What are the primary themes in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is full of what might be called "life lessons," and they are the primary themes of this work. 

One of the themes found in this novel is courage in the face of adversity. The novel is full of examples which demonstrate this theme. Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose is an unlikely heroic figure, as she treats the Finch children abominably. Though she is a cantankerous woman, she wins the battle over her morphine addiction. Atticus tells Jem:

“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 see it through no matter what.

Boo Radley is another heroic figure, as he protects Jem and Scout from being killed by Bob Ewell despite his reclusive nature. Tom Robinson is a grand hero, helping a white girl (Mayella Ewell) out of kindness, despite the potential risks of a black man being accused of anything by a white woman. Miss Maudie is heroic because she accepts the abusive taunting of the foot-washin' Baptists and still maintains her faith in God and man. Atticus probably demonstrates more courage than anyone in this novel, as he does the impossible--he actually defends a black man. He makes it hard for the jury to do what it usually does, convict every black man of every crime they are accused of committing. Courage abounds in this novel.

Class and color are also prominent themes in this novel. In Maycomb we find white people who are both rich and poor and black and white people who are both good and awful people. The best examples of that are the Ewells and the Cunninghams. Both families are terribly poor, yet the Cunninghams are honorable and, in the end, reasonable people. The Ewells, on the other hand, are not. Bob Ewell is a despicable man, and it is clear that he would be that way even if he had money. Class has nothing to do with color.

Calpurnia, a black maid, is educated as well as her employer, Atticus Finch, and she does not prefer people because of their race. One of the women in Cal's church, however, is not at all welcoming to the Finch children when they come to church with Calpurnia. Class has nothing to do with color. 

The two innocents in the novel, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, are of different colors  but share the same willingness to help others despite the risks to themselves. Class has nothing to do with color. 

By the end of the novel, Scout has learned the lesson. She tells Jem:

“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.” 

One final theme in the novel concerns the necessity of compassion and empathy. Atticus shares a piece of advice with Scout, and it stands her in good stead when things begin to get difficult for her. 

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 

His point is that everyone has a story. Boo Radley should not be mocked because he is a human being with a story. Tom Robinson should not be convicted of something until his story is heard. Mrs. Dubose has a story which explains her awful behaviors. Even Mayella has a story, though her father does not want anyone to hear it. This sense of compassion for others, especially those who are different, is a consistent theme throughout the novel.

This story is full of inspiring themes which are applicable to our lives. 

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