To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- Length: 2644 words (7.6 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
five-year-old child who has no experience with the evils of the world.
As the novel progresses, Scout has her first contact with evil in the
form of racial prejudice, and the basic development of her character
is governed by the question of whether she will emerge from that
contact with her conscience and optimism intact or whether she will be
bruised, hurt, or destroyed like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Thanks
to Atticus's wisdom, Scout learns that though humanity has a great
capacity for evil, it also has a great capacity for good, and that the
evil can often be mitigated if one approaches others with an outlook
of sympathy and understanding.
When he agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping
a white woman, he exposes himself and his family to the anger of the
Arthur "Boo" Radley - A recluse who never sets foot outside his house,
Boo dominates the imaginations of Jem, Scout, and Dill. He is a
powerful symbol of goodness swathed in an initial shroud of
creepiness, leaving little presents for Scout and Jem and emerging at
an opportune moment to save the children. An intelligent child
emotionally damaged by his cruel father, Boo provides an example of
the threat that evil poses to innocence and goodness. He is one of the
novel's "mockingbirds," a good person injured by the evil of mankind.
Bob Ewell - A drunken, permanently unemployed member of Maycomb's
poorest family. In his knowingly wrongful accusation that Tom Robinson
raped his daughter, Ewell represents the dark side of the South:
ignorance, poverty, squalor, and hate-filled racial prejudice.
One of the book's important subthemes involves the threat that hatred,
prejudice, and ignorance pose to the innocent: people such as Tom
Robinson and Boo Radley are not prepared for the evil that they
encounter, and, as a result, they are destroyed.
The relatively well-off Finches stand near the top of Maycomb's social
hierarchy, with most of the townspeople beneath them. Ignorant country
farmers like the Cunninghams lie below the townspeople, and the white
trash Ewells rest below the Cunninghams. But the black community in
Maycomb, despite its abundance of admirable qualities, squats below
even the Ewells, enabling Bob Ewell to make up for his own lack of
importance by persecuting Tom Robinson. These rigid social divisions
that make up so much of the adult world are revealed in the book to be
both irrational and destructive.
Mockingbird - The title of To Kill a Mockingbird has very little
literal connection to the plot, but it carries a great deal of
symbolic weight in the book. In this story of innocents destroyed by
evil, the "mockingbird" comes to represent the idea of innocence.
Thus, to kill a mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Throughout the
book, a number of characters (Jem, Tom Robinson, Dill, Boo Radley, Mr.
Raymond) can be identified as mockingbirds-innocents who have been
injured or destroyed through contact with evil. This connection
between the novel's title and its main theme is made explicit several
times in the novel: after Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood compares
his death to "the senseless slaughter of songbirds," and at the end of
the book Scout thinks that hurting Boo Radley would be like "shootin'
a mockingbird." Most important, Miss Maudie explains to Jem:
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but ... sing their hearts out for us.
That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." That Jem and Scout's
last name is Finch (another type of small bird) indicates that they
are particularly vulnerable in the racist world of Maycomb, which
often treats the fragile innocence of childhood harshly.
Boo Radley - As the novel progresses, the children's changing attitude
toward Boo Radley is an important measurement of their development
from innocence toward a grown-up moral perspective. At the beginning
of the book, Boo is merely a source of childhood superstition. As he
leaves Jem and Scout presents and mends Jem's pants, he gradually
becomes increasingly and intriguingly real to them. At the end of the
novel, he becomes fully human to Scout, illustrating that she has
developed into a sympathetic and understanding individual. Boo, an
intelligent child ruined by a cruel 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.
One of the central themes of To Kill a Mockingbird is the process of
growing up and developing a more mature perspective on life.
Correspondingly, the narrative gradually comes to mirror a loss of
innocence, as the carefree childhood of this first chapter is slowly
replaced by a darker, more dangerous, and more cynical adult story in
which the children are only minor participants.
Boo Radley becomes the focus of the children's curiosity in Chapter 1.
As befits the perspective of childhood innocence, the recluse is given
no identity apart from the youthful superstitions that surround him:
Scout describes him as a "malevolent phantom" over six feet tall who
eats squirrels and cats. Of course, the reader realizes that there
must be more to Boo's story than these superstitions imply.
Eventually, Boo will be transformed from a nightmare villain into a
human being, and the children's understanding of him will reflect
their own journey toward adulthood.
"You never really understand a person until you ... climb into his
skin and walk around in it."
Boo makes his presence felt in these chapters in a number of ways.
First, the presents begin to appear in the Radley tree, and, though
Scout does not realize who has been putting them there, the reader can
easily guess that it is Boo. Second, Miss Maudie offers insight into
the origins of Boo's reclusiveness and a sympathetic perspective on
his story. Miss Maudie has only contempt for the superstitious view of
Boo: he is no demon, and she knows that he is alive, because she
hasn't seen him "carried out yet." From her point of view, Boo was a
nice boy who suffered at the hands of a tyrannically religious family.
He is one of many victims populating a book whose title, To Kill a
Mockingbird, suggests the destruction of an innocent being. In fact,
as a sweet, young child apparently driven mad by an overbearing father
obsessed with sin and retribution, Boo epitomizes the loss of
innocence that the book, as a whole, dramatizes. For the children, who
first treat him as a superstition and an object of ridicule but later
come to view him as a human being, Boo becomes an important benchmark
in their gradual development of a more sympathetic, mature
That night, Atticus wakes Scout and sends her outside in her
bathrobe and coat. Miss Maudie's house is on fire. The neighbors help
her save her furniture, and the fire truck arrives in time to stop the
fire from spreading to other houses, but Miss Maudie's house burns to
the ground. In the confusion, someone drapes a blanket over Scout.
When Atticus later asks her about it, she has no idea who put it over
her. Jem realizes that Boo Radley put it on her, and he reveals the
whole story of the knothole, the presents, and the mended pants to
Atticus. Atticus tells them to keep it to themselves, and Scout,
realizing that Boo was just behind her, nearly throws up.
Originally portrayed as a freak and a lunatic, Boo Radley
continues to gain the sympathy of the readers and of the children in
these chapters. However, Lee uses an elliptical technique in telling
Boo's story-she hints and implies at what is happening without ever
showing the reader directly. The reader must read between the
lines-inferring, for instance, that it was Boo Radley who mended Jem's
pants and placed the presents in the tree, since Scout does not
realize that Boo's hand is at work until Jem explains things to
Atticus after the fire.
In comparison to Scout's still very childish perspective, Jem's
more mature understanding of the world is evident here, along with his
strong sense of justice. When Nathan Radley plugs up the hole in the
tree, Scout is disappointed but hardly heartbroken, seeing it as
merely the end of their presents. Jem, on the other hand, is brought
to tears, because he grasps that Boo's brother has done something
cruel: he has deprived Boo of his connection to the wider world and
has broken up his brother's attempt at friendship. This incident,
which the reader must detect behind the scenes of Scout's narrative,
plays into the novel's broad theme of suffering innocence, and Jem's
anger at this injustice foreshadows his later fury concerning Tom
Robinson's trial. While Scout retains her innocence and optimism
throughout the book, Jem undergoes severe disillusionment as part of
his "growing up," and the Boo Radley incident in this chapter is an
important early step toward that disillusionment.
In a world in which innocence is threatened by injustice, cruelty,
prejudice, and hatred, goodness can prevail in the form of sympathy,
understanding, and common sense, as evidenced by how the townspeople's
affectionate willingness to help one another enables them to overcome
the intrusion of these Gothic elements into their simple small-town
Scout overhears Atticus telling Jack that Tom Robinson is innocent but
doomed, since it's inconceivable that an all-white jury would ever
The fire in which the previous section culminated represents an
important turning point in the narrative structure of To Kill a
Mockingbird. Before the fire, the novel centers on Scout's childhood
world, the games that she plays with Jem and Dill, and their childhood
superstitions about Boo Radley. After the fire, Boo Radley and
childhood pursuits begin to retreat from the story, and the drama of
the trial takes over. This shift begins the novel's gradual
dramatization of the loss-of-innocence theme, as adult problems and
concerns begin disrupting the happy world of the Finch children.
The adversity faced by the family reveals Atticus's parenting style,
his focus on instilling moral values in Jem and Scout. Particularly
important to Atticus are justice, restraint, and honesty. He tells his
children to avoid getting in fights, even if they are verbally abused,
and to practice quiet courage instead. When he gives Jem and Scout air
rifles as presents, he advises them that it is a sin to kill a
mockingbird. This idea is, of course, the source of the novel's title,
and it reflects the book's preoccupation with injustices inflicted
upon innocents. In different ways, Jem and Scout, Boo Radley, and Tom
Robinson are all "mockingbirds
Dill's absence from Maycomb coincides appropriately with the continued
encroachment of the adult world upon Scout's childhood, as Dill has
represented the perspective of childhood throughout the novel.
Atticus's tenet that Scout should always try to put herself in someone
else's shoes before she judges them. Lee enables us to identify with
the black community in a way that makes the townspeople's
unwillingness to do so seem mean-spirited and stubborn.
If the novel's main theme involves the threat that evil and hatred
pose to innocence and goodness, it becomes clear that ignorant,
unsympathetic racial prejudice will be the predominant incarnation of
evil and hatred, as the childhood innocence of Scout and Jem is thrown
into crisis by the circumstances of the trial.
However, Dill's return also emphasizes the growing gulf in development
between Scout and Jem. In the previous section, we saw the
twelve-year-old Jem indignantly urging Scout to act more like a girl,
indicating his growing awareness of adult social roles and
expectations. Here again, Jem proves clearly too old for the childhood
solidarity that Dill's presence recalls. Scout relates that, upon
seeing Dill under the bed, Jem "rose and broke the remaining code of
our childhood" by telling Atticus. To Scout, this act makes Jem a
"traitor," though it is really an act of responsibility that marks
Jem's maturation toward adulthood.
As Scout duly notes, the world of childhood fun that Dill represents
can no longer stave off the adult reality of hatred and unfairness
that Jem finds himself entering. Whereas, two years before, the Finch
children's lives were dominated by games and friendship with Dill,
their lives now focus on the adult world of Tom Robinson's trial. The
now mature Jem leads Scout and Dill into town on the night that
Atticus faces the lynch mob. Symbolically, this scene marks Jem's
transition from boy to man, as he stands beside Atticus and refuses to
"go home," since only a child would do so. Though he disobeys his
father, he does so not petulantly but maturely. He understands
Atticus's difficult situation with regard to the case and consequently
fears for Atticus's safety. Nevertheless, the confrontation is
dominated by Scout's innocence, still sufficiently intact that she can
chat with Walter Cunningham about his son despite being surrounded by
a hostile lynch mob.
Some critics find Scout's performance and the dispersal of the mob in
this scene unconvincing and pat, wondering how Scout can remain so
blissfully unaware of what is really going on and how Mr. Cunningham
can be persuaded by Scout's Southern courtesy to break up the drunken
posse. However, within the moral universe of To Kill a Mockingbird,
the behavior of both characters makes perfect sense. As befits her
innocence, Scout remains convinced of other people's essential
goodness, a conviction that the novel, as a whole, shares. Rather than
marking them as inherently evil, the mob members' racism only shrouds
their humanity, their worthiness, and their essential goodness.
Scout's attempt at politeness makes Mr. Cunningham realize her
essential goodness, and he responds with civility and kindness. As
Atticus says later, the events of that night prove that "a gang of
wild animals can be stopped, simply because they're still human."
he successfully reveals the injustice of a stratified society that
confines blacks to the "colored balcony" and allows the word of a
despicable, ignorant man like Bob Ewell to prevail without question
over the word of a man who happens to be black. In the trial conducted
in the courtroom, Atticus loses. In the trial conducted in the mind of
the reader, it is the white community, wallowing in prejudice and
hatred, that loses.
The reader knows that Tom Robinson will be found guilty, so Lee
locates the tension and suspense elsewhere-in Atticus's slow but
steady dismantling of the prosecution's case. Jem, still clinging to
his youthful illusions about life working according to concepts of
fairness, doesn't understand that his father's brilliant efforts will
be in vain. He believes that the irrefutable implications of the
evidence will clinch the case for Atticus. When Jem says, "We've got
him," after Bob Ewell is shown to be left-handed, the reader knows
The irony, of course, is that Bob Ewell is completely unimportant; he
is an arrogant, lazy, abusive fool, laughed at by his fellow
townsfolk. Yet in the racist world of Maycomb, sadly, even he has the
power to destroy an innocent man-perhaps the novel's most tragic
example of the threat posed to innocence by evil.
Mayella Ewell is pitiable, and her miserable existence almost allows
her to join the novel's parade of innocent victims-she, too, is a kind
of mockingbird, injured beyond repair by the forces of ugliness,
poverty, and hatred that surround her. Lee's presentation of Mayella
emphasizes her role as victim-her father beats her and possibly
molests her, while she takes care of the children.
Pity must be reserved for Tom Robinson, whose honesty and goodness
render him supremely moral. Unlike the Ewells, Tom is hardworking,
honest, and has enough compassion to make the fatal mistake of feeling
sorry for Mayella Ewell.