Classic Literature Wikia
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"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

To Kill a Mockingbird is a 1960 novel by Harper Lee. It tells the story of a young girl and how she sees her hometown of Maycomb in her own eyes, as she witnesses the acts of morality, injustice and racism, and how it has an impact on her as she grows up.

An instant success, it won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as being widely read and taught in middle and high school courses, and is even considered to be a masterpiece in modern American literature. The novel is also famous for exploring the civil rights, social class and racism in the Southern United States in the early 20th century.

To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted into a 1962 Academy-Award winning film, and a sequel of the novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published in 2015, a year before Lee's death.

Plot Summary

Scout Finch is a 6-year-old girl living in the sleepy, old town of Maycomb, Alabama with her widowed father Atticus, her brother Jem and their black housekeeper Calpurnia in the early years of the Great Depression. Atticus is the local lawyer and works hard despite the family living in poverty, and assigns Calpurnia to be a mother-figure and caregiver to his children.

Jem and Scout meet a boy named Dill Harris who stays with his aunt in Maycomb during the summer. The children become friends and are fascinated by the Radley house, which is the home to the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley, who nobody hasn't seen in years. The children tried several attempts to make him come out, but are unable to.

Scout goes to school for the first time and resents it. But when she walks past the Radley house on her way home, she discovers that someone is leaving gifts for her in a tree's knothole on the Radley property until the hole was plugged up with cement. Another night, a fire breaks out at a neighbour's house, and as Scout watched, someone sneaks behind her and places a blanket around her.

Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell. This causes a major, racist outrage in Maycomb, and Jem and Scout are constantly tormented by the residents and children. A group of men come after Atticus to lynch him one night but Scout protects him by saying something sympathetic to a classmate's father before the mob disperses.

Tom Robinson's trial begins, and Scout, Jem and Dill secretly watch. Atticus provides real evidence that Mayella and her father, the town drunk Bob Ewell are lying. He says that Ewell had beaten his daughter as she made sexual advances towards Robinson. Despite Atticus speaking out the best way he could, the all-white jury convicts Robinson of the crime. Jem becomes distraught of the unfair injustice, and Atticus hopes that his client would have an appeal. But Robinson was shot and killed as he tried to escape prison.

Despite Robinson being convicted, Ewell is outraged for being humiliated and vows revenge. He breaks into the judge's house, menaces Robinson's widow, and one night, when Jem and Scout were walking home alone from a Halloween party, Ewell attacks them. Jem's arm is broken, but someone arrives and kills Ewell by stabbing him. He then carries Jem back home and Scout finds out that the man is Boo Radley who had saved her and her brother.

The sheriff arrives and finds out about Ewell’s fatal stab wound, but to protect Boo's privacy and prevent him from being accused, he declares that Ewell had tripped and fallen onto his own knife. Scout walks Boo home, and after he goes back into his house, she never sees him again. Afterwards, Scout begins to imagine life from Boo's own perspective and the important lessons she had learned from her childhood.

Characters

Scout Finch- The main protagonist. She is 6 years old when the story begins and aged 8 when it ends. She is a mischievous, tough tomboy but is also innocent of life around her and her family. She soon learns how cruel and harsh people can be to one another, especially during Robinson's trial but also understands the importance of kindness in others and how it would change the way she views at life. Scout is also the main narrator of the story, as she may have been looking back on her childhood as an adult in her point of view.

Jem Finch- Scout's older brother, who is 10 years old as the novel begins and is aged 13 when it ends. A playmate to his sister, Jem is seen as the ringleader of his group, consisting of his sister and their friend Dill, and wouldn't back down on daring tasks such as attempting to knock on the Radley's door. He idolizes his father Atticus and a protector to his sister. He is heavily shaken by the unfair injustice he endures following the conviction of Tom Robinson.

Atticus Finch- The father of Jem and Scout. He is a local lawyer in Maycomb and is well-respected by the townsfolk. After losing his wife, Atticus raises his two children alone, but often teaches them important lessons about social prejudice and morality. Wise, level-headed and honest, Atticus is only of the very few Maycomb citizens who takes the racist outrage calmly, especially when he is tasked to defend a black man accused of rape. Even if he fails to prove his client's innocence, Atticus still managed to be strong and moral throughout the trial and the novel.

Arthur "Boo" Radley- A recluse who never goes outside his home whose life and presence are shrouded by mystery. Scout and the local children believe he is a monster as depicted in their imaginations; and she, Jem and Dill are obsessed with him, even trying multiple attempts to make him come out. In actuality, however, Boo is a good-hearted man who endured a miserable childhood by his strict father and committed several acts of kindness; such as leaving gifts for Scout in a tree knothole and placing a blanket around her to keep her warm while outside. He eventually rescues the children from Bob Ewell’s vicious attacks, and is seen as one of the book's "mockingbirds", as he is an innocent human being hurt by mankind's cruelty.

Calpurnia- The Finch family's black cook and servant. She had served the Finch's for many years, and the children look up to her as a mother figure. She was one of the very few black citizens who is literate and taught Scout how to write. She is a stern but loving woman who would reprimand Scout of her behaviour she doesn't appreciate. Calpurnia also serves as a bridge for Jem and Scout between the white and black communities.

Charles Baker "Dill" Harris- Jem and Scout's friend who stays in Maycomb every summer. Dill has an active imagination and is fascinated by Boo Radley. In actuality, he is a lonely child whose mother divorced and later remarried, and his interaction with his friends helps him hide the pain he suffers back at home. His character is loosely based on Lee's childhood friend and famous author Truman Capote.

Miss Maudie Atkinson- The Finch's neighbour and a friend of Atticus. She's an open-minded widow who enjoys gardening, baking and interacting with Scout. Like Atticus, Miss Maudie also teacher Scout about morality and equality, even thinking Boo Radley is most likely different than evil. After her house burns down, she is satifised as she hated her house and would make more room for her flowers.

Bob Ewell- The patriarch of the Ewell family who lives in Maycomb’s dump. He is a racist drunk who spends his most of his welfare on alcohol and hunts game to feed his children. The townsfolk don’t often punish him for his aggressive behaviour and heavy drinking, as it is worthless to keep his children in school or for hunting out of season. His daughter Mayella Ewell was allegedly raped by Tom Robinson, but Bob may have press charges against him. His racism and impoverished lifestyle make him a menace to some, especially to Atticus.

Tom Robinson- A black man accused of raping Bob Ewell’s daughter Mayella. Atticus was assigned to defend him, even though Tom is likely going to be convicted because of his race. He was a young husband and father of 3, and a beloved member in the black community. Atticus points out that Tom cannot use his left arm, as it became crippled and lame from a childhood accident, and the wounds on Mayella were inflicted by a left-handed person. Like Boo Radley, Tom symbolizes a mockingbird, as he represents innocence destroyed by evil.

Mayella Ewell- Bob’s 19-year-old daughter.

Writing History/Reception

In the mid 1950’s, after completing law school, Harper Lee moved to New York City to pursue her writing career, where her childhood friend Truman Capote had already earned fame as a successful novelist. She initially worked as an airline reservation, until her friends Joy and Michael Brown sent her a salary cheque as a Christmas gift, which has enough money for her to write for a full year. After quitting her job, she focussed more on her writing; and after being influenced by her childhood in the Deep South, she started work on her famous novel inspired by her early years.

Lee initially wrote the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, and set it to publisher J.B. Lippincott. Her editor, Tay Hohoff, advised her to revise the story and include some flashback sequences such as the narrator’s childhood. Following Go Set a Watchman’s rejection, Lee rewrote the manuscript retitled “Atticus” but was later changed into To Kill a Mockingbird, and was published on July 11th, 1960.

The novel was an immediate success, selling more than 40 million copies worldwide and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. A film adaptation of the same name was released in 1962 to critical acclaim and won 3 Oscars, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

Lee, however, had admitted that she thought her novel would not be successful, as she stated “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place.” Lee also reportedly spent at least 6 to 12 hours a day writing the novel but only produced one manuscript page a day. She subsequently avoided the spotlight after the novel’s publication, declining interviews for 14 years. She did not publish another book until 55 years later, when her first rejected manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015. It is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, set 20 years after the main events of the first novel, where it focuses on an adult Scout Finch returning to Maycomb where her beloved father Atticus Finch had descended into racism. Despite its controversy and mixed reviews, it sold at least 1.1 million copies and Lee died a year later after its publication.

Although To Kill a Mockingbird is considered one of America’s greatest novels, it is also controversial since it contained contents of rape, racial slurs and profanity. While it challenged against censorship, it was banned in several school districts to prevent readers and students from being subject to its offensive content. In 2017, the novel was banned in 8th grade classrooms in Biloxi, Mississippi, after a parent claimed the common usage of the N-word and how it would have a negative affect on her daughter and classmates. In 2018, schools in Duluth, Minnesota banned it in their classrooms, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is also controversial for its racist content.

Themes

Good vs Evil

As children, Scout and Jem believe everyone is good as they don't know about the evil side of nature; and in addition, the children are naïve to think about their harsh reality from their innocent perspective. It wasn't until tragic events unfold such as Tom Robinson's conviction and Boo Radley's troubled past did Scout realize that nothing in life is fair. Atticus advises her to see that instead of seeing good and bad people, she should see only the good and bad qualities in everyone, and despite their cruelty or prejudice, they should still be treated with respect.

From the beginning, Scout could only see different types of people she sees as good or bad. She believes most of the citizens in Maycomb are generally good, but believes that Boo Radley is an evil person, based on the stories she has heard about him from the local children. Another person she sees as evil is her elderly neighbour Mrs. Dubose, who yells racist slurs at her and Jem. But throughout her childhood, Scout starts to see the inner selves of the people she doesn't fully look at. Despite Arthur Radley being pictured as a frightening man or barely exists at all, he reveals that he is a kind, heroic man when he leaves presents for Scout, places a blanket around her when she stands in the cold, and saves her and Jem from Bob Ewell's attacks. Mrs. Dubose, despite being stubborn and rude toward Scout and Jem, she struggled with her morphine addiction and managed to overcome it before she died; with Atticus seeing her as a fearless woman.

At Tom Robinson's trial, Scout thinks that Atticus will win the case and Robinson would be acquitted. In actuality, Atticus knew he will lose since racism is a raging conflict with the townsfolk, but is determined to do whatever he can instead of putting a bad example on his children. After Robinson's conviction, the children are devastated by the unfair injustice. Jem suffers it the most when the knothole where their presents were left was filled up, and is heavily shaken by the trial; so much so, that he would get angry at Scout whenever she brings it up. At this point, Scout realizes that the other townsfolk she believed was good were the opposite of it. Bob Ewell is a harsh drinker who accused Robinson of raping his daughter and vows revenge on Atticus for making a fool out of him. As he attempts to murder the Finch children, Boo Radley not only saved them from Ewell's wrath, but he also saved the lives of the people of Maycomb, including the Ewell who were the subject to his cruelty. In the end, Scout finally sees Radley as a human being, and accepts the fact that she shouldn't judge people by their appearance or attitude, but with the ability to view her world from her own perspective, she can eventually realize how certain people may turn out evil at first, but are able to turn to the other side by their good deeds.

Morality

In the 2 years the novel is set in, Scout finds herself learning how to grip with morality education. Atticus serves as a personal role model and a mentor towards Scout, and teaches her that everyone has a different perspective from her. For example, he explains to Scout that to understand another human, she would just need to walk in their shoes.

The citizens of Maycomb often ignore the morals they have. The teachers would scold Scout, since they are either hypocritical or don't seem to care about their young students' needs. Maycomb is also segregaded, as they prefer to live separately from the black citizens. When Calpurnia took Scout and Jem to her community church, they received some mixed reactions from Calpurnia's fellow black churchgoers; as white society don't value them or show inequality. Atticus boldly defends his client Tom Robinson, and points out to Scout that cheating a man of colour is terrible as he has very little to prove his innocence. However, Atticus merely wants his children to make their informed, important decisions about the rights and wrongs. He also shows personal morality by having Calpunia being treated as a member of the family and dserves to be seen as an equal; since she loves Atticus and the children as her own and he will want her to stay for as long as she wants.

Harper Lee writes an essential moral in the novel, and that is everyone should be treated with respect and equally, and not judge anyone as being prejudiced. In the community the Finch children live in where not everyone has good morals, Atticus still wants his children to know that there are some people who may seem prejudiced, but their morality will show them they can still appreciate everything that their father has taught them.

Social Class

Maycomb has 4 social classes that divide how their citizens live and work. The Finch's are among the highest in the social class, since Atticus is a lawyer and is well-off in his community. He and his children are also white, and the white cititzens are often regarded as the most important in the higher social class. Maudie Atikinson shares the same class as the Finch's and is also respected. An important rule of the social class in To Kill a Mockingbird is to show that the higher social class should be more sympathetic and respectful to the less fortunate, who live at the bottom of the social class. The Cunningham's may be in the lower class, but they still work hard to make ends meet and be valued in their society. When Scout invites Walter Cunningham for dinner and he pours his gravy over his food, she rudely criticizes him before Calpurnia reprimands her that Walter is in the lower social class and he derves to have a good meal served to him by the higher class. Calpurnia is part of the wealthy, middle-class where the black people like her mostly belong; like the Finch's, she is still respected and liabkle by the Finch's. The Ewell's are poor, filthy people who are rude to the others, but since they are white, they are part of the higher class. The poor, black people are at the bottom of the lower social class. One of the black women, Lula, is disgraceful to her own race and insists that the blacks stay in their own community than be with the opposite race. She was harsh to Calpurnia and berates Jem and Scout just because of their race and lifestyle.

The black Maycomb citizens usually accept the status they live in and that they live in a run-down community that they don't mind living in. They accept the fact that they barely have an education and don't get much credit for their hard-work. The white class, however, don't treat the black people equally as they see them as racially prejudiced; and the hierachy is proven when the black citizen's fellow member of their class Tom Robinson is accused of a crime he didn't commit.

All the social classes are present at the trial, and it is one of the only times in the novel when they all gather for a social event. The first two classes represent the white audience, as they have the most important jobs during the trial such as the judges and jurors; but even as they planned to do a fair trial, their racial prejudices would have an effect on the defendant and those attending. The citizens mostly see the trial as a special event or an occasion, but since all the lower classes, including Robinson and the other black people, it is clear that they cannot have a word against the white citizens, and in addition, they will always defeat their opposite race and get away with their racism. The class structure have an effect to their citizens in Maycomb. The status everyone lives in defines on how their lifestyle is or their skin colour. Harper Lee used this theme on how her characters live, but even if it is not explained anything more about the structure, readers can understand the how Maycomb is defined by the social structure.

Injustice

As a young child, Scout learns a valuable lesson on how unfair life is in her community, but justice is not always served in a courtroom. No matter how hard Atticus convinces the jury about justice and equality, Tom Robinson is still convicted, leaving Scout and Jem heavily shaken by the injustice they have just witnessed. They think they revenge can solve injustice, such as when Scout fights her cousin when he calls Atticus a racist slur, or when Jem destroys Mrs. Dubose's Camellias for her racist insults. But Atticus teaches his children that revenge does not achieve justice, but that it can only be achieved when the guilty person atones themselves. Bob Ewell wanted revenge for being humiliated, but for him, it doesn't give him justice. His attempt of revenge backfires when he is killed, and his intended victims are safe.

Tom Robinson is undoubtly a victim of injustice. He was an innocent, black man who was falsley accused of rape. Even if he was convicted and is shot while trying to escape, it's clear that he will never get justice from the legal system, and there were some people who find his conviction and potential death as a failure in justice. It is a sign that those who have a different race or social status are treated unfairly and, like Robinson, are victimized by injustice.

It isn't the black community affected by injustice. Mayella Ewell isn't like her father and siblings; she isn't drunk or dirty, but is just used as an object for Bob to take his rage out on and have her be a victim of a crime. She can hardly do anything about it, as she will likely be forever stuck in her family home and wont be able to fend for herself, as she is seen as an outcast for living in the most impoverished area of Maycomb. Boo Radley, having been locked up in his own home nearly his entire life due to the troubled mishaps he got himself into, makes the townsfolk and even the local children think he is a monster. He is sometimes compared to Robinson, since he treated as a victim in their society and he isn't seen as someone who deserves justice. Towards the end of the novel, he finally comes out of his mysterious shell and proves that he justified himself by ending his struggles against the social class who treated him very poorly over the years. Overall, no matter who it is, everyone suffers from social injustice. But if they manage to do a heroic or a good act for once, perhaps they may finally receive the justice they want.

Symbols

Mockingbirds

The mockingbird symbolizes innocence. Atticus tells his children that it is a sin to kill mockingbirds, because they do not cause harm but they sing and make the world a better place. Killing a mockingbird also symbolizing destroying innocence, and various characters in the novel are often described to be mockingbirds, such as Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. They were overlooked by their prejudiced society but their innocence lost by injustice.

Boo Radley

A mysterious, reclusive man, who symbolizes virtuousness and kindness. Jem and Scout believed that Boo could be a scary man, but after he leaves gifts for them, mends Jem's pants and saves them from Bob Ewell's attack, it is clear that Boo is a real, generous human towards Scout. In addition, his troubled childhood allows his pure heart to interact closely with the children.

Geraniums and Camellias

Foreshadowing

  • Scout mentions Jem had broken his arm at age 13 in the opening lines of the first chapter. Foreshadows the part near the end where Ewell attacks them by breaking Jem's arm as they walked home alone; therefore she tells the story leading up to his injury.
  • Burris Ewell's first and only appearance in school. Foreshadows his father Bob Ewell's villainous and demented presence later on.
  • The strange gifts Jem and Scout find in the knothole tree. Foreshadows the truth that Boo Radley is a kind, good man.
  • Atticus shoots a mad dog. Foreshadows the same fate his client Tom Robinson would meet.
  • Bob Ewell's threats of revenge. Foreshadows the part near the end where he attempts to kill the Finch children.
  • Tom Robinson is shot and killed while trying to escape from prison, mainly because he is black. Foreshadows the fact that African-Americans at the time are trying to win their freedom from slavery; not to mention that it explains that the innocent would sometimes die because of racial discrimination that affects their race.

Adaptations

The novel was adapted into a 1962 film, directed by Robert Mulligan and features Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, which earned him an Oscar for Best Actor for his phenomenal performance, and Mary Badham as Scout Finch, as well as Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.

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