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.

Social Hierarchy

The Social hierarchy is the novel's primary theme which Lee brilliantly explores through the eyes of two middle class children who are in their wonder years. Lee uses children as the conduits for documenting social stagnation within a community because their natural innocence permits a degree of honesty and openness that adults have learned to avoid. There are two specific concepts explored within this rather broad theme: racism and social class. The setting of the novel, Maycomb County, Alabama makes for an interesting study of both concepts. However, here, the theme of social class will be discussed.

The readers are first introduced to the social stratification of Maycomb. Chapters 2-3 recount Scout and Jem's first day of school. Scout is beginning the first grade and her classroom is, virtually, a carbon copy of Maycomb's adult world. The reader's attention is first brought to education and literacy as an indicator when Miss Caroline learns of Scout's advanced reading level. The other children in her class are either completely or partially illiterate. The second indicator of class is revealed at lunchtime. The reader learns of at least three social classes that exist within the classroom, each determined by where the children eat. Miss Caroline takes a survey of the room to ascertain the number of students going into town for lunch versus the number of students who bring a pail lunch to school. Those children that go into town are the middle to upper middle class students whose parents are office professionals. For example, Scout and Jem's father, Atticus, is a lawyer with an office in town. There house is also located close to town. Those children who bring pail lunches are from working class families. Their parents are farmers who live on the outskirts of the county. These children are bussed to town every day for school and typically cannot afford to purchase lunch in town. Walter Cunningham represents this group of students, although his family is on the more economically challenged end of the spectrum. He cannot even afford to bring a lunch to school with him. The third and final group, the completely impoverished, is not introduced until after the lunch period when Burris Ewell is told to return home until he has rid his body of the parasites infesting it. The Ewells, as is discovered later in the chapters, live behind the garbage dump, have no clean water for either drinking or bathing, the eight Ewell children do not engage in formal education, and the father does not engage in making an honest living. They represent the poorest of the poor in Maycomb and, as the reader learns later in the novel, receive pity even from the black population of the County who are the most oppressed group in the region.


The above themes is an excellent segue to the discussing the theme of racism. Although it falls under the umbrella of the social hierarchy, Lee does treat it separately in the text. While the blacks living in Maycomb County are a designated subclass, their race and the racism of the region are what divides them from the entire Maycomb County population. Rather than hit the reader over the head with the well known racial prejudice of the south, Lee uses subtlety and ellipsis to show the reader how racial inequality and hatred can impact a community. Calpurnia, the Finches' nanny and cook, is the reader's as well as her charges' entry point to the black community of Maycomb County. Her mere presence haunts the reader throughout the text as she is usually the only black character given her own voice, all be it an archetypal representation. Lee uses the mammy archetype to her advantage in order to demonstrate how race operates in southern daily life. Calpurnia exists on the fringe of the Finch family despite the fact that she raised and continues to raise the children as well as manages the family's household. The Finches eat, have a clean home, and wear clean clothing because Calpurnia does these chores for them. Despite Atticus' busy schedule as a lawyer and state legislator, the children are not neglected because Calpurnia cares for them. However, she must still eat in the kitchen as well as sleep on a cot in the kitchen if spends the night at the Finch residence as she did in Chapter 14 when Atticus is called into session

Although she plays a formidable role in their lives, the Finch children know very little about Calpurnia. It isn't until they accompany her to church that Jem and Scout learn more about their surrogate mother. For example, Calpurnia has been a long standing employee for the Finch family. She first worked on Finch's Landing when it was a plantation and then moved to Maycomb when Atticus and the children's mother married. They also learn that she did not attend school, but rather their grandfather taught her how to read with the bible in effect molding her moral character as well. Her son Zeebo is only given brief mention, although he also has a formidable impression upon the children as the leader of First Purchase's Church Choir. This is really the only time that the reader is introduced to Calpurnia's family and the interaction between her and her son is cold, at best. Lee's intention for creating such a dynamic between Calpurnia and her children is unclear. One can assume that she is interested in exploring the impact the racial hierarchy had on black families; however, the relationship between Zeebo and Calpurnia is not developed enough. Another, and perhaps more accurate, conclusion is that she is emphasizing the level of objectification experienced by black domestic workers.

Of course Tom Robinson's trial represents another facet of racial inequality that can be directly linked to Calpurnia's experiences as a black woman. The most dangerous thing for a black man in America at the time (and even today in some areas) was to be accused of raping or taking sexual advantage of a white woman. Despite the veracity of the charges and/or evidence, a black man is guilty by accusation; therefore, the trial represents hatred in one of its purest manifestations. A white woman's integrity, real or imagines, must be preserved at all costs; therefore, Maycomb becomes so fixated on the race of the accused that it is willing to convict an innocent man on false charges than discover the truth. In some larger sense, Lee is explaining to the reader that racism is, among many other things, a means that people use to obscure the truth about themselves. In the Ewell case, racism becomes the means by which Mayella and her father hide their dysfunctional home and her father's abuse of the children. Interestingly, the Ewells are attempting to hide a secret that had already been exposed long before the trial.

Human Morality

To Kill a Mockingbird is the book's exploration of the moral nature of human beings. To be more specific, the novel explores the possibility of both good and evil existing simultaneously in human beings as well as to what extent one can/should be held accountable for the evil they commit. Lee also uses children as the conduits for exploring the complexities of the human mind and motives for certain types of behavior. The novel chronicles the Finch children's transition from childhood to adulthood and how, with each passing year, Scout and Jem develop 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 have more emotionally challenging experiences, they begin to understand that people and adults, specifically, are imperfect balances of both good and evil.

The portrayal of Jem and Scout's transition from childhood innocence to adult awareness, introduces the important underlying theme of the threat ignorance poses to the innocent such as the Finch children, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. None of these people prepared for the respective evil they encounter. As a result of their lack of preparedness, they are destroyed or nearly destroyed. Jem falls into a deep depression when he learns that Mr. Nathan Radley lied about the old oak tree. Jem cannot understand Mr. Nathan Radley's motivation for not telling the truth about such a small issue, especially to a child. Scout suffers as a result of constantly receiving ambiguous messages from adult. When her cousin Francis calls Atticus a nigger lover, Scout reacts violently. She is punished for defending her father's integrity whereas Francis receives compassion from the family. The same happens in the classroom; Scout is chastised for having such a high literacy level for her age group, yet the Ewell children are permitted as well as encouraged to not attend school. Boo Radley, as Miss Maudie explains to Scout, is a victim of religious fanaticism. His father was so afraid of the trouble the young Boo could potentially have caused/gotten into, that he prevents him from leaving the house ever again. As a result, Boo becomes an agoraphobic and socially awkward adult. Tom Robinson, who is the quintessential mockingbird in the novel, is innocent per se and is killed, both literally and figuratively, by the ignorance of racial prejudice

Atticus Finch is the novel's moral indicator in that he understands above conception of human morality. As a man of the law, he has dealt with a variety of people from diverse backgrounds. Such exposure to life has taught Atticus that the secret to living in such an imbalanced, unpredictable, and disappointing world is not permitting one's encounter with evil to cause a loss of faith in the human capacity for good;a solid foundation of faith is built upon sympathy and compassion for others' life experiences. Throughout the novel, Atticus impresses upon the children the importance of seeing life from another's perspective and that past experiences influence current behavior. Atticus uses Mrs. Dubose's circumstances to illustrate the lesson he wants Jem and Scout to learn. Mrs. Dubose is a spiteful, miserable, racist old woman. It almost seems as though her personal mission is making others as miserable as she is. Jem allows Mrs. Dubose's bitterness to infiltrate his better judgment and he chooses to vandalize her yard. It isn't until he endures his punishment of reading to her every afternoon for a month that he discovers the root of her evil. He also discovers that beneath her misanthropy lay a kindhearted woman with tremendous courage whose own life experiences led her to only show her undesirable qualities. Her gift of the white camellia embodies her good qualities which could not triumph over her cynicism in life.

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