Harper Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1961 for her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, based to a large degree on her childhood experiences growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Her father was a small-town lawyer like Atticus Finch, and an old house in her neighborhood was rumored to have a reclusive owner, rather like Boo Radley. The author stated the character of Dill is based on author Truman Capote, a childhood companion.
The voice narrating the regional story is that of Scout—Jean Louise Finch—revealing the experiences of her childhood from an adult perspective. The novel begins with a discussion of Jem’s broken arm (the last event in the actual plot) and a family history of the Finches in the “tired old town” of Maycomb. Lee presents a dual vision throughout To Kill a Mockingbird. The two plot lines—the attempt to lure Boo Radley out and the trial of Tom Robinson—reinforce the contrasting dual themes of prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy, and hate, opposed by courage, kindness, tolerance, calm reason—and humor.
The gradual moral awakening and growth of Scout and Jem are centered on their “education” by their father, Atticus, a man of conscience, who patiently counsels—and demonstrates—how they should walk in the other person’s shoes, hold up their heads, and show restraint in the face of hate and ignorance. Atticus suggests the larger theme that the white South of the time would progress when people quit catching “Maycomb’s usual disease.” Those suffering from the disease are “reasonable people [who] go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.”
The novel is in part a social history of a small southern town of the Depression period. In the novel, there is much preoccupation of white people with family trees, social class, racial matters, education (the children learn more outside the classroom than in), and superstition. Although the town (and the South) are places of tradition and ingrained habits, where the past often determines the present, the potential for progressive change resides in at least some enlightened people.
The novel is of a genre called bildungsroman, or novel of maturation. In such a novel, the main character journeys through a series of adventures from innocence to experience and mature enlightenment. At the end, the character is prepared for adulthood.
In the three years covered by the novel, Scout and Jem abandon their superstitions about Boo Radley, learn to value townspeople as individuals, develop moral courage in the face of the town’s hypocrisy, realize that justice should be administered without regard to race and class, and, Atticus’s final lesson, learn that most people are nice when you finally come to understand them. The children develop open minds—unprejudiced and individual.
The words “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” echo throughout the novel. The songbird is symbolic of innocence and joy allowed to live—or be threatened and destroyed. Robinson and Boo Radley become its human equivalents in the novel. The editor of Maycomb’s newspaper likens the killing of Robinson during his alleged escape attempt to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds,” and Scout says that turning Boo Radley over to the police for killing Bob Ewell would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.”