Why is Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird an optimistic novel?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Harper Lee's classic coming-of-age novel in the American South during the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird, is, indeed, an optimistic story. If Tom Robinson's unjust conviction, imprisonment, and death and the rabidly racist temperament of Bob Ewell and his followers were all that comprised Lee's novel, then it would have been a more pessimistic story. Those events and characterizations, however, are not the sum-total of To Kill a Mockingbird. On the contrary, it is Scout's narrative about her childhood in Maycomb, Alabama, that provides the novel its enduring optimism. It is Scout's stories about summers with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill and their games involving the reclusive, mysterious figure of Boo Radley that, along with the lessons Scout learns from her father, Atticus, provide the moral foundation of Lee's novel. The trial of Tom Robinson, while occupying an obviously important element of the novel, is but a vehicle for illuminating the enduring racism that permeated the American South while enabling the author to elevate Atticus above the fray. Additionally, the novel's climactic passages involving Ewell's attack on Scout and Jem and the revelation that it was Boo Radley who came to their aid and who apparently killed Ewell in the process enabled Lee to resolve this component of her story on an upbeat note, as the sheriff refuses to arrest anybody for Ewell's death by his own knife.

There is much in To Kill a Mockingbird that is sad. Scout's final moment with Boo, for example, is particularly poignant, as she notes that it will be the last time the young girl sees him. The novel ends with Scout snuggling close to her father while he reads her the scary book that Jem has been reading. Jem, of course, sleeps soundly, his arm broken from the encounter with Ewell. Scout comments on the book Atticus has been reading to her, and how the story's protagonist was not who she thought he might be, prompting the following exchange:

“An‘ they chased him ’n‘ never could catch him ’cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an‘ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice…”

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

To Kill a Mockingbird ends on a optimistic note. Much has happened to the story's narrator and her brother, but, in the end, life goes on. Bob Ewell, the novel's main antagonist, is the personification of evil. He is poor white trash. In Lee's small Southern town, however, he is the exception, not the rule. The racism is there, and it is a stain on the region's heritage, but the author is careful to end her novel on an optimistic note because, she implies, there is more good in the world than bad.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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