Study Guide

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird Essay - Analysis

Analysis

Most critics agree that the strength of To Kill a Mockingbird lies in Harper Lee’s use of the point of view of Scout. This point of view works in two ways: It is the voice of a perceptive, independent six-year-old girl and at the same time it is the mature voice of a woman telling about her childhood in retrospect. Lee skillfully blends these voices so that the reader recognizes that both are working at the same time but that neither detracts from the story. Through the voice of the child and the mature reflection of the adult, Lee is able to relate freshly the two powerful events in the novel: Atticus Finch’s doomed defense of Tom Robinson and the appearance of the town recluse, Boo Radley. The child’s voice gives a fresh approach to looking at the racism issue in the novel. Both Scout and Jem struggle with confusion over why some people are acceptable in the social strata of their community and others are not. As Scout wisely answers Jem, “There’s just folks.” The mature adult voice serves to give the reader reflections on the events that a child could not yet see.

Regarding the plights of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, Lee draws on the symbol of the mockingbird. Both Tom and Boo are victims of the prejudices of their community. Tom, who is an innocent black man accused of rape, is convicted by a white jury even though Atticus Finch proves that the evidence against Tom is false. Boo is another victim—first, of his father’s harsh religious views, and second, of the town’s ignorance and gossip. Both men are closely related to the symbol of the mockingbird. Atticus and Miss Maudie, their wise neighbor, tell the children it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because the bird brings only pleasure to humans. When Tom is killed trying to escape, the editor of Maycomb’s newspaper likens Tom’s death to the senseless killing of songbirds by hunters and children. Later, after Atticus and the sheriff decide not to tell anyone that Boo Radley killed Ewell in defense of the Finch children, Scout agrees and equates exposing Boo Radley to the curious town to killing a mockingbird.

Two major themes dominate the novel: that of growing from ignorance to knowledge and that of determining what is cowardice and what is heroism. The “ignorance-to-knowledge” theme is developed through the characterization of the maturing children. Scout and Jem both develop understanding and an awareness of the adult world as they grow through their experiences. Lee represents children as having a fairer sense of justice than adults. Thus, when Robinson is convicted, the children are the ones who cannot accept it. Atticus’ insistence that his children learn to be tolerant and not judge people only on appearances becomes one of the moral lessons of the book.

The other theme regards the children’s growing awareness of what is cowardice and what is true heroism. The central figure and model for them here is their father, Atticus. In part 1, the children do not consider their father much of a hero because he will not play football with the Baptists. Only when Atticus shoots a rabid dog do the children learn that their humble father is “the deadest shot in Maycomb county.” Atticus tries to redefine heroism for the children when he has Jem and Scout read to the hated Mrs. Dubose. He tells them after her death that she was a morphine addict trying to free herself of her addiction before dying. Atticus comments that true heroism is “when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway.” In part 2 of the novel, Atticus lives up to this definition of heroism by his courageous defense of Tom Robinson.