To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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At a Glance

  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Maycomb's citizens display many forms of prejudice, including racism, classism, and sexism. Lee uses their intolerance as a counterbalance to the more progressive main characters.
  • Themes of guilt, sin, and innocence are explored through Tom Robinson’s trial, Boo Radley’s seeming imprisonment, and the symbol of the mockingbird.
  • Courage is demonstrated by characters like Atticus, who stands up for his principles in the face of overwhelming opposition, and Mrs. Dubose, who wrestles with her morphine addiction.

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Themes

Prejudice

The key events in To Kill a Mockingbird are driven by the undercurrent of prejudice that runs through Maycomb. The most obvious victim of prejudice is Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Tom’s accuser, Mayella Ewell, is a victim of Maycomb’s prejudice herself; her entire family is viewed as “trash” by the rest of the town. Indeed, Bob Ewell’s persecution of Tom is clearly driven by a desire to bolster his own pride by asserting power over the only group in Maycomb with less social status than the Ewells. That Tom’s conviction is all but assured despite the obvious inaccuracies and impossibilities of Mayella’s accusation illustrates the depth of racism in the town. Though Scout is firmly entrenched in the white world of Maycomb, we get a small glimpse of life for Maycomb’s black community when Scout visits Calpurnia’s run-down church. The visit is marred by a confrontation between Calpurnia and Lula, who argue over whether the children should be allowed to come to a black church. Though the rest of the church is welcoming, Lula’s anger at their presence speaks to the inherent unfairness of the situation: the white Finches—while well-meaning—may enter and leave both black and white spaces freely, a luxury that Lula and the other black people in Maycomb do not possess. The rampant racism in Maycomb eventually bleeds into the personal lives of the Finch family as they face significant social backlash when Atticus becomes Tom Robinson’s defense attorney. Scout and Jem witness prejudice up close again when their Aunt Alexandra comes to visit. Alexandra urges Atticus to fire Calpurnia and teach Jem and Scout about the importance of heritage and class. While many citizens of Maycomb hold strong racist and classist assumptions like Alexandra does, they are contrasted with characters like Atticus and Miss Maudie, who choose to judge people based on their character, rather than their background or race. This is a lesson that both Scout and Jem learn first-hand through their interactions with Boo Radley. Though they initially fear Boo due to his obscurity and the rumors about him in town, the children come to realize that he has been a victim of prejudice; instead of trying to understand him, the townspeople have solidified his outsider status.

Moral Complexity

A major lesson Scout and Jem learn over the course of the novel is that people cannot be written off as good or evil. At the beginning of the story, Scout and Jem innocently assume that most of the people in Maycomb are objectively “good,” but this assumption is soon challenged by the evil and hypocrisy they witness during Tom Robinson’s trial. Aided by Atticus, Scout and Jem come to realize that while not everyone in their lives is perfectly moral, that does not mean that these people are irredeemably “evil.” One example is Mrs. Dubose, “the meanest old woman who ever lived,” who regularly yells abuse at Jem and Scout as they walk by her house. It is only after her death that they learn that she was struggling to overcome a morphine addiction, determined to die on her own terms. The revelation of Mrs. Dubose’s unexpected bravery makes Jem and Scout more empathetic and slower to judge the people around them. From the very beginning, Atticus works to convince Scout of the potential for good in people despite their “blind spots.” His optimism is borne out when Scout is...

(The entire section is 3,771 words.)