly vulnerable in the racist world of Maycomb, which often treats the fragile innocence of childhood harshly.
As the novel progresses, the children’s changing attitude toward Boo Radley is an important measurement of their development from innocence toward a grown-up moral perspective. At the beginning of the book, Boo is merely a source of childhood superstition. As he leaves Jem and Scout presents and mends Jem’s pants, he gradually becomes increasingly and intriguingly real to them. At the end of the novel, he becomes fully human to Scout, illustrating that she has developed into a sympathetic and understanding individual. Boo, an intelligent child ruined by a cruel father, is one of the book’s most important mockingbirds; he is also an important symbol of the good that exists within people. Despite the pain that Boo has suffered, the purity of his heart rules his interaction with the children. In saving Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell, Boo proves the ultimate symbol of good.
Scout is a very unusual little girl, both in her own qualities and in her social position. She is unusually intelligent (she learns to read before beginning school), unusually confident (she fights boys without fear), unusually thoughtful (she worries about the essential goodness and evil of mankind), and unusually good (she always acts with the best intentions). In terms of her social identity, she is unusual for being a tomboy in the prim and proper Southern world of Maycomb.
One quickly realizes when reading To Kill a Mockingbird that Scout is who she is because of the way Atticus has raised her. He has nurtured her mind, conscience, and individuality without bogging her down in fussy social hypocrisies and notions of propriety. While most girls in Scout’s position would be wearing dresses and learning manners, Scout, thanks to Atticus’s hands-off parenting style, wears overalls and learns to climb trees with Jem and Dill. She does not always grasp social niceties (she tells her teacher that one of her fellow students is too poor to pay her back for lunch), and human behavior often baffles her (as when one of her teachers criticizes Hitler’s prejudice against Jews while indulging in her own prejudice against blacks), but Atticus’s protection of Scout from hypocrisy and social pressure has rendered her open, forthright, and well meaning.
At the beginning of the novel, Scout is an innocent, good-hearted five-year-old child who has no experience with the evils of the world. As the novel progresses, Scout has her first contact with evil in the form of racial prejudice, and the basic development of her character is governed by the question of whether she will emerge from that contact with her conscience and optimism intact or whether she will be bruised, hurt, or destroyed like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Thanks to Atticus’s wisdom, Scout learns that though humanity has a great capacity for evil, it also has a great capacity for good, and that the evil can often be mitigated if one approaches others with an outlook of sympathy and understanding. Scout’s development into a person capable of assuming that outlook marks the culmination of the novel and indicates that, whatever evil she encounters, she will retain her conscience without becoming cynical or jaded. Though she is still a child at the end of the book, Scout’s perspective on life develops from that of an innocent child into that of a near grown-up.
As one of the most prominent citizens in Maycomb during the Great Depression, Atticus is relatively well off in a time of widespread poverty. Because of his penetrating intelligence, calm wisdom, and exemplary behavior, Atticus is respected by everyone, including the very poor. He functions as the moral backbone of Maycomb, a person to whom others turn in times of doubt and trouble. But the conscience that makes him so admirable ultimately causes his falling out with the people of Maycomb. Unable to abide the town’s comfortable ingrained racial prejudice, he agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man. Atticus’s action makes him the object of scorn in Maycomb, but he is simply too impressive a figure to be scorned for long. After the trial, he seems destined to be held in the same high regard as before.
Atticus practices the ethic of sympathy and understanding that he preaches to Scout and Jem and never holds a grudge against the people of Maycomb. Despite their callous indifference to racial inequality, Atticus sees much to admire in them. He recognizes that people have both good and bad qualities, and he is determined to admire the good while understanding and forgiving the bad. Atticus passes this great moral lesson on to Scout—this perspective protects the innocent from being destroyed by contact with evil.
Ironically, though Atticus is a heroic figure in the novel and a respected man in Maycomb, neither Jem nor Scout consciously idolizes him at the beginning of the novel. Both are embarrassed that he is older than other fathers and that he doesn’t hunt or fish. But Atticus’s wise parenting, which he sums up in Chapter 30 by saying, “Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him,” ultimately wins their respect. By the end of the novel, Jem, in particular, is fiercely devoted to Atticus (Scout, still a little girl, loves him uncritically). Though his children’s attitude toward him evolves, Atticus is characterized throughout the book by his absolute consistency. He stands rigidly committed to justice and thoughtfully willing to view matters from the perspectives of others. He does not develop in the novel but retains these qualities in equal measure, making him the novel’s moral guide and voice of conscience.
If Scout is an innocent girl who is exposed to evil at an early age and forced to develop an adult moral outlook, Jem finds himself in an even more turbulent situation. His shattering experience at Tom Robinson’s trial occurs just as he is entering puberty, a time when life is complicated and traumatic enough. His disillusionment upon seeing that justice does not always prevail leaves him vulnerable and confused at a critical, formative point in his life. Nevertheless, he admirably upholds the commitment to justice that Atticus instilled in him and maintains it with deep conviction throughout the novel.
Unlike the jaded Mr. Raymond, Jem is not without hope: Atticus tells Scout that Jem simply needs time to process what he has learned. The strong presence of Atticus in Jem’s life seems to promise that he will recover his equilibrium. Later in his life, Jem is able to see that Boo Radley’s unexpected aid indicates there is good in people. Even before the end of the novel, Jem shows signs of having learned a positive lesson from the trial; for instance, at the beginning of Chapter 25, he refuses to allow Scout to squash a roly-poly bug because it has done nothing to harm her. After seeing the unfair destruction of Tom Robinson, Jem now wants to protect the fragile and harmless.
The idea that Jem resolves his cynicism and moves toward a happier life is supported by the beginning of the novel, in which a grown-up Scout remembers talking to Jem about the events that make up the novel’s plot. Scout says that Jem pinpointed the children’s initial interest in Boo Radley at the beginning of the story, strongly implying that he understood what Boo represented to them and, like Scout, managed to shed his innocence without losing his hope.
I read the book back when I was in school, and was pleased that the book had not lost any scope for me. In fact, it had deepened for me as a direct result of my life experiences. I feel that the prejudices of today have heightened more so beyond a level than they were in the ‘30’s. There are so many more ways to wreak havoc and cause pain in today’s society when someone doesn’t fit into that pretty mold. The places to hide are exposed by modern technology, and there doesn’t seem to be many places to escape it. No matter what you are, or are not, there is always some group openly hating. Sad.