To Kill a Mockingbird examines southern religious practices and beliefs, revealing the tension that exists within a society that discriminates against select neighbors rather than loving them. Atticus uses Christian values to raise Scout and Jem. Serving as their primary example, he teaches the children to be ethical, moral, and just. He demonstrates compassion, morality, and forgiveness. Atticus encourages Scout and Jem to forgive relatives, classmates, and neighbors who make offensive remarks about him. Yet, Scout struggles to refrain from pummeling anyone who decides to hurl insults at her. When Bob Ewell spits in Atticus’s face, it affords Atticus the opportunity to show Jem and Scout what he has tried to teach them all along: A Christian must turn the other cheek.
As a lawyer and state representative, Atticus is respected in the community and known for his honesty and moral standing. Judge Taylor purposely chooses Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman, because he knows Atticus will work hard to prove Tom’s innocence. This case places Atticus is the position of being a Christ-like figure, bearing the sins of the community. “Let this cup pass from you, eh?” Atticus’s brother says. Miss Maude argues, “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” Critics suggest that Atticus’s courage to defend Tom stems from his strong spiritual foundation and his need to make the truth of Tom’s innocence evident to the community.
Lee also uses the action around the case to illustrate the tension between Christianity, bigotry, and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy and hatred are learned behaviors, suggests Lee, just as love and compassion are. Tom feels compassion for Mayella, a poor, uneducated young woman physically abused by her father. Similarly, Atticus shows love and friendship to Tom when he helps protect him from a mob intent on hanging him for a crime he did not commit. Compassion sets both men apart from other members of the community and is the catalyst for most of the conflict that surrounds them.
Maycomb. Seat of Alabama’s fictional Maycomb County, located twenty miles east of Finch’s Landing. Through its citizens from professional, middle, and lower classes, Harper Lee analyzes the values and problems common in small southern towns during the Great Depression. Scout learns from Atticus to reject the racial and social prejudices of the town without hating its inhabitants. By walking in the shoes of others both before and after the Tom Robinson trial, she respects Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, who is determined to cure her morphine addiction before dying, and she appreciates Judge Taylor, Sheriff Tate, and farmer Link Deas, all of whom try to give Tom Robinson as fair a trial as possible in Maycomb.
Radley place. Home of Arthur (Boo) Radley and his family; located near Atticus Finch’s home. Community rumors about the seclusion of Boo in his home and about his violent actions provide mystery and excitement for Scout, Jem, and Dill during their summers. Actually seeing Boo or enticing him to leave his dark, isolated home becomes a goal for the children and a lesson in tolerance and acceptance. Through the gifts they find in the hollow tree in the Radley yard, they learn of Boo’s tentative attempts at friendship with them. When Boo saves their lives by killing Bob Ewell in the woods behind the school, they learn to respect his privacy and his desire to remain hidden from the probing eyes of the community.
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School attended by the Finch children. By having children from the town and from the rural community in the same classes, Lee shows the various social classes in the county and how all have learned to live together. Miss Caroline Fisher, Scout’s first-grade teacher, is considered an outsider because she is from Clanton in northern Alabama. She does not understand the social caste system of her students, and her new educational practices appear impractical to her students.
Courthouse. Government building in the town square in which Tom Robinson is tried for murder. The architecture of this building symbolizes the strong ties of the town to the past and its unwillingness to change. After fire destroyed the original classical structure, its massive columns were retained while a Victorian clock tower was added. This symbolizes the town’s acceptance of change only as a result of a conflagration and its attempt to preserve the past as completely as possible.
Having the Black residents sit in the balcony of the courtroom during the Robinson trial stresses the physical and social segregation of the races. In contrast, having Scout, Jem, and Dill accepted by Reverend Sykes in the balcony also symbolizes the hope that the young generation of white southerners will be able to see both Blacks and whites differently as they grow up. On the courthouse grounds during the trial, Scout and Dill learn from Dolphus Raymond that his false drunkenness is only a ruse he assumes in order to provide the community with an excuse for his living with a Black wife and fathering children of mixed blood.
Finch’s Landing. Town in which Atticus Finch grew up. Located on the banks of the Alabama River, it was begun in the early nineteenth century by Atticus’s ancestor, Simon Finch, an immigrant from England, and remained the home of the Finch family until Atticus left to study law in Montgomery, Alabama, and his younger brother, Jack, left to study medicine in Boston. Their sister Alexandra continued to live there with her husband. The small town provides a strong sense of history and family within which Scout and Jem grow up. Although they only visit there, each child understands how their current home is an extension of the values and beliefs in which Atticus, Uncle Jack, and Aunt Alexandra were raised. Neither Atticus nor Jack returns to Finch’s Landing to live because the town is too small to support their professions, and each seems to disregard many of the mores espoused there as shown through the actions of Aunt Alexandra.
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 mockingbird is recalled in an editorial B. B. Underwood writes about Robinson's death, and again when Scout tells her father that revealing Boo Radley's role in Bob Ewell's death would be "like shootin' a mockingbird." Another powerful symbol is contained in the snowman Scout and Jem build after Maycomb's rare snowfall. Because there is very little snow, Jem makes the base of the figure from mud; they then change their "morphodite" from black to white with a coating of snow. When Miss Maudie's house catches fire that night, the snow melts and the figure becomes black once again. Its transformalion suggests that skin color is a limited distinction that reveals little about an individual's true worth.
One element of the novel's construction that should not be overlooked is Lee's use of humor. The serious issues the novel grapples with are lightened by episodes that use irony and slapstick humor, among other techniques. Just prior to Bob Ewell's attack on the children, for instance, is a scene where Scout misses her cue during the Halloween pageant, only to make her entrance as a ham during Mrs. Merriweather's sober grand finale. Scout's matter-of-fact, childish recollections also provide entertainment; she recalls that when Dill ignored her, his "fiancee," in favor of Jem, "I beat him up twice but it did no good." Other characters are full of wit as well. Miss Maudie Atkinson in particular. When exasperated by Stephanie Crawford's tales of Boo Radley peeking in her windows at night, she replies, "What did you do, Stephanie, move over in the bed and make room for him?" Including such humorous portrayals of human faults enlivens a serious plot, adds depth to the characterizations, and creates a sense of familiarity and universality, all factors that have contributed to the success and popularity of the work.
Lee neatly structures her novel around a dual plot and dual themes; the novel is evenly divided into two parts. In her graceful, understated style, Lee weaves together a story about two children growing up in a small southern town, and a story about the children's father, a white attorney who defends a Black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Because both stories involve Jem, Scout, and Atticus, Scout's first-person narration, with its focus on the development of these three characters, unifies the different story lines.
The narrator's emphasis on Jem is particularly significant to the structure and meaning of the story. Lee creates in Scout an immensely likable, funny character, but she invests Jem with the depth and literary complexity of a protagonist. Each section of the book begins and ends with a description of Jem as he matures and changes. Scout begins her narrative with the statement: "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." The rest of the story follows from this simple revelation, and by the final chapters, when the injury actually occurs, the broken arm carries symbolic significance.
Through much of part 1, Jem is a child who plays make-believe games with Scout and Dill, but toward the end of the first section, he has begun to recognize the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. Scout's narration reflects this development; she begins part 2 by noting: "Jem was twelve. He was difficult to live with, inconsistent, moody." Hence, Scout sets the tone for the section of the novel that deals largely with the trial of Tom Robinson; just as Jem is entering a difficult stage, learning to confront conflicting emotions and beliefs, so too are the people of Maycomb feeling the tension of a trial that will shake the foundation of their racially-divided town. Near the end of the novel, Bob Ewell, who represents the backwardness and evil of prejudice, tries to kill Jem and Scout in a vengeful attempt to hurt Atticus. Jem's arm is broken during the attack, symbolizing the pain and disillusionment he has experienced while learning about Boo Radley and witnessing the Robinson trial.
Jem survives the attack but carries a permanent scar, a symbol of the disabling power of hatred and injustice. Scout says that as a result of his injury that night, Jem's left arm is "somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh." In this way, Jem shares a bond with Tom Robinson, for Robinson's left arm is also shorter than his right. As a result of an accident involving a cotton gin, he is permanently crippled, and as Atticus argues at his trial, he is therefore physically incapable of beating Mayella Ewell in the manner that she describes. Yet Robinson's most damning handicap proves to be his race. Jem's broken arm serves as a reminder of this fact, and Lee implies that Jem has been irreparably changed as a result of Tom Robinson's trial.
Lee also suggests, however, that Jem's disillusionment is not permanent and that he will grow up to be as fair-minded and compassionate as his father. Atticus acts as a guardian of justice throughout the novel, and Lee symbolically ends the story with the image of Atticus watching over his children. Scout's final passage states that Atticus "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 is set in the 1930s in Maycomb, Alabama, a town so small and insular that, according to Scout, her father is "related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town." Scout devotes the very beginning of her narrative to a description of her southern heritage, revealing that her English ancestor, Simon Finch, a slaveholding, enterprising skinflint, founded Finch's Landing, a cotton plantation where generations of Finches, including Atticus, grew up. Twenty miles east of Finch's Landing, Maycomb is home to old southern families whose roots, traditions, and biases run deep. Each family name carries its own accepted identity in town: the Haverfords, for example, have "a name synonymous with jackass"; the Cunninghams are considered poor but very proud; and the Ewells are cruel and lazy.
The town itself is slow, hot, and uneventful in Scout's memory; the men work from morning till evening, the women stay at home, and the children go to school and then play outside. In Maycomb, says Scout, "Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum...There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County."
Racial segregation is an accepted way of life for the townspeople. The Blacks in Maycomb live in their own part of town, attend their own churches and schools, 1368 To Kill a Mockingbird have low-paying, menial jobs, and are implicitly considered inferior by the majority white segment of the town. The whites use pejorative terms to refer to the Black characters, and public buildings such as the courthouse have separate areas for the whites and for the "colored."
Much of the action, which occurs over the course of two years, takes place at the Finch home, where Scout lives with Atticus, Jem, and, during the day, their housekeeper, Calpurnia. Atticus has raised the children with Calpurnia's assistance since his wife died of a heart attack when Scout was two years old. Dill lives next door to the Finches during the summer, when he visits his Aunt Rachel Haverford. The rest of the action occurs at school, at the courthouse, and in the Black part of town.
The Radley Place, a source of fear and drama for the children, is located down the street from the Finch home. According to local legend, the Radley Place was once home to Mr. and Mrs. Radley, an aloof, stern couple, and their son Arthur. While still a teenager, Arthur joined his buddies on a lark, in locking a town official in the courthouse outhouse one night. Although the offense was trivial, the Radleys disciplined their son by secluding him in their home for fifteen years. Then, the story goes, when Arthur was thirty-three years old, he nonchalantly stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors. After this incident, Arthur was kept for a time in the courthouse basement and was eventually transferred back to his home, where he continues to live in isolation from the community. Although Arthur's cruel father has died, Arthur's older brother, Nathan Radley, an equally severe man, now occupies the Radley Place. Arthur, known as Boo to the superstitious, fearful neighbors, becomes a creepy object of fascination for the children, and the Radley Place is considered haunted property; as Scout explains: "People said that [Boo] went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people's azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them...A baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no questions asked."