Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Significant Allusions

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Harper Lee includes many biblical, historical, and literary allusions in To Kill a Mockingbird. These allusions enable her to effectively represent small town Southern life during the Great Depression. 

Biblical Allusions: Lee incorporates many biblical allusions into the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird. Like many small Southern communities, Maycomb’s residents would have been very familiar with the Bible. Christianity would also have been an important part of life for Maycomb’s black community, as suggested when Calpurnia brings Scout and Jem to her all-black church. Here are two major biblical allusions: 

  • When Calpurnia brings Jem and Scout to her church for Sunday service, Scout judgmentally observes that “at each seat was a cardboard fan bearing a garish Garden of Gethsemane.” This is an allusion to the Garden of Gethsemane in the New Testament, when Jesus and his disciples slept and prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. 
  • In chapter 16, when most of Maycomb’s citizens make their way to the courthouse for Tom Robinson’s trial, a “shrill-voiced” woman taunts Miss Maudie by loosely quoting— with a grin of “uttermost wickedness,” Ecclesiastes 6:4—when she says, “He that cometh in vanity departeth in darkness.” Miss Maudie quotes Proverbs 15:13 when she responds, “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance.”

Historical Allusions: Like many authors, Lee relies heavily on historical allusions. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s use of historical allusions centers mostly on American history, especially the Great Depression and the influence of social inequality and racism in the South during the 1930s. Here are two of the novel’s most significant historical allusions: 

  • The novel takes place during the Great Depression (1929–1939), and many historical allusions refer to this difficult time in American history. Many communities—especially those relying on agriculture to sustain themselves—struggled to survive. The Finches, however, live comfortably because Atticus is a successful lawyer. Part of Scout’s moral and emotional development involves learning to empathize with those less fortunate than her, such as Walter Cunningham, whose family of farmers has been hit hard by the depression. Lee also mentions major Great Depression-era events, such as the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the 1930s Birmingham strikes, as well as political figures such as President Herbert Hoover and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, such as in chapter 1 when Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. 
  • Racial tensions and discrimination against black communities figure prominently in the novel. Lee regularly alludes to the Civil War, or the “War Between the States,” and emphasizes the Confederate Army and the Confederate States of America. She also mentions Reconstruction, a period of rebuilding the South during and following the Civil War, and several famous Civil War-era figures like General Robert E. Lee and commander Braxton Bragg. Lee also refers to contemporary events that relate to racism and social inequality; Scout and Jem’s introduction to racism, for example, involves witnessing Tom Robinson’s bogus trial, based on the Scottsboro Boys Trials of 1931. 

Literary Allusions: Lee regularly references literary works and authors throughout To Kill a Mockingbird to suggest characters’ social status and intellectual capabilities. Here are two significant literary allusions in the novel: 

  • Lee incorporates a lengthy allusion to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in chapter 11, when Jem angrily cuts down Mrs. Dubose’s flowers after she speaks critically of Atticus for representing a black man. His punishment is to visit her every day—except Sundays, of course—and read Ivanhoe to her for two hours at a time. Scout describes Jem as being “armed with Ivanhoe and armed with superior knowledge” as he walked to Mrs. Dubose’s house each day, suggesting that reading a book like Ivanhoe implies superiority over others. 
  • Scout alludes to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes in chapter 17, when Atticus demonstrates that Tom Robinson could not have beaten Mayella Ewell because he is right-handed; since the right side of Mayella’s face has been blackened, “it would tend to show that a left-handed person [her father] did it.” Scout goes on to say that “Sherlock Holmes and Jem Finch would agree,” suggesting that she considers her father’s and brother’s analytical skills match those of Sherlock Holmes, who uses deductive reasoning to solve cases. 

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