To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 entire section is 548 words.)