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.

Symbols

Mockingbird

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 explains to Scout her father's 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. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. Both Miss Maudie and Atticus 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 several characters in the text who can be perceived as the embodiment of mockingbird: Jem, Scout, Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, and Mr. Dolphus Raymond. They are each, to one degree or another, embodiments of goodness and kindheartedness. However, Tom Robinson is the pure embodiment of goodness in the story. His status in the racial hierarchy 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. However, like most who confront a devastating, evil force such as racial prejudice, Tom allows the evil to destroy him. After Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood aptly compares his death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children (275) because hunters and children are typically ignorant of life's beauty in its various manifestations.

The other primary example in the novel is Boo Radley. He demonstrates his altruism through the gifts he anonymously gives 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. Although Scout feared and villanized Boo at the beginning and throughout the novel, by the end of the book, Scout comes to the conclusion that hurting Boo Radley would be like shootin' a mockingbird (317).

Boo Radley

Boo Radley, a sweet and soft spoken child ruined by a religiously fanatic father, is one of the book's most important mockingbirds; he is also an important symbol of the good that exists within people. Despite the pain that Boo has suffered, the purity of his heart rules his interaction with the children. In saving Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell, Boo proves the ultimate symbol of good. The children's changing attitude toward and developing relationship with Boo Radley becomes an important measurement of their progression from innocence toward an adult moral perspective. When the novel opens, Boo is a childhood bogeyman who, in the minds of Jem and Scout, commits a variety of atrocious acts to people and animals alike. However, Boo's altruistic behavior towards the children (i.e. gifts in the oak tree, mending of pants, rescuing them from Bob Ewell), enables them to perceive his humanity with more of a compassionate sensibility. He becomes a real person rather than remaining a specter, thus allowing Scout to demonstrate that she had grown into a compassionate and empathetic individual. Unfortunately, she does not become fully aware of Boo's humanity until the end of the novel when he rescues her and Jem from Bob Ewell. Interestingly enough, this is also the point in the novel when he takes another's life in order to save the children's lives. Therefore Boo Radley's character also speaks to the complexities behind the decisions adults must make in their daily lives about which Atticus continuously speaks throughout the text. Often times, adults are forced to choose the lesser of the two evils when no other good option is available.

Guns

Guns are a source of contention in the novel. Although it is understood that they are a necessary evil in the world, Lee demonstrates the various ways in which guns can be either dangerous or valuable. In Chapter 10, a gun proves extraordinarily useful to prevent a mad dog from hurting any of the residents in its wake. 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. 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.

Motifs

Morality

To Kill a Mockingbird explores the concept of human morality and the possibility of both good and evil existing simultaneously in human beings. In addition to this, Lee poses the reader questions regarding the extent to which one can/should be held accountable for the evil they commit. To achieve this and find the answers to this question, Lee uses children as the conduits for exploring the complexities of the human mind and motives for certain types of behavior. The novel follows the Finch children as they grow from small children in to adolescents with a quasi adult understanding of society and their place in it. Scout and Jem cultivate an acute understanding of morality's importance as an interpersonal guide. Naturally as children, they assume that everyone they encounter possess pure goodness; however, as they grow older and encounter evil more often, they begin to understand that people and adults, specifically, are imperfect balances of both good and evil.

Superstition

Lee includes several elements of superstition in the text in order to add drama and 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.

Small-Town Life

Lee uses the superstitious motif in conjunction with that of the old-fashioned, small-town values to which Scout draws the reader's attention throughout the novel. In order to draw attention to the serious flaws of Maycomb and its cultural values, Lee presents a dynamic contrast between the suspense barely acknowledged by the town's people and the moral veneer of the County. By using this method, she is emphasizing that, often, beneath the surface of seemingly safe, ordinary small towns lies a seething danger waiting to erupt. In the case of Maycomb, the seething danger is racial prejudice. Yet, Lee complicates the reading by conjoining disturbing aspects of the town with redeeming qualities. Mrs. Dubose is an excellent example of this techniques; Mrs. Dubose is a cynical, racist old woman who torments those who pass by her house. Hidden behind her cold and callous demeanor, lies a somewhat forgiving, hopeful, and courageous woman who is looking to rescue her soul from the evils of addiction.

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