To Kill a Mockingbird Analysis

  • 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.


(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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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

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.


Schoolhouse. 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

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.


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Although frequently referred to as a regional novel, To Kill a Mockingbird quickly proved to have universal appeal. A best-seller, it received mixed critical reviews but was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and soon became one of the most widely read contemporary novels in U.S. high schools. Objections to its mild profanity, inclusion of racial epithets, depiction of hypocrisy in religion, and reference to rape led to occasional short-term censorship in public schools and libraries but ultimately only increased the popularity of the novel. Written during one of the most turbulent periods of race relations in the United States, To Kill a Mockingbird effectively reflects and indicts the social code of the South, which conflicted with established law in failing to provide justice for all, regardless of race. As race relations were being tested in both the courts and the streets, readers responded emotionally and intellectually to a literary work that advocated equal justice for all humanity.

Related Work

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

A 1962 Academy Award-winning film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (screenplay by Horton Foote, directed by Robert Mulligan) capitalized on and expanded the popularity of the novel.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, who recalls her childhood spent in the sleepy Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama. Set in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, part 1 of the novel mainly consists of Scout’s everyday trials and tribulations with her father, Atticus; her older brother, Jem; their black housekeeper, Calpurnia; and their neighbors. Scout and Jem are becoming more aware of the adult world around them. Atticus Finch desires his children to be more tolerant in a town that has certain deep-rooted prejudices. Scout and Jem begin this struggle for understanding when Dill, a precocious nephew of their neighbor Stephanie Crawford, visits one summer. Dill proposes that they try to make Boo Radley come out of his house. Fascinated by the town’s rumors that Boo is insane, the children make several attempts to lure the mysterious recluse out into the open.

When Dill leaves in the fall, the children’s ideas concerning Boo fade. Scout encounters the school system for the first time. On the first day of school, she gets in trouble with her new teacher because Atticus has been teaching Scout to read; the teacher insists that Scout learn to read “properly”—that is, in school. From this encounter, Atticus teaches Scout about compromise—they will continue to read together every night, but Scout must learn her teacher’s reading methods as well— and about the value of seeing things from another person’s perspective.

Later in the school year, Jem discovers gifts left in the knot hole of a tree on the Radley place. The children realize that Boo Radley may have left these gifts for them. The children’s pondering over Boo Radley’s existence is overtaken, however, by Atticus’ involvement with the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Atticus tries his best to prepared his children for the months ahead. At Christmas, Atticus gives the children their first air rifles but cautions that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds only bring pleasure. Later, Scout connects this comment about the innocent mockingbird to Boo Radley.

Part 2 is the more serious section of the novel, moving from the happy memories of Scout’s childhood to Tom Robinson’s trial and its long-reaching effects on Atticus and the children. On the night before the hearing, a lynch party is narrowly diverted when Scout, having followed Atticus to the jail along with Jem and Dill, recognizes a classmate’s father. Her innocent remarks to the man cause him to disband the lynch mob.

The trial brings the whole county of Maycomb to hear the testimony of Mayella Ewell, a white girl who lives in extreme poverty with her shiftless father, Bob Ewell. During cross-examination, Atticus proves that the Ewells are lying about Tom, but unfortunately, as Jem and Scout learn, the jury upholds Ewell’s word, and Tom is convicted of rape. The children and their father barely get over the pain of this conviction before word comes that Tom has been killed while trying to escape from prison.

By the fall of Scout’s eighth year, the controversy has died down, but Bob Ewell continues to threaten members of the court who he feels discredited him. He publicly spits on Atticus. Later, Ewell attacks Jem and Scout on their way home from the town’s Halloween pageant. Scout survives the attack unscathed, but Jem is badly hurt. Reunited with a frightened Atticus, she learns that it was their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, who killed Ewell and saved the children’s lives. Atticus and the town sheriff decide not to tell the town of Boo’s deed, and Scout agrees, reminding Atticus that it would be “like shootin’ a mockingbird.” After walking Boo home, Scout stands on his front porch and finally understands her father’s words about seeing things from another’s point of view.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American literary classic. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962, with Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch. The novel also won the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1961 and was Best Sellers magazine “Paperback of the Year” in 1961.

Although Harper Lee has not published a major work since To Kill a Mockingbird, the book retains its place in American literature for its telling of a regional story with a universal message. Also, although it is not a main issue, the novel features a feminist struggle. Even though the main focus of the novel remains Scout’s growing recognition of the prejudices of her surroundings, Scout struggles for an understanding of womanhood. Through the strong, lyrical voice of this independent tomboy, the reader sees a young girl unsure of her place in Southern femininity. Scout struggles with how to fit into the world of “ladies,” as exemplified by her Aunt Alexandria, and how to retain the independence that she has had as a child. Men still hold the main arena, and their world seems much more interesting to Scout than the world of caretaking that her aunt enjoys. Only Miss Maudie, Scout’s outspoken neighbor, offers a good model for Scout. Maudis is independent and speaks her mind, yet she enjoys her baking and tending her garden.

Lee has been linked to other Southern writers who emerged in American literature after World War II, such as Truman Capote (who was the model for Dill in the novel), Carson McCullers, William Styron, and Eudora Welty. Along with these writers, Lee celebrates the Southern tradition of looking back on the past as did her predecessor William Faulkner. The new Southern writers, however, wrote about a “new South,” a region that looked not only to its past but also to its future. Critics praised Lee for her portrayal of the new Southern liberal in the character of Atticus Finch. They also praise her technical use of point of view and her strong evocation of place as the strengths of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Sharecropper's house Published by Gale Cengage

Civil Rights in the 1950s
Despite the end of slavery almost a century before To Kill a Mockingbird was...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Lee neatly structures her novel around a dual plot and dual themes; the novel is evenly divided into two parts. In her graceful, understated...

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Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

To Kill a Mockingbird is about two deeply disturbing subjects: rape and racism. Lee addresses both subjects with grave sensitivity....

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1930s: During the Great Depression unemployment rose as high as 25%; the New Deal program of...

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Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Scout describes her father's first law case in this way: "His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. When Aunt Alexandria forbids Scout to associate with Walter Cunningham because she considers him "trash," Scout and Jem have a discussion...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Research the 1930s trials of the Scottsboro Boys and compare how the justice system worked in this case to the trial of Tom Robinson....

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Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted as a motion picture with a screenplay written by Horton Foote. A winner of three Academy...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Adams, Phoebe. Review in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 206, August 26, 1960, pp. 98-99.

Dave, R....

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Altman, Dorothy Jewell. Harper Lee. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. A concise examination of the novel’s themes and symbolism. Treats the work as a regional novel with a universal message.

Beidler, Philip D. “Introduction: Alabama Flowering II.” In The Art of Fiction in the Heart of Dixie: An Anthology of Alabama Writers, edited by Philip D. Beidler. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

Betts, Doris. Introduction to Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.

Dave, R. A. “To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s Tragic Vision.” In Indian Studies in American Literature, edited by M. K. Naik et al. Dharwar, India: Karnatak University, 1974. Dave provides an interesting discussion of the history of the mockingbird as a symbol of innocence and joy in American literature. He draws parallels between To Kill a Mockingbird and Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Dave also explores how Lee, like Jane Austen, evokes a regional place yet makes it a macrocosm describing a range of human behavior.

Erisman, Fred. “The Romantic Regionalism of Harper Lee.” Alabama Review 26 (April, 1973): 122-136. Examines Maycomb as a microcosm of the South, having within itself the potential to move from reliance on tradition to reliance on principle and to join the larger world without loss of regional identity.

Going, William T. “Store and Mockingbird: Two Pulitzer Novels About Alabama.” In Essays on Alabama Literature. University: University of Alabama Press, 1975. Contains a good discussion on Lee’s use of point of view to relate the story’s themes in a fresh manner. Going also discusses Lee’s ties to the other new Southern writers who emerged in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Johnson, Claudia. “Secret Courts of Men’s Hearts: Code and Law in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” Studies in Fiction 19, no. 2 (1991): 129-139. Johnson gives an excellent overview of the history of racial conflicts in Alabama during the 1930’s, when the novel is set, and conflicts in the late 1950’s, when the novel was being written, that Harper Lee drew upon for the trial of Tom Robinson.

Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding “To Kill a Mockingbird”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Offers literary analysis, historical context, critical studies, and discussion of censorship issues.

Rubin, Louis D., Jr., ed. The History of Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. A brief history of Harper Lee’s place among the new Southern writers such as Capote, Welty, Styron, and McCullers. Rubin discusses how the new writers reflect on the past yet look toward the future, explore the plight of the black man in the South, and focus on portrayals of the new type of Southerner—the liberal who is in conflict with his or her environment because of an awareness of racism.

Schuster, Edgar H. “Discovering Theme and Structure in the Novel.” English Journal 52 (October, 1963): 506-511. Deals with the elements of theme and structure in To Kill a Mockingbird, identifying and illustrating five thematic motifs.

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird Published by Gale Cengage
  • To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted as a film by Horton Foote, starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham, Universal, 1962; available...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

(The entire section is 220 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Buelle, Edwin. "Keen Scalpel on Racial Ills." English Journal 53 (1964): 658- 661. Discusses racial themes in Lee's novel and in Alan...

(The entire section is 226 words.)