- Discuss the presence of Jim Crow laws and their manifestation in the novel and social ramifications.
- Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark case for maintaining segregation and inequality for blacks. Discuss how this was demonstrated in the novel.
- Discuss how the economic stresses of the time added to social tensions in To Kill a Mockingbird.
- Tom Robinson is a black man charged with rape of a white woman, tried by a white jury. Discuss the problems inherent in this situation that will ensure he won’t receive a fair trial.
- Discuss the parallelisms between Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.
- Discuss the parallelisms between Jem Finch and Tom Robinson.
- Dill Harris is an intriguing supporting character as he represents a melee of so many of the people and circumstances around him. Discuss.
- Critics have described Atticus Finch as overly optimistic. Agree or disagree and explain.
- The novel is not a mirror image of Harper Lee’s childhood, but explain how her actual youth probably had an influence on the creation of the story.
- Compare and contrast the film and the novel. Which do you prefer and why?
Writing a To Kill a Mockingbird essay forces the student to examine one of the most revered works of 20th century American literature. Exploring this novel means being prepared to confront some of the darker days of American history, such as the extreme racism of the Jim Crow era and the economic despondency of the Great Depression. This novel is so much more than just a slice of life for Southern America in the 1930s. Rather, the novel explores lofty and complex ideologies such as justice, morality, equality, human dignity and compassion. Given the heaviness of so many of the themes, it’s no wonder that the novel is an indelible part of so many high school curriculums.
In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the reader is put into the capable hands of the six-year-old narrator Scout. Being forced to view the complexity of so many of these social and philosophical issues through the eyes of child is transformative. This dynamic forces the reader to view them from a fresher perspective. In many ways, it is as if every reader is another child of Atticus Finch. Yet, this places the reader into a position of inherent vulnerability as we confront some of the most difficult issues of the era—from classism to racism to justice and human responsibility. Harper Lee makes all of these experiences memorable and engaging through her nuanced characters and the challenges they have to face.
The book is a retrospective of a slice of the childhood of Jean Louise Finch (Scout) told in the first person. The book concerns three years from 1933-1935, when Scout, the narrator was six years old. The book opens with the reader being immediately introduced to Scout’s life and family situation as she lives in Maycomb, Alabama—a fictional but quiet town in the deep South. Scout lives with her older brother Jeremy (Jem) and her father Atticus, and a woman who cooks for them named Calpurnia. Their mother died when they were quite young, and Atticus very much embodies the archetype of the heroic single parent.
During the start of the book, Jem and Scout have taken to hanging out with a young boy named Dill, who visits the town each summer to stay with his aunt. One of the activities that the children engage in is speculating about Boo Radley, a shut-in down the street. No one has seen him in years and the children enjoy getting cheap thrills by daring one another to touch his house and enjoy speculating if he looks like some sort of monster, imagining all sort of antic to get him out of the house. Eventually the children come to find that someone has been leaving them candy in the concave part of a tree outside the Radley house. It’s a gesture of much warmth but Radley never introduces himself to them in any way.
A major plot point of the novel revolves around the fact segregation is alive and well in this part of the south and racism is still normalized to a certain extent. Tom Robinson, a black man who lives on the outskirts of town, is wrongfully accused of raping a white woman (the lonely Mayella Ewell). Atticus is appointed to defend him and he agrees to move forward in representing Robinson as a client. Unsurprisingly, many people in the town of Maycomb express their marked disapproval to Atticus. Unfortunately, Scout and Jem also bear the blowback from the racism and division in the town. They are mocked and verbally abused by other children for their father’s involvement in the case.
The novel succeeds in capturing the racism of the era particularly in the manner that Atticus has to stand off with a crowd of men who have the single goal of lynching Robinson. Atticus is able to dissuade the mob using his skills of dialect and persuasion, igniting the faint flames of empathy within the people by gently shaming them.
Understandably, Atticus Finch expresses his desire to have his children not attend the trial—as so many adults wouldn’t want to see their children in their workplace. However, Jem and Scout along with their friend Dill are able to watch the trial from the upper level, where the colored folk are allowed to sit. This detail offers a nice nuance and gesture of allegiance from the children to the black population.
The trial goes well in the sense that Atticus is able to clearly demonstrate that the accuser Bob Ewell and the “victim” are engaged in obvious subterfuge. Atticus is also able to demonstrate that Mayella tried to seduce Tom Robinson, something her father walked in on, and subsequently beat her. Strong evidence is provided to demonstrate the innocence of the accused, but it doesn’t do any good. The jury serves Robinson a conviction. The sentence is a clear representation of backwards justice and a biased system, riddled with prejudice—all typical of the era. The children are deeply disturbed by this skewed ruling; though Atticus had seemed to somewhat expect it, given the fact that the jury was all white. An even more tragic turn of events results occur when Tom is shot in jail, when trying to escape.
However, in some form of warped justice, Ewell is on the receiving end of shame and embarrassment from the entire town after the trial. Atticus describes this dynamic as a result of the fact that he annihilated the last inch of trustworthiness in him. However, racism combined with shame ensures that Ewell is determined to wage revenge on Atticus and his family. After spitting in Atticus’ face, Ewell attempts to burgle the judge’s place of residence, even going so far as to bully the wife of the late Tom Robinson. Lee makes it clear that these are all the actions of a warped and damaged man. Finally, after failing to seek vindication for the perceived slights of the trial, Ewell decides to terrorize Atticus Finch’s children. Such a move is at the height of cowardice and treachery. Ewell assaults Jem and Scout in the dark of the night, as they are walking home from a Halloween party. In the struggle, Ewell breaks Jem’s arm, though before Ewell can get to Scout, a mysterious figure intervenes on their behalf and stabs Boo Radley. The mysterious figure carries Jem back home to safety and it is then that Scout recognizes the man as actually the inscrutable Boo Radley.
In a moment of poetic justice, the sheriff arrives on the scene to find that Ewell has perished in the scuffle he initiated. The sheriff then engages in a debate with Atticus about where or not to charge Jem or Boo for the man’s death. Ultimately, they agree to move forward with the story that Ewell tripped, falling on his own knife. Boo entreats Scout to walk him home, demonstrating an odd childlike quality. Scout takes a moment to put herself in Boo’s shoes, as Atticus had always urged her to do in life, and wishes that she had reciprocated the kindness that he had given them via the gifts in the tree. Once home, Scout joins her dad in Jem’s room where they stay up with him for a bit. Her father puts her to bed and then goes back to look after Jem.
The title of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, signals the reader to the overarching motif, which is that of justice, and the perception of justice. As Atticus Finch tells Jem, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (93). Scout remarks that this is the first time she ever heard her father refer to anything as being a sin. This is a significant note from the trustworthy narrator as it indicates symbolism of intense importance. Scout seeks clarification from Miss Maudie who agrees that Atticus is correct as “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (93). This motif is the overarching nucleus of the novel. It suggests that there are certain people in life who just give to the world, via their innocence and their gentle manner, and they don’t do anything to take from it or make it a more inhospitable place. Hurting such people is not just the height of sin, but also the height of injustice as these people don’t deserve to have evil come upon them no more than a mockingbird, singing in tree, does.
Harper Lee subtly draws parallels between two supporting characters Boo Radley, the recluse, and Tom Robinson, the black man who is wrongfully accused. Lee demonstrates how in this small town, being different can often feel akin to being monstrous. Boo Radley is a shut-in and the children tell monstrous tales about him, likening him to some sort of subversive creature. “Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time” (13). Radley is different from others; he’s had a rough, peculiar childhood and has withdrawn from society to the safety of his own reclusion. However, this does not mean he’s not worthy of compassion or respect. Though people in the town often struggle to pay him such decencies.
There’s not a tremendous amount told to the reader about Tom Robinson. To a certain extent this is because he’s black and it’s the south and the decade is the 1930s. Before Scout ever lays eyes on him, we know that he lives “…in that little settlement beyond the town dump. He’s a member of Calpurnia’s church, and Cal knows his family well. She says they’re clean-living folks” (77). From this excerpt the reader is able to glean several things. That the black people of the town are physically banished, segregated to the outskirts in a manner that underscores the literal separation they experience from full societal integration. Their cook, Calpurnia, vouches for them, so one can be certain that they are good people.
This is the greatest moral that subsists throughout the reality of the novel. To persecute those who just give to others is the lowest thing a person can do and is definitely wrong. Within this moral code is the notion that good people fight for what is right even if they know their efforts are futile. Atticus Finch delivers this lesson to Scout at the top of the novel, when he informs her that he’s taking on Robinson’s case. “ ‘Atticus, are we going to win it?’ ‘No, honey.’ ‘Then why—‘ ‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,’ Atticus said” (78). This notion encapsulates the overall moral code of the novel: that good people do what is right even if the environment around them creates a certain degree of futility. This the moral code that provides the main character with clarity. This is how the children are able to see through the subterfuge of the Ewells and the backwards tendencies of the southern tradition.
Scout (Jean Louise Finch) is the six-year old narrator of the story. She is characterized by her frank honesty and her masculine rebellious nature. A tomboy at heart, Scout’s natural instincts tend to lean towards protection of self and others through fierce combat. The author informs us that Scout has already learned to read and is way ahead of others in her grade; her teacher, however, finds this fact about her annoying rather than something to be congratulated. This tells the reader two things: Scout can be trusted as a narrator as she is very bright for her age, and she lives in a very backwards town. The annoyance of her teacher over her reading abilities is symbolic of the backwardness of the town in regards to race, mental illness and a host of other issues.
Scout has been forced to deal with much hardship in her short life; aside from the ugliness of the townspeople her mother died. Scout is still able to maintain her belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity with the help of her father, Atticus. One of the major character arcs she is forced to undergo is to hone the ability to empathize with others: projecting what “walking in their shoes” might actually be like. Scout learns how this creates a level of understanding that would help create a more peaceful and kinder world.
Jem (Jeremy Finch) is the ten-year old older sibling to Scout. He’s not as truculent. Rather he is more methodical and conservative in his word and deed. He has an idealism and a righteousness of someone twice his age. While both children idolize their father, Jem does to an intense degree with much devotion. Jem is often forced to reconcile what the real notion of courage is. For him at the start of the novel, courage is simply not backing down from a dare. But over the three years that Jem ages during the novel, he is forced to learn that real courage involves things like confronting one’s own demons and standing up to injustice. Jem’s character makes the meaningful arc: he starts the novel as a young lad, paling around with his sister, and getting into harmless mischief around town. At the end of the book he is a young adolescent who seeks to both protect and enlighten his sister with the wisdom he’s accumulated.
Atticus Finch is the single father of Jem and Scout and the most idolized character in the story. The most provocative aspect of Atticus is that he doesn’t appear to go through any sort of transformation in the novel. His character remains moral, reasonable, brave and fair throughout the entirety of the book. Atticus represents the living breathing voice of reason. His emotional intelligence and wisdom at times seem unshakeable and a complete anomaly to the town he lives in.
The fact that he has not remarried and raises these children on his own, with the help of a black female cook, is incredibly inconsistent with the stone-age traditionalism of the town. He treats his children as if they were miniature adults, and while some argue that his character is at times overly optimistic, nothing could be further from the truth. He believes in the justice system and the importance of a fair trial, but he is in touch with reality enough to know that the long-existing prejudice of the town will do everything to prevent Tom Robinson from getting justice. Most prominently, it is Atticus who promotes the theme of the novel, which stresses the importance of walking in another’s shoes.
Dill (Charles Baker Harris) is a provocative supporting character who is one of the friends and frequent companions of Scout and Jem Finch. Originally from Mississippi, Dill is a non-native of Maycomb, staying with his aunt there each summer, in a house that neighbors the Finch residence. His character often offers a more objective perspective to the events that unfold, as he is unfamiliar to the people in the town, just as the reader is. Dill is such an intriguing character because he embodies so many of the quirks and flaws of those around him. He is also given to telling bold lies, something that might be a coping method for the dysfunction in his family life. However, when he sees how the lies that the Ewells told succeed in persecuting Tom Robinson, he is overcome by emotion. His character in many ways shows the tremendous power that lies have in waging destruction.
Tom Robinson is the handicapped black man who is falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell. His character is one manifestation of the symbolic “mockingbird” in the story, as he has a heart of gold. Robinson explains how he first came into Mayella Ewell’s life as a simple helper. He’d pass by and she’d always have something for him to do: chopping wood or toting water. He explained, “I was glad to do it, Mr. Ewell didn’t seem to help her none, and neither did the chillun, and I knowed she didn’t have no nickels to spare”(195). The fact that he is persecuted by the woman he so compassionately helped offers a microcosm for the injustice and cruelty that can permeate society. Many scholars have argued that Robinson’s character acts as a Christ figure of sorts, sacrificed by a cold, undeserving society.
Boo Radley is the town recluse, a man who is developmentally stunted and who was forced to live with abusive parents who always kept him inside. His potential mental illness and developmental issues were likely a result of the abuse he suffered as a child. He allegedly stabbed his father with a pair of scissors, something that adds to his mythology of being the town monster. Instead of showing him compassion, the civilians of the town isolate him, perpetuating this cruel mythology about him.
Bob Ewell in many ways represents the antithesis of Atticus. He too is raising motherless children, but does so in squalor and immorality. He represents the lowest stratum of human decency. He is a man of deception, cruelty, hatred and cowardice.
Mayella Ewell a manifestation of self-victimization and the consequences of growing up in an environment of ugliness. Isolated, poor, and lonely she turns against one of the few people who showed her kindness.
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.”
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what” (115).
“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (92-93).
“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash” (224).
“You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fightin’ with your head for a change” (78).
“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad” (282-3).
“We’re paying the highest tribute you can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple” (240).
Morality is one of the core themes of the novel. This is because morality is alluded to in the title of the book To Kill a Mockingbird as the reader is told that it is always wrong to kill such a bird. Such birds do nothing but give to the rest of the world. They don’t make a nuisance or dig up gardens, but just sing so others might enjoy it. Boo Radley and Tom Robinson act as this concept personified. These characters are inherently good, yet consistently denied compassion.
The concept of justice is also explored throughout the novel. Atticus Finch takes on this doomed case because he believes the innocent should be well-defended even if the outcome is already decided. The novel shows us that justice is waged even if Robinson is wrongly sentenced: The Ewells become the pariahs of the town and Robinson is killed in jail. Some readers view the death of Robinson as a form of loose poetic justice—as he’s not forced to serve his sentence, but is taken to a “better place.”
Compassion for others is another theme in the novel. Atticus is constantly reminding his children to put themselves in the shoes of others. This allows them to see things from a more singular perspective. Putting oneself in another’s shoes helps build empathy for other people and the unique challenges they often have to confront.
Thus, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird is about many things but that above all else, it is about perspective. As Atticus constantly reminds his children to take a glimpse of the world from someone else’s viewpoint, he is attempting to help them be better people. Perspective is perhaps the most crucial element to the human experience. If more of the characters in the town of Maycomb had a wider perspective, so much of the suffering and injustice there would have been avoided. A greater sense of understanding towards others would have prevented the evils waged against Tom Robinson and the social isolation of Boo Radley. The characters of Maycomb are cognates for people in the rest of the world: the more that members of society learn to develop a sense of perspective for what others might be going through, the greater peace they can bring to the world. Fostering a sense of perspective also helps them to be conscious of the impact of their own actions upon the rest of society.
Lee, Harper. “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Clever Academy® – Trường Anh Ngữ Quốc Tế Kaplan, McIntosh and Otis and Co, 1980, cleveracademy.vn/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/To-Kill-a-Mockingbird.pdf. Accessed 6 Aug. 2018.
Writing a To Kill A Mockingbird essay presents the reader with a rich, though challenging experience. The novel is a classic in American literature for a host of reasons, many of which revolve around the fact that it does not shy away from holding up a mirror to the ugliness of society and of our shared history. The novel has an abundance of themes about the human condition and the challenges that must be overcome in this earthly existence. If at any point you get flummoxed by the complexity of some of the more lofty ideas of the novel, you can always reach out to us for help. We can provide feedback on what you’ve written or suggestions on where to go from your thesis. We love helping students and our writers have examined this literary achievement from a host of angles repeatedly. Finding original perspectives on this classic novel is something we pride ourselves on and truly enjoy.