What important ideas does Harper Lee explore, and how are these ideas developed through the narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Written as a bildungsroman, To Kill a Mockingbird examines the maturation of Jem and Scout as their perceptions of various ideas and people are altered by their developing objectivity. This objectivity comes as a result of their interactions with others and personal experiences.

Here are some of the important lessons developed in the narrative:

Understanding people

  • Miss Caroline, the new teacher who is assigned the first grade, is misjudged by Scout, who perceives her as an outsider from the hated Winston County. Scout does try to help Miss Caroline by advising her of the history of other students, but Miss Caroline punishes her, believing Scout to be impudent. Another student who misjudges Miss Caroline is the insolent Burris Ewell, who calls her "a snot-nosed slut of a schoolteacher." Scout is appalled by him, but later learns of his dysfunctional family and cruel father.
    When she returns home, Scout talks with her father in the evening, asking if she may just stay home where he could teach her. Atticus explains that he cannot do this. Furthermore, he explains that Miss Caroline cannot know how to treat everyone as she is new in the area. He tells Scout that the best thing to do in order to understand people is to figuratively "climb into [a person's] skin and walk around in it"; then she will come to know people better.
  • Further in the narrative, Jem becomes angry at Mrs. Dubose, whose house is on the way to town. One day, in retaliation for her cruel and insulting remarks about his father, Jem tears off the blossoms of her camellia bushes. After having learned of his son's behavior, Atticus makes Jem read for an hour a day for a month to Mrs. Dubose. At the end of the month, Jem and Scout both are relieved that his assignment is complete; however, Atticus informs his children shortly thereafter that Mrs. Dubose has died. He adds that she was conscious of life until her end because she withdrew from her morphine addiction. Atticus calls her a brave woman for having faced death without drugs. While neither Jem nor Scout have known that her spiteful words and actions were due to her morphine addiction, she has left Jem a box with beautiful camellia blossoms inside as a sort of peace offering.
  • The children certainly misjudge Boo Radley, who makes tender offerings of friendship in secret: the mended pants, the gum and trinkets, and the carved soap figures of themselves. More than anything, Boo saves their lives when the disreputable Bob Ewell tries to kill them. When Scout walks him home and stands on his porch, the earlier words of Atticus about seeing things from another's perspective really become meaningful to her.
  • At the trial of Tom Robinson, Scout, who at first thought that Tom was "just a Negro," learns that Tom is a humble and kind man who is sacrificed by "the secret courts" of hatred and bias in men's hearts. This experience of witnessing an innocent man being condemned profoundly affects Jem and Scout, especially after they learn that Tom is shot as, in despair, he tries to escape.
  • Mr. Dolphus Raymond is condemned as a drunkard by the upright citizens of Maycomb because he lives on "the other side of the tracks" with the African-Americans. Scout learns that he affords these citizens a reason for his actions by pretending to be an alcoholic. In truth, he is more decent than those who condemn him.
  • Scout and Jem even misjudge their father, who is actually an excellent shot. When they witness his expertise, Jem takes a new look at Atticus. Of course, the children learn many things from Atticus, especially how to find the decency in everyone. For instance, at the end of the novel, Scout tells her father that she has learned that Boo "was real nice." Atticus replies, "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."

The importance of family

  • When Aunt Alexandra arrives in Maycomb, she conducts herself as the landed gentry of the South did years and years ago. She has Calpurnia waiting upon her immediately and talks of the social system in Maycomb county. Further, she has Atticus inform the children that they are not

"...from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations' gentle breeding--"

Scout finds this attitude of Alexandra's pretentious, and she feels she is in a "pink penitentiary" when she must wear dresses. However, at the Missionary Tea and later on, Scout witnesses the family loyalty of her aunt and is impressed. In fact, she is so moved that she takes a tray and passes it around, even to Mrs. Merriweather. She narrates, "...After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I."

  • Of course, there is never a moment in which family is more meaningful than after Boo Radley saves the lives of Scout and Jem. Atticus shows his gratitude--"Thank you for my children, Arthur"--and is quite shaken by what Bob Ewell has attempted to do.
Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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