To Kill a Mockingbird

Are people good or evil by nature? What actions are inherently good or bad? In her classic American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), author Harper Lee deals with these questions. To Kill a Mockingbird describes the life of a young girl named Scout in Alabama during the 1930s. Throughout the novel, Scout grows up and learns important lessons about life and injustice in a prejudiced society.

To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird

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Contents
Table of contents

    To Kill a Mockingbird, Content Warning, StudySmarter

    Content warning: contains themes of rape and racism.

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: A Synopsis

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1926-2016) is among the most classic American novels. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and is widely read in schools across the country.

    To Kill a Mockingbird, house in Alabama, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 -To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is set in Depression-era Alabama.

    The novel is set in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, in Maycomb, Alabama. At the start of the story, Scout Finch is six years old, and the novel goes on to detail her coming-of-age over the next three years. When Scout's father, a lawyer, defends a black man in court, Scout and her brother Jem are awakened to the prejudice and racism in their small Southern town.

    Maycomb is a fictional small town in Alabama. It is based in Monroeville, the Alabama town where Lee was born and raised.

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Plot Summary

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is divided into two parts and twenty-five chapters.

    Part One

    Six-year-old Scout Finch and her ten-year-old brother Jem grow up together in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. They are raised by their father, lawyer Atticus Finch, and their Black housekeeper Calpurnia, a woman who is a mother figure to them.

    The novel begins in the summer of 1933. Scout and Jem make friends with Dill, a boy who comes to Maycomb with his aunt to spend the summer holiday. The children are fascinated by the neighboring Radley house, where the reclusive brothers Nathan and Arthur "Boo" Radley live.

    Boo Radley, in particular, is the subject of vicious gossip in Maycomb. He is said to eat squirrels and to have stabbed his father in the leg with scissors. Intrigued by these and other rumors, Jem, Scout, and Dill want to lure Boo out of the house.

    However, when they try to sneak into the house, the children are chased away and shot at by Nathan Radley. Jem loses his pants in the escape, but he mysteriously finds them mended, hanging over the fence the next day. Although they never see Boo, Scout and Jem begin to find small gifts in a tree hollow near the Radley house, seemingly from the reclusive man.

    The children want to put something in the tree hollow in return, but, shortly afterward, Boo's brother closes it with cement.

    Part Two

    Scout and Jem's father is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of beating and raping a young white woman named Mayella Ewell. Atticus believes that defending Robinson is the right thing to do, but the conservative town of Maycomb ostracizes him for his choice, and his children are taunted at school with racist slurs.

    When Robinson's trial begins, the accused man is placed in the local jail, and a crowd forms intending to lynch him. Scout and Jem, however, have snuck out of the house, and Scout defuses the situation after she recognizes one of the men as her classmate's father.

    During Robinson's trial, the accused Tom Robinson argues that he rejected Mayella's advances. The girl's father, Bob Ewell, had then beaten his daughter because he caught her approaching a black man.

    Atticus is able to prove that Robinson, whose left arm is crippled, could not have been the perpetrator at all. Bob Ewell, on the other hand, is left-handed and could easily have given his daughter a black eye on the right side of her face.

     To Kill a Mockingbird, conviction, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Tom Robinson is convicted despite the evidence pointing towards his innocence.

    Despite the evidence of Robinson's innocence, he is unanimously declared guilty by the all-white jury. Robinson is sent to prison. He tries to escape but is shot seventeen times and killed.

    Scout, Jem, and Dill, who watch the trial from the colored balcony, are deeply affected by it. Jem, in particular, is shaken by the jury's verdict. He understands that Robinson is innocent, and the jury's conviction severely undermines his faith in justice.

    Even though Robinson is convicted, Bob Ewell wants revenge on Atticus for the damage to his reputation and attacks Jem and Scout with a knife on Halloween night. The two children cannot clearly see what is happening through their costumes, but they get help from an unknown man who incapacitates Ewell and carries the injured Jem home.

    Scout and Jem later discover that Boo Radley saved them but accidentally killed Bob Ewell with a knife in the process. In order to protect Boo, Atticus and the sheriff decide to tell the citizens of Maycomb that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife in the fight.

    Scout understands that they made up this story to protect Boo. Boo was only trying to help, with no intention of hurting anyone or drawing attention to himself. Scout feels as if she can finally picture life from Boo's perspective.

    To Kill a Mockingbird: Key Characters

    Although there are many different characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout, her father Atticus, and their neighbor Boo play the most critical roles.

    To Kill and Mockingbird CharactersDescription
    Jean Louise "Scout" FinchThe novel's protagonist and narrator. She is the sister of Jem Finch and is six years old at the beginning of the story. Her father, Atticus Finch, is her role model, and she strongly believes there is good in people. She is intelligent, self-confident, direct, and reliable, and she matures over the course of the story.
    Atticus Finch The father of Scout and Jem, who call him by his first name, rather than 'Dad' or 'Father.' He is a lawyer and politician who demands equal rights for all people and is unprejudiced and empathetic with strong moral principles. He was widowed many years before, and he is a strict but loving father to his two children.
    Jeremy "Jem" Finch Scout's older brother. He is about ten years old at the start of the novel. Like Scout, his father has instilled in him a deep commitment to justice, although this is shaken after he witnesses the verdict of Tom Robinson's trial.
    Arthur "Boo" RadleyThe adult neighbor of the Finches. He is an outsider who lives in seclusion in his house and is the subject of cruel local gossip. Although Boo is an important character in the novel, he rarely makes an actual appearance. Rather, his invisibility and the Finch children's fascination with him become his defining characteristics.
    Tom Robinson An African American fieldhand who has a wife and three children. He is charged with raping a white girl, and Atticus successfully defends Robinson by pointing out that Robinson couldn't have inflicted the reported injuries with his crippled left arm. Despite this, Robinson is convicted of the crime and eventually killed.
    CalpurniaThe Finches' Black housekeeper. She is like a mother figure to Scout and Jem.

    To Kill a Mockingbird: Language and Genre

    Let’s explore the language and discuss the genre of the novel in detail.

    Language

    Harper Lee wrote the novel To Kill a Mockingbird from the first-person perspective of young Scout. Using Scout's perspective means that the narrator is not authorial or omniscient, but it does try to analyze and comprehend the thoughts and feelings of others.

    Using a child's perspective, Lee succeeds in approaching complex issues such as racism with a childlike naivety.

    Despite the childlike perspective, the narrative uses complex language. This language sounds more adult and articulate than a reader would expect from young Scout Finch. At these points, you notice the difference between the young Scout in the story and presumably the older Scout telling the story.

    To Kill a Mockingbird is written in the past tense and tells of events from 1933 to 1935. This allows for the interpretation that the narrating Scout is now older and more educated, which explains this more complex language. Here, for example, a more mature Scout reflects back on her childhood experiences:

    Until my father explained it to me later, I did not understand the subtlety of Tom's predicament: he would not have dared strike a white woman under any circumstances and expect to live long, so he took the first opportunity to run - a sure sign of guilt. (Chapter 19)

    This difference in language level was often criticized as a "bad style" at the time of publication but is now a common method in literature.

    Harper Lee also uses colloquial language and Southern slang to portray the characters' dialogue authentically. For example, Atticus tells Scout:

    No matter what anybody says to you, don't you let 'em get your goat. (Chapter 9)

    In addition to the colloquial shortening of "them" to "'em", Atticus uses the colloquial expression "get your goat," which means to annoy someone.

    Genre

    To Kill a Mockingbird has been characterized as a Southern gothic novel for Lee's use of gothic elements such as fires, spooky neighbors, and ominous settings.

    The novel is also a bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel that tells the story of Scout as she grows and matures.

    Bildungsroman is a German word for a literary genre of coming-of-age stories that show the mental and emotional growth of a character as they move from childhood to adulthood.

    To Kill a Mockingbird: Analysis of Key Themes

    The key themes of the novel are prejudice, discrimination and racism, the loss of innocence, courage, and morality. Let’s analyze them in detail.

    Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism

    Prejudice, racism, and discrimination are central to Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird.

    As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it… Whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. (Chapter 23)

    Whether based on race, poverty, occupation or insulting rumors, the citizens of Maycomb are quick to judge others and marginalize different people. Black people, in particular, are considered second class and are at the bottom of the hierarchy in the town.

    Tom Robinson is convicted by an all-white jury in court, although his innocence has been proven. It is clear that this sentence was passed because he is Black and because he is accused of harming a white woman. Even before the trial, it is clear from the population's mood that they will not give him a fair chance because of their prejudices.

    Loss of Innocence

    To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story and, therefore, a story of moving from childhood innocence to the understanding of adulthood.

    Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time... it's because he wants to stay inside. (Chapter 23)

    Scout is an innocent, six-year-old child at the beginning of the novel, and the story shows how she and Jem lose their innocence.

    Over the course of the novel, the children are forced to confront difficult situations that lead them to develop a more complex understanding of humanity and morality. This is more difficult for Jem, and he struggles with disillusionment after the conviction of innocent Tom Robinson.

    Courage

    In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus tries to raise his children with strong moral principles.

    I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun 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. (Chapter 11)

    Along with that comes the courage to live by and stand up for those principles. Atticus teaches his children that courage can look different for different people and different ways of life; the most important thing is to always do what you believe is right.

    Courage manifests in many different ways in the novel, from Atticus defending Tom Robinson in court, to Scout talking down the mob who intends on lynching Robinson, to Boo Radley finally leaving his house to save Scout and Jem.

    Morality

    In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee questions whether people are inherently good or evil and what actions are inherently right or wrong.

    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. (Chapter 3)

    Morality is explored from the innocent position of Scout and Jem, two children who have yet to understand the reality of the world.

    Atticus Finch is the moral compass of To Kill a Mockingbird. He has come to understand evil as part of the world and people; he values goodness and, through his empathy, can muster enough understanding not to judge people for their bad sides. He tries to teach his children this perspective.

    Initially, Scout and Jem find it difficult to explain the evil behavior of adults, but they learn and mature through many situations. They come to recognize the coexistence of good and evil in the world. Jem is very affected by the actions of the adults and loses faith in the good. Scout, however, understands what Atticus was trying to teach them and is able to keep her faith in goodness despite what happens.

    What's Up with the Mockingbird?

    At first glance, the title To Kill a Mockingbird has little to do with the plot of Harper Lee's novel. However, Lee uses this bird as an important symbol throughout the novel.

    Mockingbirds don't do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. (Chapter 10)

    Early in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus warns his children against shooting mockingbirds, telling them:

    [...] remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. (Chapter 10)

    A mockingbird, an important symbol in Harper Lee's novel.Fig. 3 - The mockingbird is an important symbol throughout the novel.

    A mockingbird is a small bird that causes no harm to anyone. Killing one has no use or advantage; it is an unnecessary cruelty. The mockingbird, therefore, represents innocence in the novel.

    There are several characters who are compared to mockingbirds. These are innocent individuals who are damaged or destroyed by evil, including Tom Robinson and Boo Radley.

    Tom Robinson is shot trying to escape from prison, and even the newspaper describes his death as a "senseless slaughter of songbirds."

    Boo is a totally reclusive man, and, at the end of the novel, Scout realizes that harming him would be like shooting a mockingbird: making an innocent being with pure intentions suffer.

    A mockingbird is a small songbird common to North America. They are best known for their lovely song and their ability to imitate the song of other birds. The mockingbird is also known to be highly intelligent, with the ability to recognize specific humans and specific places. They are defensive of their territory and omnivorous, eating mostly insects and some fruit.

    The Finch family is also named for a bird! What could be the significance of this name?

    To Kill a Mockingbird - Key takeaways

    • To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee and published in 1960.
    • It is the coming-of-age story of Scout Finch as she grows up in Depression-era Alabama.
    • The novel is narrated from young Scout's perspective.
    • Some important themes include the loss of innocence, racism and discrimination, courage, and morality.
    • The mockingbird is an important symbol of innocence in the novel.
    Frequently Asked Questions about To Kill a Mockingbird

    What is To Kill a Mockingbird about?

    The novel criticises racism and prejudice, while also exploring themes concerning the loss of innocence and whether people are inherently good or evil.  

    Who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird?

    Harper Lee (1926-2016) wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

    When was To Kill a Mockingbird written? 

    To Kill a Mockingbird was written before 1960, when the novel was published.

    Why is To Kill a Mockingbird a banned book? 

    The novel To Kill a Mockingbird has frequently been banned in the US because of reasons such as its themes of rape and the use of profanity and racial slurs. 

    What is the main summary of To Kill a Mockingbird

    To Kill a Mockingbird explores the life of Scout in Alabama in the 1930s, and the prejudices and racism she witnesses in society.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is NOT an important theme in To Kill a Mockingbird?

    What is Atticus’ job?

    What nickname is Jean Louise Finch known by?

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