Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Teaching Approaches

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Last Updated on July 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2321

Scout and Jem as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Scout and Jem Finch. Scout, who has a quick temper and poor self-control, represents the impulsivity, naiveté, and simplicity of childhood. Jem, who is more even-keeled and demonstrates better self-control, represents the sensibility, experience, and complexity of the adult world into which they must transition.

  • For discussion: Follow Scout’s and Jem’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of the plot. How does each character respond to feelings of anger and frustration? What about injustice or unfairness?
  • For discussion: Both Scout and Jem are unhappy when the jury convicts Tom Robinson of raping Mayella Ewell. However, Jem is especially distraught. Why does each character react so differently? Is Jem’s reaction more mature than Scout’s? Why or why not?

Scout’s Life Lessons: To Kill a Mockingbird is a type of bildungsroman, a “coming-of-age” story that focuses on a protagonist’s moral and psychological development from childhood to adulthood. While the novel does not follow Scout into literal adulthood, it emphasizes crucial moments that shape who Scout will become as an adult—a person we already know because she is the narrator.

  • For discussion: How does Scout’s character change from the beginning of the novel, when she plays the “Boo Radley game” with Jem and Dill, to the end of the novel, when she walks Boo Radley home after he saves her and Jem from Bob Ewell? In what ways does her character stay the same? What are some of the most important lessons that Scout learns?
  • For discussion: Throughout most of the novel, Scout—who is six years old—is too young to understand what is happening around her. As a result, she is often blunt, politically incorrect, or misinterprets the events unfolding around her. However, she narrates her childhood to us as an adult, after having achieved maturity and better understanding. What further evidence can you find of the changes Scout undergoes from childhood to adulthood through the way Scout narrates her story to us? Which traits change and which traits stay the same?

The Existence of Good and Evil as a Theme: To Kill a Mockingbird regularly questions the extent to which people are good or evil by exploring Scout’s and Jem’s journey from childhood innocence to adult experience. Much of the children’s transition to an adult perspective involves being confronted by the realization that evil exists—specifically, the evil of racism and injustice in their own community. Ultimately, the novel asks whether the goodness of innocence can prevail over the evilness of injustice.

  • For discussion: Jem’s reaction to Tom Robinson’s wrongful conviction is physical as well as emotional—so much so that, as the judge polls the jury, each statement of “guilty” causes his shoulders to jerk as though he is being stabbed. Jem seems to believe that his community is completely evil because they have committed a grave injustice against Tom and his family. However, Scout is not as negatively affected, as if she understands that people are neither totally good nor totally evil. What do Jem’s and Scout’s different reactions suggest about how a person should interpret the presence of evil?
  • For discussion: What does Tom Robinson’s unethical conviction reveal about the novel’s ultimate stance on humanity’s capacity for goodness? Do you think Maycomb’s white community is totally evil? Why or why not? Be sure to include examples from the novel when formulating your answer.

The Mockingbird as a Symbol of Innocence: In To Kill a Mockingbird, songbirds— especially mockingbirds—figure prominently as symbols of innocence. To Kill a Mockingbird is therefore to kill innocence. Many characters are concerned with or compared to songbirds throughout the novel, especially in relation to discussions of injustice and evil.

  • For discussion: Which characters are figurative “mockingbirds” in the novel? Why do you think so? Be sure to include evidence from the text to support your opinions.
  • For discussion: Scout, Jem, and Atticus’s last name is Finch, which is the name of another type of songbird. What does Harper Lee imply about the Finches by giving them this name? What would be the impact if they had a last name that had nothing to do with songbirds?

Gender Roles: From the beginning, To Kill a Mockingbird confronts oppressive and unfair gender roles through Scout’s character. Scout, a so-called "tomboy," rejects everything about being feminine because she associates womanhood with silence, docility, and boredom. She is offended when Jem tauntingly calls her a girl and resists Aunt Alexandra’s repeated attempts to force her to behave like a proper lady. Furthermore, growing up for Scout and Jem involves a growing awareness that they have different rights and responsibilities that are dictated by their respective genders.

  • For discussion: Throughout the novel, Scout rejects the constraints of femininity by fighting, swearing, and playing boys’ games. Do you think she is successful in her rejection? Why or why not? Is there a more effective way for Scout to resist? Be sure to include evidence from the novel to support your opinions.
  • For discussion: Why does Jem care so much about how his sister behaves? What does this suggest about the novel’s ultimate position on how gender roles are enforced—and on who enforces them? What would the impact be if Jem encouraged Scout to behave however she wants? 

Boo Radley and Tom Robinson as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Initially, both men seem be very different. Boo Radley is a mysterious white man who lives in isolation with his aloof brother. Tom Robinson is a black man who lives among family and friends who love him. However, a closer examination reveals that both men are symbols of destroyed innocence. Boo Radley, who is treated like a small-town freak instead of being seen as an actual person, was a kind and intelligent boy whose abusive father destroyed his innocence. Tom Robinson, who is never really seen as an actual person by Maycomb’s racist white community, is literally destroyed when he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

  • For discussion: Follow Boo’s and Tom’s predominant character traits as they are revealed throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of the plot. How does each character interact with his community? How does each character respond to scapegoating and unfounded blame?
  • For discussion: Boo Radley murders Bob Ewell to save Scout and Jem, but the sheriff lies to protect him. However, Tom Robinson is convicted of and eventually murdered for a crime he did not commit. What do Boo’s and Tom’s different fates suggest about the novel’s position on racism in the American justice system?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Racism: To Kill a Mockingbird regularly depicts the violence, prejudice, and oppression that many African Americans still experience today. The novel itself contains racist language and undertones, too. Some students may find this confusing, upsetting, or controversial.

  • What to do: Give students some historical context before discussing the novel. Explain that white people throughout the United States viewed African Americans as inferior and resented having to share rights and resources with them, especially during the Great Depression. Emphasize that African Americans faced violent hate crimes and were still denied many civil rights despite slavery being outlawed after the Civil War and the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.
  • What to do: Have students trace events in the novel back to actual historical occurrences, such as racial tension during the Great Depression and the Scottsboro Boys Trials. Why does history figure so prominently in the novel? What would be the impact if Harper Lee had never mentioned the Great Depression or racial tension and instead focused on Scout, Jem, and Dill’s fascination with Boo Radley?

Prose Style: The language used in To Kill a Mockingbird ranges from elevated and sophisticated to childlike and simple. As a result, some words, phrases, or allusions may be unfamiliar or difficult for students to understand.

  • What to do: As the class progresses throughout the novel, have students write down unfamiliar phrases or words that they do not understand. Go over these phrases and words as a class and ask students to work through meanings and definitions together.
  • What to do: Have students consider the reasons why Lee vacillates between elevated and simple language throughout the novel. What would be the impact if Lee only used easily accessible language?

Violence: The novel occasionally mentions or explicitly describes physical abuse, murder, and rape, and this may be upsetting and confusing for students.

  • What to do: Give students an advance warning that there will be violent scenes throughout the novel. Then, discuss explanations as to why Lee may have included them.
  • What to do: Have students trace each act of violence back to the novel’s overarching themes. What does Tom Robinson’s conviction and murder suggest about the novel’s position on racism in the justice system? Why is it important that Atticus skillfully shoots the rabid dog? Why does Lee include violence in the novel at all?

Alternative Teaching Approaches

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

The Marginalization of Black People as a Theme: To Kill a Mockingbird has frequently been accused of marginalizing black characters, sometimes in violent ways. Our understanding of Maycomb’s black community is rooted not in the actual experiences of black characters, but in the interpretations of a privileged white woman, told to us by a privileged white author. Black people like Calpurnia and Tom Robinson seem to serve only as figures that educate Scout and Jem about the cruel realities of racism and oppression instead of being empowered and well-rounded characters themselves. 

  • For discussion: Why are there no empowered, well-rounded black characters in To Kill a Mockingbird? What does this suggest about the novel’s own racial biases? 
  • For discussion: Ask students to consider the extent to which humans are necessarily a hierarchical species. Must there be a lowest rung on the social ladder? In the text, what characteristics put an individual on the bottom? Compare the text to social orders students are familiar with, within their school community or society at large. 
  • For discussion: Why does Harper Lee have Tom Robinson murdered even after his wrongful conviction? What would have been the impact if he had not been killed? 

Scout as an Unreliable Narrator: To Kill a Mockingbird is part of the bildungsroman genre because encompasses Scout’s moral and emotional “coming of age” story, though it only illustrates a short period in Scout’s life. Our narrator is Scout—or Jean Louise—as an adult who recounts the significant events that shaped her perspective going into adulthood. However, because the novel is narrated in the first person, we only have Jean Louise’s interpretation of events. Furthermore, much of the plot unfolds through child Scout’s experiences, and her young age makes her prone to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. As a result, readers are often required to interpret what may have actually happened. 

  • For discussion: Why would Harper Lee choose a protagonist who is only six years old when the story begins? Do you think Jean Louise Finch can reliably tell us what actually happened so long ago? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: Why does the novel end while Scout is still so young? What would the impact have been if Jean Louise Finch had continued telling us how her early experiences with the adult world shaped her perspective as she grew up? 
  • For discussion: Scout’s innocence may make her more reliable than an adult narrator because she is likely not mature enough to conceal important details for her own interests. However, because her experiences are actually narrated to us from an adult perspective, we may still not have all of the facts about what happened during Scout’s formative years. Do you think Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is a reliable narrator? Why or why not? Be sure to include specific examples from the text when formulating your answer. 

Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Calpurnia, who is the Finches’ cook, and Aunt Alexandra, who is Atticus’s sister. Though Calpurnia and Alexandra are not major characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, both women have significant influence and authority over Scout and Jem—but especially Scout. Nevertheless, Calpurnia is far more open-minded, compassionate, and tolerant than Aunt Alexandra, who is conservative, unsympathetic, and prejudiced. 

  • For discussion: Follow Calpurnia’s and Aunt Alexandra’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of Scout’s transition to a more adult perspective. What matters most to each character? How does each character treat Scout? 
  • For discussion: Both Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra are strong female figures who assume a motherly role for Scout. However, Calpurnia’s strength seems to represent more progressive values because, in addition to being Scout and Jem’s bridge between the white and black communities of Maycomb, she pushes Scout to put herself in other people’s shoes. Aunt Alexandra’s strength seems to represent the social traditionalism of Maycomb’s white community because she pushes Scout to become a proper Southern lady—a role that carries residual racism. What do Calpurnia’s and Aunt Alexandra’s opposing values, and Scout’s responses to them, suggest about the novel’s position on racial dynamics and the pervasiveness of white nationalism in Southern communities in the 1930s? 

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