In 1993, when To Kill a Mockingbird had been in print for 33 years straight, author Harper Lee was asked to write an introduction to accompany a new anniversary edition of her Pulitzer Prize–winning book. She refused, on the grounds that as a reader she doesn’t care for introductions. Sounding as matter-of-fact as Atticus and as spirited as Scout, Harper insists “Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”
Indeed, Mockingbird still says what it has to say and says it gracefully, intelligently, and with a sly and sustained wit that tempers the lessons imparted by the book, enabling the novel to teach generation after generation the meaning of courage without ever feeling didactic. The characters that populate this novel, from the most minor to the most iconic, remain seared in the public imagination; Atticus reigns as the most noble parent ever brought to life, while Jean Louise—“Scout” to us all—is unforgettable as the precocious, scrappy narrator trying to make sense of the world. Like Scout, Lee was a tomboy in her own right who grew up in a small Alabama town that surely is reflected in the narrator’s observations. Her father was an attorney and a member of the state legislature. And as much as Lee might protest, to completely remove To Kill a Mockingbird from the place and time of its birth would serve to cut the contemporary reader off from a critical moment in American history that critically informs the novel.
In the decade preceding the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, racism was not only rampant but entrenched in the very fabric of society. The civil rights movement was just gaining momentum, with several landmark court cases helping turn the tide. In 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas launched the desegregation of public schools. The Montgomery Bus Boycott followed in 1955, prompted by Rosa Parks’s famous refusal to give up her seat to a white man and her subsequent arrest. Yet that same year saw tragedy when fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. In this case, however, instead of Tom Robinson’s being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, the all-white jury lost no chance in freeing the two white men who had in fact, as history would prove, murdered a young black boy.
It is what has changed in these intervening years and what sorrowfully remains the same that comprises the core of the dynamic conversation readers still enjoy with Lee’s classic. Set in the 1930s, during the searing tyranny of the Great Depression, Maycomb County has little room for compassion; thirty years later laws were changing, but resistance was strong and clear. Though the book was published during a time of great social change pivotal in our civil rights history, modern readers still probe the issues of fairness, justice, and the mutability of human nature with just as much interest and a very clear understanding of the horrors of bigotry. In short, cast through the prism of one small town, the story taps into the most universal truths inherent in our very humanity—innocence, corruption, prejudice, hatred, curiosity, fatalism, respect, courage, and compassion. She has wrapped this all in the gorgeously wrought language and exquisite precision of which only the best writers are capable, allowing Mockingbird to be examined and enjoyed on every level, from literary to legal, while remaining a work of extraordinary pathos and beauty.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain, using plot points and characters from the book, how the archetype of good versus evil plays out in the novel.
2. Describe the different levels and types of discrimination that occur in the novel, and identify characters that both decry discrimination and perpetrate it.
3. Identify the gothic elements throughout the book, and explain how Lee uses them to set the mood for the book and frame the story.
4. Show Jem’s journey from boy to man, and contrast his adolescent ideas and feelings to Scout’s relative innocence.
5. Compare the idealized versions of fairness and justice to how these concepts play out both in the novel and in modern life.
6. Identify and discuss how Lee uses symbolism, foreshadowing, motifs, themes, and figurative language in the novel, and to what effect.