Race is the most prominent theme in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. However, Lee also explores other important themes like innocence, reputation, and parenting in the novel. The novel is written in the first-person narrative but Lee’s genius shows in the way she balances the limited perspective of the first-person narrator and the need to give readers a complete picture of events.
Race is a major theme in To Kill A Mockingbird. We see racial inequality and injustice in the Depression-Era South all through the novel. The most striking evidence of racial injustice is the unfair accusation of rape on Tom Robinson—Mayella Ewell and her father Bob contrive to accuse Tom of rape because they cannot stand it being known by the public that Mayella who is white tried to seduce a black man. Then we see the racism of the people in the mob that attempt to lynch Tom Robinson before his trial and ultimately, in the jury who pronounce him guilty despite strong evidence and a brilliant argument by Atticus Finch in his defense.
Aside the prominent case of racism against Tom Robinson, we also see other instances of racism in the social structure of the South at the time. The blacks live in separate neighborhoods from the whites, most of the black people are illiterate because there are no schools for them, and the career options available to the blacks are limited to domestic servants, field hands and garbage collectors.
Another subtle indication of racism is Aunt Alexandra’s outrage that Scout lacks a female influence in her life despite knowing that Calpurnia is a female and has been in Scout’s life since birth. Calpurnia’s feminine influence on Scout counts as nothing to Aunt Alexandra because Calpurnia is a black woman and Scout a white girl.
To Kill A Mockingbird addresses the interplay between what the public perceives a person to be and what a person truly is. In the novel, we see that sometimes, people are truly what their reputation says they are, while some other people are different from what they are reputed to be.
Atticus Finch is a man whose reputation is consistent with his true personality. He is known across town as a ”nigger lover” which he truly is and every other aspect of his character is public knowledge. In Maudie Atkinson’s words: ”Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets”.
For some other characters, their reputation is a misrepresentation of their personality. For instance, Boo Radley’s reputation as a monster is wrong because in truth, he is a kind young man who is just shy and keeps to himself. Another instance is Mr Dolphus Raymond’s reputation as a drunkard which is false as he is a sober man who is a happy and loving father and husband to his colored wife and children. He keeps up that reputation to give society something to cling to as a reason to pity him while they condemn his decisions.
Childlike innocence is a powerful theme in To Kill A Mockingbird. Childlike innocence exposes the folly of racial and class prejudice exhibited by adults. And the irony is that the adults are the ones who should know better but end up being the ignorant ones. Scout as a child does not see any reason to discriminate against people because of gender and class and she becomes saddened by the realization that the society in which she lives has such prejudicial sentiments.
We also see how the evil ways of adults can threaten and corrupt childlike innocence. For instance, Aunt Alexandra’s grandson Francis, learns racial slurs against blacks from his conventionally southern white grandparents.
At the end of the day, Scout’s experiences of hatred and racial prejudice in her hometown make her wise beyond her age but she still maintains her childhood innocence of regarding people as equal and protecting the helpless.
Gender is a social construct that comes with expectations and limitations in the South. There are expectations of how a girl ought to dress, and act, and standards of propriety for ladies.
Scout, a girl, dresses, and plays like a boy. Early in their childhood, her being a girl makes no difference to her brother Jem and friend Dill, but as they grow up, they begin to exclude her from their play and from their secrets for the reason that she is a girl.
Aunt Alexandra always disapproves of Scout for being a tomboy and insists that Scout ought to wear dresses and play with dolls with is a conventionally feminine way for a girl to behave.
Scout meets the white ladies of the County when her aunt Alexandra hosts them in their home and the hypocrisy of their speech and manners makes her feel more like an outsider to people of her own gender.
Injustice and Unfairness
In To Kill A Mockingbird, we see that there is injustice and unfairness in the world and that even the law sometimes cannot protect the innocent from injustice.
Tom Robinson is pronounced guilty and killed violently despite being an innocent good man. It shows that good does not always prevail over evil and that the cruelty of the world sometimes succeeds in destroying good harmless people.
Analysis of Key Moments
- Two siblings, Scout and Jem live in a nice neighborhood with their widowed father Atticus Finch. The siblings only play with each other as there are no other children in the neighborhood to play with until a boy named Dill visits one summer and they become friends.
- There is a house in the neighborhood that is always shut and never receives visitors. The occupants of the house are the Radleys and their son Boo Radley is never seen outside which makes children formulate many legends about him being a monster.
- The children devise various plots to see Boo Radley but never succeed.
- Atticus Finch’s sister Alexandra comes to live with them because she does not approve of Atticus’s unconventional parenting style
- Atticus is assigned to defend a crippled black man called Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white young lady called Mayella Ewell.
- Atticus goes to guard the accused Tom Robinson in his cell following rumors that a mob is trying to lynch him.
- Scout, Jem, and Dill surreptitiously follow Atticus to the cell.
- When the lynching mob arrives, Scout unwittingly talks them out of their intention to lynch Tom Robinson.
- Tom Robinson goes to trial but is pronounced guilty by the jury despite Atticus Finch’s strong argument and defense.
- Atticus promises Tom that they will appeal the decision of the court. But before that, Tom is killed while trying to escape from prison.
- Bob Ewell, the father of the allegedly raped Mayella Ewell, who felt Atticus Finch humiliated him in court, attacks Jem and Scout on their way back from a Halloween party. Boo Radley rescues them from the attack and the children’s perception of him changes from phantom to hero.
Style, Tone, and Figurative Language
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is told in the first-person narration. The story is a flashback to childhood days of the past and a narration of those events in retrospect. The current age of the narrator is not specified but we know that the narrator is older and has gained more wisdom with age as she narrates the events.
Even though there are some complex words in the novel, the diction is generally simple. The writing style is not flowery or exaggeratedly artistic, the writing is direct and conversational.
The tone of the narrator is nostalgic and playful at the beginning but becomes progressively melancholic as she narrates grave events.
Sarcasm and euphemism are also prominent figures of speech used in the novel. For instance, on page 79, Harper Lee simplifies Aunt Alexandra’s sexual copulation with her husband, the conception and birth of her child as: ” Long ago, in a burst of friendliness, Aunty and Uncle Jimmy produced a son called Henry”.
Foreshadowing is a notable literary device deployed in the story. For instance, the climactic event of Scout and Jem’s attack is foreshadowed by the statement ”And thus began our longest walk together”.
Analysis of Symbols
The Mockingbird is a symbol of goodness and innocence that should be allowed to exist and thrive but is unfortunately preyed upon and destroyed by the wickedness and injustice in the world. The character Tom Robinson is a mockingbird—an innocent man who works hard, takes care of his family, does not make any trouble, and renders assistance to those in need of it without asking for anything in return. But unfortunately, the unjust society in which he lives destroys him with a false rape allegation and a violent death.
Boo Radley is another mockingbird whose personality is subdued by his family’s cruelty.
The Mockingbird gives the novel its title as Atticus teaches his children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.
The Rabid Dog
This symbolizes the unpleasant reality which looms in the South but that the average people would rather not confront. The rabid dog poses a danger to all but none of the people in the neighborhood take any decisive action to confront it, they rather retire indoors and shut their doors. Even the sheriff stalls and manages to place the task of killing the dog on Atticus Finch.
The rabid dog is just as unpleasant and as dangerous as racism but even the good people in Maycomb County are afraid to confront it and the fight is and so the responsibility is always left on Atticus Finch’s shoulders.
The Refuse Dump
The refuse dump is the abode of the Ewells. Living in the refuse dump symbolizes that the Ewells are trash both literally and figuratively.
What is the main message in To Kill A Mockingbird?
The main message in To Kill A Mockingbird is that it is wrong to prey on the innocent and that racial prejudice is cruel and wrong.
Who is the narrator in To Kill A Mockingbird?
The narrator of To Kill A Mockingbird is a girl called Scout. Her full name is Jean Louise Finch and narrates the story as she recalls the events that took place during her childhood. She is a white girl from a relatively wealthy home. She is playful, stubborn, and tomboyish and begins to realize that she lives in a racially prejudiced society as she comes of age.
Why is it a sin to kill a mockingbird?
The answer to this is given by Miss Maudie Atkinson when she explains to Scout that the only thing mockingbirds do is make music for others to enjoy, they do not destroy people’s crops, do not nest in corncribs, and so it is a kill to kill such a creature that does nothing but bring pleasantness to others.
Is To Kill A Mockingbird based on a true story?
No, To Kill A Mockingbird is not based on a true story, it is fictional.