To Kill a Mockingbird Questions and Answers

Harper Lee

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting To Kill a Mockingbird questions.

How does gender play a role in the plot?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the theme of gender and gender roles is important. Throughout the novel, Scout Finch is forced to define gender roles. As a young girl who prefers “boy things,” Scout comes to the conclusion that masculinity is positive and femininity is negative. This notion is bolstered by the role models in her family: her father Atticus and her brother Jem, as well as her detested Aunt Alexandra. Scout, the younger sister, is easily convinced by Jem to go along with his plan whenever he simply critiques her for being “like a girl.” Certain adults, especially Aunt Alexandra, critique her for being unladylike. These dynamics speak to the power differential inherent in gender roles. The position of Mayella Ewell also demonstrates this. She is a powerless figure, and her abuse at her father’s hands is a significant representation of gendered power.

How is systemic racism shown in the novel?

Not only does To Kill A Mockingbird deal with themes of prejudice, it also delves into institutional racism. Although many people are victims of prejudice for various reasons, the novel shows that state violence against black people is an institutional and systemic hatred. Through the portrayal of the criminal justice system and the prison system, the novel shows how injustice is not only perpetuated by individual people, but by a whole system that needs to change. Because despite the honorable work of people like Atticus Finch, and despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that Tom Robinson is innocent, Tom’s life is destroyed anyways.

How would you describe the education in Maycomb?

The breakdown of systemic institutions goes even further in To Kill a Mockingbird. For instance, Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, prohibits her from reading at home with her father because it would interfere with the school system’s instruction. The education system is portrayed as a problematic place where creative thought and individualism are quashed.

What are Scout's internal conflicts?

Throughout the novel, Scout ages from six to eight years old. At this point in her life, she has always been a "tomboy." She has rejected traditional feminine roles and ideas. She is called the gender ambiguous nickname "Scout," rather than her very feminine given name, Jean Louise. She loathes everything ladylike, as demonstrated by her strained relationship with her proper Aunt Alexandra. But for a young girl to do these things (even today, but especially in the American South during the era of the Great Depression), she is considered deviant. Because Scout is very young and has only been raised by a single father, she is often "forgiven" by relatives and community members for her boyishness and rejection of the feminine. However, people around her believe that it is time for her to start learning how to be more of a lady. (A large part of the reason why Aunt Alexandra comes to visit in the first place is to "help" Scout become a lady.) She struggles with her resistance against societal norms, and her desire to keep the boyish lifestyle she adores. She struggles against the "dress" lifestyle of ladyhood. Yet, she is beginning to realize that people around her are expecting her to act in a way she does not want to act. She does not want to change, even as the society she lives in continually insists that she should. 

What is the importance of Lee's minor characters?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, racism and tragic injustice take center stage against the backdrop of life in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression when Scout and Jem are growing up. In Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch, Lee creates unforgettable major characters who are caught up in Tom Robinson’s being accused of rape, brought to trial, and convicted of a heinous crime he did not commit. Secondary characters—Miss Maudie Atkinson, Atticus’s sister Alexandra, and the elusive Arthur “Boo” Radley—are drawn into the narrative in ways that advance the plot and develop several subplots in Scout and Jem’s journey out of childhood. Maudie, Aunt Alexandra, and Boo are unforgettable, too.

The major and secondary characters and their storylines are more than sufficient to drive the novel, but To Kill a Mockingbird does more than develop Harper Lee’s plot and subplots. It also captures the culture of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s and records the rhythms of daily life. Through an amazing, diverse collection of minor characters, Maycomb comes alive on the pages of the novel, and human nature is illuminated in ways that inspire hope for humanity or cause anger and despair in regard to how terribly people can treat one another. Sometimes the minor characters simply evoke laughter as they demonstrate how silly human beings can be. 

Many of Lee’s minor characters are either “black or white”—but the distinction exists in regard to their humanity, not their race. The goodness and evil in Maycomb, as in the world at large, have nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Heck Tate, Judge Taylor, Link Deas, Dolphus Raymond, Reverend Sykes, and Calpurnia are all examples of goodness. Each of them acts with courage and kindness rooted in moral conviction and concern for other human beings. Compassion and respect for justice are evident in how Heck, Link, and the judge deal with Tom Robinson’s incarceration and trial; Heck’s staunch refusal to subject Boo Radley to public scrutiny in regard to Bob Ewell’s death demonstrates compassion and respect for justice, as well. The sheriff defies Atticus and bends the law he is sworn to uphold because he cannot tolerate the moral injustice that would occur if he acknowledged Boo’s having killed Ewell. In Dolphus Raymond, Reverend Sykes, and Calpurnia, the reader finds loyalty and love. Each of them, at various times and in their own ways, reaches out to the children with tenderness because they understand and care about the difficulties Jem, Scout, and Dill are experiencing.

Evil in varying degrees is found in Bob Ewell; Nathan Radley; Scout’s teacher, Miss Gates; and Grace Merriweather of the Missionary Circle. Bob Ewell’s accusing Tom Robinson of rape, thus deliberately destroying Tom’s life, and later attempting to murder Jem and Scout are the ultimate acts of evil among the minor characters. The racism of Miss Gates and Mrs. Merriweather is not manifested in violence, but it is hateful and destructive. Jem’s brief encounter with Nathan Radley illustrates an evil not motivated by racism, but it is enormously cruel. As Radley methodically fills the knothole in the oak tree with cement, he deliberately destroys Boo’s communication with Jem and Scout, the only source of joy in Boo's life. When Jem realizes why Nathan Radley cemented the tree, he recognizes the evil act for what it is and cries.

For most readers, the minor characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are memorable personalities in the novel, even if their names are forgotten. Sometimes they are remembered as the no-nonsense housekeeper who made Jem and Scout behave or the hypocrite who hated Hitler or the judge who sat one night reading a book with a shotgun in his lap. That the minor characters are remembered even when their names have been lost is a testament to how vividly Harper Lee brings them to life. Without them, much of the truth about human nature and life in a particular time and place would have remained unexplored. As they are woven into the tapestry of the narrative, however, To Kill a Mockingbird becomes an even richer, more satisfying, and more illuminating novel. The minor characters, it seems, aren’t minor at all.

How are Atticus, Dolphus, and Link all good men?

Since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, Atticus Finch has become one of the most admired characters in American fiction. In his compassion, integrity, and moral courage, he embodies the personal traits to which human beings should aspire. Although Atticus is the central character in the novel, he is not alone in possessing these fine qualities. As if to emphasize their importance, Harper Lee ascribes the same traits to several minor characters, as well, including Dolphus Raymond and Link Deas. The lives of Dolphus and Link are very different from Atticus’s, but they demonstrate many of the personal traits that make Atticus such a decent man.

To most of the people of Maycomb, Dolphus Raymond is a man to be scorned. The gentler and more forgiving among them see him as an object of pity, a white man from a “good” family who chose to live with a black woman, father children with her, and become the town drunk separated from respectable society. A cursory glance at Dolphus’s character makes it seem unlikely that he would have anything in common with Atticus, yet he does. Like Atticus, Dolphus deplores the cruelty of racism, and his compassion, integrity, and moral courage are as true as Atticus’s, even though they are evidenced differently.

Dolphus loves the woman he cannot by law marry, and he will not leave her and their children, despite being ostracized for remaining with them. He also will not condemn the people of Maycomb who condemn him, choosing instead to pretend to drink so that they will have a way to explain his shocking behavior. As Dolphus explains to Scout and Dill, he refuses to say “the hell with ‘em.” Dolphus lives the lie because “it’s mighty helpful to folks,” and he continues to live “the way I want to live” with the family he loves. It is in his encounter with Scout and Dill that Dolphus Raymond’s compassion becomes obvious. Realizing that watching Tom Robinson’s trial has reduced Dill to tears and made him physically sick, Dolphus intervenes. “Come on round here, son,” he tells Dill, “I got something that’ll settle your stomach.” He then shares with Dill the Coca-Cola he carries in a paper sack to maintain his comforting image as Maycomb’s hopeless drunk.

In contrast to Dolphus Raymond, Link Deas is respected in Maycomb. Link has the reputation of being honest and fair, as does Atticus, and like Atticus, Link is not infected with racism, “Maycomb’s usual disease.” He grows cotton on land he owns, he owns a store in town, and he does not take advantage of his black employees, including Tom Robinson. Link knows the quality of Tom’s character and provides him with work all through the year so that Tom can provide for his wife and three children.

Link is in court during Tom’s trial, watching as Bob Ewell and Mayella testify against Tom, telling lie after lie, and he watches as Tom takes the witness stand. Tom’s fear is palpable as Atticus leads him through his testimony, but Tom tells the truth, despite being terrified. When Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor, rises to cross-examine Tom, Link can’t bear the injustice of Tom’s terrible circumstances any longer. Risking the ire of Judge Taylor and the contempt of friends and neighbors, customers at his store, Link disrupts the proceedings and throws the courtroom into a frenzy by offering some unsolicited testimony of his own. He rises to his feet, his anger obvious, and declares, “I just want the whole lot of you to know one thing right now.” Link then defends Tom’s character and gets himself thrown out of court. Speaking for Tom and indicating his disdain for what is happening in the courtroom could put Link's reputation in Maycomb and perhaps his livelihood in jeopardy, but he cannot remain silent. Everything in him demands that he speak.

After Tom Robinson is convicted and then shot to death in prison, Link doesn’t forget him or Tom’s family. According to Scout, Link said “he felt right bad about the way things turned out,” an understatement, to be sure, considering Link's actions at Tom's trial and how he protects Helen Robinson after her husband’s death. When no one in Maycomb will hire Helen, Link gives her a job as his cook, even though he doesn’t need the help. When Bob Ewell begins to harass Helen as she walks to work, forcing her to walk almost two miles out of her way each day, Link learns what Ewell is doing and intends to put a stop to it. Helen begs him to “let it be,” but Link won’t hear of it. “The hell I will,” he tells Helen. Link closes his store, walks Helen home past Bob Ewell’s house, and stops at Ewell’s place on the way back to town. Knowing Bob is hiding in the house, Link calls out to him, threatening to “have [him] in jail before sundown” if he continues to harass Helen.

Link assumes Helen will no longer be bothered, but Ewell persists. Link confronts him again, this time in front of Link’s house. He tells Ewell to get his “stinkin’ carcass” off the property and to stay away from Helen. Forcefully, Link explains the law to Ewell and guarantees he can get him locked up. “[S]o get outa my sight!” he tells Ewell. “If you don’t think I mean it, just bother that girl again!” Scout reports that Bob Ewell apparently believed him, because Helen was no longer harassed.

Link cannot right the reprehensible injustice that had been done to Tom and that had cost Tom his life, but he can provide for Tom’s family and ensure Helen’s safety and peace of mind. A man of moral courage, compassion, and integrity, Link lives by the principles he believes in, as does Atticus. Miss Maudie once observed of Atticus’s character that “[h]e’s the same in the courtroom as he is on the public streets.” Her description of Atticus applies to Link Deas, as well.  

How would you describe Atticus and Miss Maudie's Friendship?

Atticus and Miss Maudie are good friends who hold each other in high esteem. As their characters develop in the novel, it isn’t hard to understand why they value and respect each other. Their friendship and mutual respect is the result of having similar traits in their characters and believing in the same moral principles.

Atticus and Maudie both have a strong sense of justice, and they stand up to injustice. Maudie is one of the few citizens in Maycomb who understand why Atticus must take Tom Robinson’s case and who support him when he defends Tom vigorously in court. She has enormous respect for Atticus and won’t tolerate hearing others criticize him in regard to helping Tom Robinson, as it becomes obvious when she chastises Mrs. Merriweather at the Missionary Circle meeting.

When presented with daunting circumstances and personal loss, neither Atticus nor Maudie shrinks from what must be done, nor does their courage fail. After the death of his wife, Atticus raises Jem and Scout by himself and works hard to do it right. He sometimes wonders if he is up to the task, but he continues to meet every parenting challenge that presents itself. After taking Tom Robinson’s case, Atticus tries to shield Jem and Scout from the ugliness it fosters in Maycomb. When his children do encounter racism and hatred, he helps them understand it so as not to be harmed by it. Like Atticus, Maudie confronts personal loss and difficult circumstances with courage and resolve. After her home burns to the ground during a rare snow storm in Maycomb, Maudie moves in with Stephanie Crawford, refuses to mourn the loss of her house and possessions, and makes plans to build a smaller home and plant even more flowers in her yard. Despite disaster, Maudie moves forward in life, as Atticus does, instead of choosing to live in the past and dwell on what has been lost.

In regard to their relationships with Jem and Scout, the similarities between Atticus and Maudie are numerous. As intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive people, both Atticus and Maudie understand Jem and Scout, love them, and enjoy their company. They don’t underestimate the children’s intelligence, talk down to them, evade their questions, or ignore their concerns. They treat Jem and Scout with affection and respect, never with condescension. Atticus and Maudie both expect Jem and Scout to behave, but their expectations are reasonable, and the children always know where they stand with Atticus and Maudie. Consequently, Jem and Scout love and trust both Atticus and Maudie.

Atticus and Miss Maudie share some other traits that are not necessarily common among the citizens of Maycomb. They mind their own business and don’t contribute to the town’s gossip. They both believe in God and have respect for religion, but are not religious zealots. They also are not religious hypocrites. Maudie and Atticus judge people by their character, not their race or Southern heritage, and both of them are excellent judges of character. Atticus and Maudie are good friends because they find in each other the moral principles and way of life they value.     

How is To Kill a Mockingbird humorous?

For a novel that deals with human tragedy and the loss of innocence, To Kill a Mockingbird is remarkably humorous. Until the tone shifts in Part II and grows increasingly more serious, it’s hard to open the book to a page without a passage or an anecdote that evokes amusement or a laugh-out-loud response. The novel is often amusing, and sometimes it’s downright funny. Written in the retrospective point of view with the adult Scout telling the story, the humor emanates mostly from two sources: Jem, Scout, and Dill’s adventures growing up in Maycomb before they are exposed to the hatred inherent in racism, and the tone of Scout’s voice as narrator.

Looking back, Scout is often amused by her childhood and the culture in which she grew up. As she narrates the novel, she shares her amusement in anecdotes and a tone of voice that reflect her pleasure in remembering them. Sometimes humor is found in exaggeration or understatement as she describes herself and her experiences; some passages in the novel are gently satirical in describing the culture of Maycomb. Most of the humor is found in Scout’s recalling the numerous challenges she and Jem presented to their father when they were children. As Miss Maudie teases Atticus while looking at Jem and Scout’s “morphodite” snowman, “Atticus, you’ll never raise them!” Atticus does raise them, and very well, but his job, according to Scout, wasn’t easy.   

During their summers together in Maycomb, Jem, Scout, and Dill spend their days playing while Calpurnia keeps an eye on them. Cal can’t watch them every minute, though, and left to their own devices, they create some of the funniest incidents in the novel. Rolling downhill in a tire on the sidewalk in front of the Finch house is a favorite pastime—until Scout is crammed inside the tire, it goes out of control, and she is deposited, head spinning and knees shaking, in the front yard of the fearful Radley house where the even more frightening Boo Radley lives.

The children’s early obsession with Boo is innocent and naïve, and their conception of him is hilarious, one that could only be born in the creativity of a child’s imagination. Scout remembers Jem’s “reasonable” description of Boo, as delivered to Dill:

Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.

Never doubting the accuracy of Jem’s description, Dill immediately wants to see Boo for himself. If Dill wanted to “get himself killed,” Jem advises, “all he had to do was go up and knock on the [Radleys'] front door.”

The children’s growing obsession with Boo leads to other humorous incidents, two of which get them into trouble with Atticus, who has told them to leave Boo alone. They “play Boo Radley,” acting out the gossip they have heard about him and his parents. They embellish the stories about Boo, creating quite a script to perform with stage props pilfered from the Finch household. Scout recalls that “[o]ne day we were so busy playing Chapter XXV, Book II of One Man’s Family, we did not see Atticus standing on the sidewalk looking at us, slapping a rolled magazine against his knee.” Atticus’s irritation is obvious, but it does not deter them.

Jem, Scout, and Dill are soon in trouble again when Atticus sees Jem trying to deliver a note to Boo by attaching it to the end of a fishing pole and shoving it through a shutter on the Radley house. Scout recalls that Jem’s plan to make sure Atticus didn’t catch him in the act seemed foolproof. Scout and Dill would stand guard, and if Atticus were sighted, Dill would ring a bell in warning. Dill, as Scout remembers, was armed with her mother’s silver dinner-bell, and when Jem’s plan went awry, “I saw Dill ringing the bell with all his might in Atticus’s face.” In the tone of Scout’s voice as she relates these childhood antics, readers can hear the amusement that infuses much of the novel.

Scout’s amusement is also evident when she relates memories of her skirmishes with Calpurnia, some of her battles with Alexandra, and her relationship with school. Especially entertaining is Scout’s campaign to avoid going to school, one phase of which was cussing: “I was proceeding on the dim theory, aside from the innate attractiveness of such words, that if Atticus discovered I had picked them up from school he wouldn’t make me go.” Scout’s asking her Uncle Jack “to pass the damn ham, please” at Christmas dinner may be one of the funniest passages in the book.

The culture of Maycomb, Alabama, is also reviewed in a humorous tone from time to time. For instance, Scout relates that when Atticus began practicing law, his first two clients were Haverfords, “in Maycomb County, a name synonymous with jackass.” After killing a blacksmith over a horse and being “imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses,” the Haverfords rejected Atticus’s advice to take a plea and “insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody.” It wasn’t.

Scout also touches humorously on the culture of Maycomb when she describes how her first-grade class reacted when their new teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, informed them she was from Winston County in North Alabama:

The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.

Rural Maycomb County obviously had no use for its cousin to the north. What it did value, Scout recalls, was its own history and a large variety of Maycomb County’s agricultural products, both of which were celebrated in a school pageant written by Mrs. Grace Merriweather. Given “Mrs. Merriweather’s imagination and the supply of children” to dress in meat and vegetable costumes, the pageant would have been impressive, Scout remembers, had she not fallen asleep in her ham costume, missed her cue, and woke up just in time to race on stage and ruin Mrs. Merriweather’s grand finale with the state flag.

Scout’s description of the pageant is the last instance of humor in To Kill A Mockingbird, for it takes place immediately before Bob Ewell’s savage attack on Jem and Scout and the moving conclusion of the novel. The end of the pageant must have been hilarious, though, because after Scout’s disastrous debut as a ham, “Judge Taylor went out behind the auditorium and stood there slapping his knees so hard Mrs. Taylor brought him a glass of water and one of his pills.” The little girl dressed up as a ham certainly didn’t think the incident was funny, but through the retrospective point of view, Scout as narrator enjoys remembering it. It is through these anecdotes and Scout’s amusing retrospective assessments of Maycomb that the novel is often very humorous and irresistibly charming. 

How does Mayella Ewell's situation illustrate the intersection between race and class?

Even though much of the plot in To Kill A Mockingbird revolves around her, Mayella Ewell is one of the least-developed characters in the novel. But she has significance other than her role in the plot: it becomes her duty to fulfill the role of the pure and helpless Southern Woman. 

Mayella Ewell's father Bob, a drunkard who represents the ignorance and hateful prejudice of the South, is probably the least-sympathetic character in the novel. The Ewells are Maycomb's poorest residents, living behind the town dump from which they scavenge everything from the roofing material for their shack to some of the food they eat. They make their shoes out of old tires, wash only when they feel like hauling water from the other side of the dump, and are often sick (Lee, pp. 172, 185). It's a dirty, trashy yard except for the one corner where Mayella grows her red geraniums in scavenged slop pails. The care she clearly gives the flowers may represent her desire for the finer life of a stereotypical Southern woman. Scout makes it clear that "people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression" (p. 172). The Ewells were only ever tolerated, not welcomed. 

There is a big shift in sentiment toward Mayella Ewell when Tom is accused of raping her. Suddenly, Mayella is not the trashy, ugly guest at the table; rather, she becomes representative of the genteel, white, Southern Woman, something Atticus Finch calls a "polite fiction" (Lee, p. 149). In order to justify sentencing a man to death, Mayella has to be believable as a fragile, helpless woman who must be protected at all costs by the heroic Southern white gentleman. Suddenly, Mayella is not the ugly squatter from the dump:

A young girl walked to the witness stand. As she raised her hand and swore that the evidence she gave would be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help her God, she seemed somehow fragile-looking (p. 181).

Now Mayella is a young girl, frightened and fragile, and in need of saving.

Mayella herself contributes to this picture by crying in fear--whether mock or not is hard to tell--at being on the stand and telling everyone how she was just too weak to chop up the cabinet for kindling as her father had asked her to do. The judge responds heroically to her tears: "'That’s enough now. Don’t be ‘fraid of anybody here, as long as you tell the truth. All this is strange to you, I know, but you’ve nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to fear'" (p. 181). In her final moments in the courtroom, and in the novel, Mayella calls on the men to be men and to protect her dignity and her position as part of the privileged white class:

I got somethin‘ to say an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more. That nigger yonder took advantage of me an‘ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin‘ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don’t come to nothin‘—your ma’amin’ and Miss Mayellerin‘ don’t come to nothin’, Mr. Finch (p. 191).

When was To Kill a Mockingbird published?

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.

What genre is To Kill a Mockingbird?

To Kill a Mockingbird falls under several different genres including long fiction, social realism, and bildungsroman.

What is the setting of the novel?

The novel takes place during the 1930s in Maycomb, a fictional small town in Alabama.