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.


To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Maycomb County in the early 1930s which are the years of the Great Depression. Both poverty and unemployment were extraordinarily high in the United States. For parts of the Deep South, like Maycomb County, the Depression worsened the already poor conditions from which they never recovered after the Civil War. Blacks worked as share croppers for very little return while white farmers were cash poor despite owning the land on which blacks share cropped. Children in these areas were particularly susceptible to a variety of diseases and parasites as a result of growing up in underdeveloped rural areas with very little access to comprehensive healthcare and nourishing food.

The narrator, Scout Finch, provides descriptions of Maycomb as a town in Chapter 1 as an introduction to the reader of some of the things from above that he will encounter as the plot progresses. She first describes its general character: Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square (5). Lee uses the physical description of Maycomb to define its socio -- cultural undertones. Maycomb was literally old in that it was settled prior to the Civil War; however, by adding the descriptor tired, Lee is implying that the town's people have neither reconciled themselves to the changing of eras since the Civil War nor the negative impact it had on the town. Rituals such as [l]adies bath[ing] before noon, after their three o'clock naps were still practiced despite the time being well into the twentieth century. Also, as the reader learns in the section discussing Boo Radley, racial attitudes have not changed with the times. This demonstrated by the town sheriff not having the heart to put him alongside Negroes(12) when Boo stabbed his father in the led with a pair of scissors.

Following Scout's description of the initial setting is a more specific description of the town's people who become integral parts of the setting. [They] moved slowly then. They took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had noting to fear but fear itself(6). To emphasize the implication of the previous passage, Lee is blatantly stating that the inhabitants in Maycomb have willingly stayed behind the times due to a stubborn refusal to recover from the depression most of the south was thrust into after the Civil War. This refusal springs from an unfounded optimism that they can recover an era that has long since passed.

Point of View

Scout is retelling the story as an adult recounting her childhood to the reader. Interestingly, though, Lee alternates between Scout's narrative voice as a child and her narrative voice as an adult. Doing so presents the reader with a dual perspective that is important to the overall reading of the text. Scout is more reliable as a child retelling her story because of the innocence inherent to childhood; in other words, a child is more likely to recount events as they occurred rather than as suits their memory. Yet, as an adult, Scout is able to provide a mature interpretation of the same events that she couldn't have fully understood as a child. This facilitates a bi-level reading for the reader who may not be familiar with early-mid twentieth century southern American culture.

Scout becomes the reader's tour guide through Maycomb and the eclectic cast of characters that inhabit the town. Her description of the Finch family origins may seem pedantic at first, but it provides important clues to understanding the story as the narrative progresses. The reader will not only understand relationships within the Finch family, but also the relationships the Finches have with their fellow townsmen. For example, Atticus Finch studied law in Alabama and then returned to Maycomb as soon as he passed the bar exam. Therefore, Atticus becomes a archetypal southern patriarch: trustworthy, respectable, and loyal to his origins. This last attribute is crucial to the rest of the story in that his loyalty allows him to overlook the character flaws of those around him to which Scout calls subtle attention. Another example is involves Tom Robinson. By choosing to discuss Tom Robinson's trial from Scout's perspective, Lee is telling the reader that beneath the major societal problems of racial prejudice, discrimination, and the denial of civil rights lies the fundamental principle of social justice. That is not to say that Scout does not have an idea of race's implications in 1930s Alabama; however, she realizes that when someone has not committed a crime, he should not be punished as if he is guilty. In addition to reminding the reader of the essential concerns of all human beings, despite race, ethnicity, and class Scout also reminds the reader about hope and faith in the face of adversity. She continues to have faith in the basic goodness of humanity in spite of the harsh truths with which she is confronted throughout the text.


To Kill a Mockingbird reads like a collection of short stories with a common theme and loosely connected through related events. Some chapters and parts of chapters can be read on their own as separate stores; however, these smaller episodes are connected to the larger context of the novel. For example, the story of Atticus and the mad dog appears to be a completely unrelated story, but as the reader discovers later that the theme of courage from Chapter 10 is directly related to the plot of Chapter 11 with Mrs. Dubose: a chapter that can also be treated as a separate story. In terms of movement, the novel is divided into two parts. Part one focuses on the developmental stages of childhood with Scout, Jem, and Dill. The trio engages in childish games and fantasies role playing every summer. However, Part Two, exhibits a significant increase in maturity for all three children. They neither continue to play their role playing games nor do they continue to play as a unisex group. Both Jem and Dill recognize Scouts gender and separate themselves from her. Jem also begins to exhibit more responsible behavior in that he no longer keeps secrets from Atticus and he also tries to council Scout on better behavior techniques.

Metaphors and Allusions

Lee uses metaphors throughout the novel; however, the two most prominent metaphors are the mockingbird and the gun. The mockingbird symbolizes innocence in the novel. Atticus tells his children that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird(103) after he gives them air rifles for Christmas. Miss Maudie Atticus' warning: Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy They don't do but one thing but sing their hearts out for us (103). Both adults are telling Scout that mockingbirds are the closes thing the world has to pure goodness in that there is no ill will in their actions. Their only purpose in life is to please others and bring joy to people's lives. Based on this reading, the reader can identify two major characters that embody the qualities of the mockingbird: Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. They are each embodiments of kindheartedness selflessness. However, Tom Robinson is the pure embodiment of goodness in the story. His status as a black man in the Deep South only permits him a life based on pleasing others through service. In addition, he assists those in need without compensation, as he did with Mayella prior to the rape accusation. Boo Radley is the other primary example of a mockingbird in the novel. His altruism is demonstrated through his anonymous gift -- giving to Jem and Scout during the school year in addition to mending Jem's pants after the collard patch incident and wrapping Scout in a blanket the winter night of Miss Maudie's house fire.

Guns are a source of contention in the novel in that they are a necessary evil in the world. In several sections, Lee demonstrates the various ways in which guns can be either dangerous or valuable. In Chapter 10, a gun proves extraordinarily useful in preventing a mad dog from wrecking havoc on a residential street. However, it is important to note that Atticus, who has the reputation of being the deadest shot in Maycomb does not proclaim his talent publicly. For him, bravery and courage do not come in the shape of a gun and should not be understood as such. However, prior to that incident, both Atticus and Miss Maudie warn the children about shooting at mocking birds with their air rifles; thus an example of guns can be utilized for the greater harm rather than the greater good. Finally, the tragedy of Tom Robinson's death ends the novel with a stern warning against guns. Tom is shot seventeen times while he was allegedly escaping the prison camp. Tom is one of the mockingbirds to whom Miss Maudie and Atticus refer earlier in the novel, and as they both stated to kill a mockingbird is a sin.


The major conflict in the novel is between the Ewells and the Finches. Bob Ewell is the antagonist and Atticus Finch is the main protagonist; however, his children can be considered protagonists as well. Tom Robinson's trial marks the beginning of the conflict. Bob Ewell is humiliated by Atticus while on the witness stand and wants revenge as he tells him after spitting in Atticus; face at the post office. The climax occurs that October on the night of the Halloween pageant at Scout's and Jem's school. Bob Ewell follows the children home from the pageant and attacks them with a hunting knife. Although neither one of them are stabbed, Jem's arm is severely broken by Bob Ewell. Boo Radley rescues them by stabbing Bob with his own knife and killing him. Sheriff Heck Tate decides to declare the incident an accident as his restitution to Tom Robison.


The elements of superstition in the text increase the dramatic tension. Among the elements are the mysteriously appearing gifts in the oak tree, one of which is an Indian head nickel Jem claims brings strength and good luck; Hot Steams which Dill claims are the unsettled spirits of those who can not go to Heaven; Maycomb's first (unnatural) snowfall in almost fifty years; the fire that destroys Miss Maudie's house; and the mad dog that appears out of season in February. These elements, out of place in the normally quiet, predictable Maycomb, create tension in the novel and serve to foreshadow the troublesome events of the trial and its aftermath.

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