To Kill a Mockingbird Study Guide

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about Atticus, a lawyer, and his children, Jem and Scout, living in Alabama. Jem and Scout are infatuated with a spooky neighbor, "Boo" Radley, Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Tom is found guilty by a racist jury and is killed while trying to escape from prison. Bob Ewell, the winner of the case, attacks Jem and Scout to exact revenge but Boo saves them and kills Bob.


Harper Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee to Amasa Coleman Lee who was a lawyer and state legislator, and Frances Finch Lee on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest of four children, she had two sisters and one brother. Lee obtained her undergraduate degree from Huntingdon College and went on to study law University of Alabama from 1945 to1950. During her time in law school, she spent a year studying at Oxford University. After finishing law school, she worked as an airline reservation clerk in New York City before pursuing her career in writing.

She first submitted a draft of her only published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird , in 1957. She was told that it read more like a series of vignettes than a full length novel. She spent the next two and a half years re writing before it was finally published in 1960. In 1961, the Alabama state legislature passed a congratulatory resolution to commend Lee on the success of her work. That same year, she published two articles in Vogue and McCall's magazines.

In 1966 she was one of two people named to the National Council of Arts by President Johnson. Over the years, she has received several honorary doctorates, including one from her law alma mater. Lee eventually retreated from the public eye; avoiding interviews, declining to write the screenplay for the film version, and publishing a few short pieces after 1961. Lee returned to Monroeville and continues to live there.

Historical Context

Her life was clearly a major source of inspiration for her one and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird . Her town was similar, in some ways, to Maycomb in that it too was tired in its conventionality and moral duality. Lee's father, a lawyer and state legislator, certainly inspired the creation of Atticus Finch. Lee counts novelist and essayist Truman Capote as one of her childhood friends who, undoubtedly, served as the source for Charles Baker Dill Harris; the novel's highly imaginative, voracious reader of thrillers, horror stories, and dramas. Lee began To Kill a Mockingbird in the mid-1950s, after moving to New York to become a writer. She completed the novel in 1957 and published it, with revisions, in 1960, just before the peak of the American civil rights movement.

The book's setting and characters are not the only aspects of the story influenced by Lee's childhood. In 1931, when Lee was five, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women near Scottsboro, Alabama. Five of the men were sentenced to long prison terms after several lengthy trials. Many officers of the court and other Americans were highly suspicious of the case and believed that race was a deciding factor in both the decision to prosecute as well as the guilty verdict. It was believed that the alleged victims were lying; both during and after appeal, the women's claims were considered more dubious. The details of the Scottsboro Case, as the trials of the nine men came to be called, closely resemble those of the Tom Robinson case in Lee's novel. Yet despite these coincidences, Lee maintains that To Kill a Mockingbird is purely fictionalized and independent of biographical details.

Between 1960, the year of the book's publishing, and 1963 America and the world was in a highly contentious state. The fight against racism and for equal rights had reached a climax that lasted for two decades. Southern senators set a filibuster record against civil rights legislation and black activists began the infamous sit-ins at lunch counters across the south. President Kennedy, who proved to be an outspoken supporter of civil rights, was elected. The Freedom Riders started their travels through the Deep South in order to fight for equal rights on behalf of southern blacks. Several assassinations of civil rights leaders occurred as well as the senseless murders of innocent children and adults caught in the socio-political cross -- fire. Overseas, in South Africa, black Africans were contending with the expansion of the apartheid regime. Needless to say, the sixties marked an era that would drastically change the world forever. Yet, despite the racially charged atmosphere of the early 1960s, the book became an enormous popular success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and selling over fifteen million copies. Gregory Peck starred as Atticus Finch in an Academy Award winning feature length film that was produced two years after the book's publication.

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