Understanding “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Top Q&A from Students

It may just be impossible to consider classic American literature without delving into the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. Written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the most well-known and impactful works of literature within the last century, and arguably on a more historical level as well. The novel tackles the realities of racial inequalities, gender roles, and class-based hierarchies as they existed in the 1930s, particularly in the American Deep South. Harper Lee was raised in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama and grew up experiencing life as it appears in her novel. Her father was even a lawyer who may have provided a great deal of inspiration for the character Atticus; in his day, Lee’s father worked to defend two black men accused of the murder of a white store clerk.

To Kill a Mockingbird became an immediate success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 after being published only a year prior in 1960. Despite this work being Lee’s only published novel, the author was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her literary contribution in 2007. All of this success certainly came as a surprise to Lee, who was quoted in 1964 as saying, “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I had expected.”

For her contribution to literature and the awareness she provoked of issues of race and class, it’s safe to say that the attention Lee and her novel received was (and is) more than deserved. To aid in the understanding of this timeless novel, we’ve put together this cohesive To Kill a Mockingbird “guidebook.” Read on to learn some more in-depth information about this piece of literature.

What is To Kill a Mockingbird even about?

The title is a little misleading; there have been countless jokes about the confusion of readers believing they had found themselves a guide for the killing of mockingbirds (which is actually quite sad—mockingbirds are fabulous). Regardless, it’s pretty obvious that this story has very little to do with birds and more to do with handling issues of race, religion, society, justice, and education.

To Kill a Mockingbird follows two main plots, one focusing on the lives of two children discovering the identity of a reclusive neighbor, and the other the trial of an African American man named Tom Robinson. Both of these themes directly speak to the coming of age of the two kids as well as provide a depiction of true societal values during this time period.

Who’s “the hero?”

We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that the supposed hero of a novel is the protagonist, i.e. the main character. In To Kill a Mockingbird, that would be Scout, as the story is narrated from her point of view as an adult looking back on her experiences. But this is an interesting novel in more ways than one: it becomes arguable that Scout is not actually the “hero” of this novel, but rather something of a bystander, watching the action unfold and experiencing the story much as we, the readers, do.

Instead, we can look to two other characters as our heroes, Atticus Finch and Boo Radley. Atticus is perhaps the more obvious choice. He’s possibly the most famous character of the story—the strong father figure, beloved by his children and a voice for society’s underrepresented. These descriptors are absolutely true, and it is hard to deny that Atticus is a hero in this novel. But we can’t ignore the primarily faceless Boo Radley. For the majority of To Kill a Mockingbird, the man exists only in rumors, and negative rumors at that. But he helps Scout and Jem, leaving them gifts and trinkets, and even eventually saving their lives. Boo, through his transformation as a character, is able to teach the children the difference between rumor and truth, and thereby helps them mature and grow.

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Let’s consider a motif

To put it very simply, a “motif” is a theme, in other words, an element that is recurring or repeated throughout a story. A motif can be just about anything, be it an image, a color, an object, or even a concept, so long as it is seen with some frequency and holds importance within a work.

It would be wrong to say that To Kill a Mockingbird has only one motif, but there are certainly some more prevalent than others, and perhaps none more so than the ongoing appearance of “darkness.” Throughout the novel, darkness encompasses much of the story. Places like the courthouse, the jail, and the Radley house are all described as “dark” spaces, ambiguous characters such as Boo Radley are depicted as “dark and scary,” and it likely isn’t coincidental that much of the story’s action occurs in the darkness of night.

But is that the overall theme?

With any work, it can be difficult to isolate a theme, particularly an overarching and constantly prevalent one that applies to all characters all the time. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

In To Kill a Mockingbird the universal theme is coming of age. More often than not, universal themes have something to do with overcoming an obstacle or conflict—in the case of Lee’s novel, there are two main conflicts that must be overcome, and for Scout, these conflicts and her understanding of them have much to do with her growth as a person and learning about the real world as an adult.

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What can we learn from To Kill a Mockingbird?

Anyone with even a slight familiarity with the story knows that this novel deals with some pretty difficult topics, such as racism, which still exists as a social problem even in today’s society. On this topic alone, To Kill a Mockingbird offers readers the perspective of racial injustice before the law. Readers see two men wrongfully convicted of violent crimes they did not commit, based on the color of their skin.

Atticus also serves as a figure that readers can learn from. As a character, not only is Atticus a respectable father, but he also serves as inspiration to the reader as well as his children in terms of behaving with courage, tolerance, and justice—including to those different from yourself.

What are some important quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird?

Like many great novels, this book is chock full of lines that highlight and articulate the more important aspects of the story. Click here to go to a list of eight of the “most” important quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Why is this book so heavily recommended even 50+ years post publication?

Well, the short answer would be that there are many important themes tackled in To Kill a Mockingbird that are still relevant to today’s society, such as racism, racial injustice, wage gaps, gender roles, etc. Yes, it’s true that this novel was published more than half a century ago, but with so many of the same social problems existing today as they did then, it seems we still have a lot to learn, and Lee’s novel may be a good place to start.

On a slightly less depressing note, To Kill a Mockingbird can be recommended simply because it is an amazing novel and a representation of great writing. They say (and we at eNotes agree) that the best way to learn to write is through reading—and there’s a lot any aspiring writer could learn from emulating Lee’s style.

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