To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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At a Glance

  • The mockingbird is a symbol of innocence. Atticus explains that killing a mockingbird is a sin because the bird does nothing but make music for people to enjoy. Tom Robinson is the symbolic mockingbird of the novel and is convicted and killed for no real reason.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout Finch's coming-of-age story. When the novel begins, she is just six years old and still has her childish innocence. Through the course of Tom Robinson's trial, however, Scout learns an important lesson about the failures of justice.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird is set in rural Alabama in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. African Americans are subject to Jim Crow laws that segregate them from white people and strip them of their rights as citizens. Racism and prejudice contribute to Tom Robinson's wrongful conviction.

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(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The most outstanding aspect of To Kill a Mockingbird's construction lies in its distinctive narrative point of view. Scout Finch, who narrates in the first person ("I"), is nearly six years old when the novel opens. The story, however, is recalled by the adult Scout; this allows her first-person narrative to contain adult language and adult insights yet still maintain the innocent outlook of a child. The adult perspective also adds a measure of hindsight to the tale, allowing for a deeper examination of events. The narrative proceeds in a straightforward and linear fashion, only jumping in time when relating past events as background to some present occurrence. Scout's account is broken into two parts: the two years before the trial, and the summer of the trial and the autumn that follows. Some critics have proposed that Part II itself should have been broken into two parts, the trial and the Halloween pageant; William T. Going suggests that this arrangement would keep the latter section from "seeming altogether an anticlimax to the trial of Tom."

The setting of To Kill a Mockingbird is another big factor in the story, for the action never leaves the town of Maycomb, Alabama. Maycomb is described variously as "an old town," "an ancient town," and "a tired old town," suggesting a conservative place that is steeped in tradition and convention. Scout's description of the local courthouse reinforces this impression. The building combines large Greek-style pillars—the only remnants from the original building that burned years ago—with the early Victorian design of its replacement. The result is an architectural oddity that indicates "a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past." The time of the novel is also significant, for the years 1933 to 1935 were in the midst of the Great Depression. These economic hard times affected the entire town, for if farmers and other laborers made barely enough money to survive, they had no extra money with which they could pay professionals like doctors and lawyers. When Atticus renders a legal service for Walter Cunningham Sr., a farmer whose property rights are in question because of an entailment, he is repaid with goods such as firewood and nuts instead of cash. This history between the two men influences events during the novel; when a lynch mob appears at the local jail, Scout recognizes Cunningham as her father's former client. The conversation she strikes up with him recalls him to his senses, and he sheepishly leads the mob away.

As the title of the novel implies, the mockingbird serves as an important symbol throughout the narrative. When the children receive guns for Christmas, Atticus tells them it's all right to shoot at blue jays, but "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." As Miss Maudie Atkinson explains, it would be thoughtlessly cruel to kill innocent creatures that "don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy." The mockingbirds are silent as Atticus takes to the street to shoot the rabid dog, and Scout describes a similar silence in the courtroom just prior to the jury pronouncing Tom Robinson guilty. The innocent but suffering...

(The entire section is 6,709 words.)