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Common Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird

Check out our analysis of some of the important themes that Harper Lee included in her novel.

The Title of the Book

There are a number of references in the story to mockingbirds. Atticus, pretending no interest in guns, nevertheless gives the children air-rifles but instructs them that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” - because, Miss Maudie confirms, they are harmless. When Atticus stands alone in the street facing the rabid dog, “The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent.” Here the mockingbirds represent the threatened community in the face of a then incurable disease (rabies). Clearly the symbolism tells us that these birds stand for the vulnerable, who can easily fall prey to insensitivity-as seen in the community’s treatment of Boo Radley, or to violent persecution- as in the case of Tom Robinson.

When Tom is shot by the prison guards (in effect committing suicide) the local newspaper reports “so children could understand” that “it was a sin to kill cripples...” Likening Tom’s death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds.” Similarly, when the sheriff covers up Boo’s role in the death of Bob Ewell, Scout approves, telling her father, “...it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”

Tom and Boo are presented as being characters with similar situations. It’s possible also to see the dreamy, homeless Dill as a kind of mockingbird- too sensitive for the ugliness he sees in the courtroom. Even Mayella Ewell (see character study) – the main witness against Tom - is weak and exploited by her father.

It is possible to see the whole novel as a plea for tolerance and inclusivity, written when most African Americans in the south inhabited a segregated world of white and “coloured” people and could not even register to vote. Racism may be the principal target in the book, but Harper Lee implicitly tells us that a society that doesn’t include those less fortunate or favoured won’t produce much of a world. There’s no sentimentality about the author, however- Tom is shot dead, his family devastated, and Boo remains permanently damaged, re-entering his “prison.”

Childhood

To Kill a Mockingbird draws its great charm from Harper Lee’s depiction of children- it is a charming and funny novel, despite its very serious subject. She uses a narrator who is an adult reflecting on traumatic events from her childhood, which include the terrors – “He put his arms over his head and went rigid,” – but also the joys – “Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head.”

The children have a special role in the novel. They can go where others can’t – for instance, to the black church with Calpurnia; into the black balcony in the courtroom; out to the Robinson house after Tom’s death. During the trial, Dolphus Raymond confides in them because, as he says of Dill, “things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet.” The children, following their father’s example, haven’t been contaminated with the attitudes that bring Tom to trial.

For the same reason, Boo is drawn to them. Their innocent attempts “to make Boo Radley come out” show an interest in Boo that his own family have never shown. Child-like himself, he responds to their childish attempts to send him messages, and he gives them gifts in return through the knot-hole in the tree. When Nathan, Boo’s older brother, cements the hole, Jem is in tears, aware of the increased isolation Boo must feel in his own family.

The power of innocence is demonstrated most clearly in the jail-house scene in Chapter 15. This scene also highlights the differences of understanding between Jem and Scout due to their four year age gap. While Jem understands the danger that Atticus is in, Scout merely thinks her father is about to demonstrate some clever trick, like he does when playing games with them. Seeing her classmate’s dad in the crowd, Scout just talks naturally to him and the whole situation is defused. Atticus later says, “it took an eight-year-old child to bring ‘em to their senses...you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute. That was enough.”

Families

Harper Lee depicts a number of different families in the novel: notably the Finches, the Ewells and the Radleys. Reflecting on Dill’s escape from his indifferent parents, Scout observes of her family: “They needed me.” We see the Finches as a close-knit, loving family, whose father explains everything. The absence of a mother is filled by both Calpurnia and Miss Maudie. Even Aunt Alexandra, whom the children dislike (she “fitted into the world of Maycomb...but never into the world of Jem and me.”), becomes humanized, eventually sympathetic with Atticus’s plight and the children’s suffering.

The Ewells too have a surrogate mother – Mayella – but there is a sharp contrast. We see hordes of unloved children (“Nobody was quite sure how many children were on the place,”) a drunken father, sordid living conditions and sexual abuse. The only thing that makes the Ewells “better” than their black neighbours is their white skin. Mayella is so emotionally deprived and lonely that she is driven to break the taboo of white/black sexual relations. When found out, to cover “the evidence of her offence” that she accuses Tom Robinson of rape. Atticus says of her – and it’s true of all the Ewells – that “she is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance,” but the sheriff takes a harder line: “Even then, they ain’t worth the bullet it takes to shoot ‘em.”

The Radleys are an unhappy family from the start. They are anti-social, shutting their doors despite the Alabama heat. When Arthur (Boo) gets in trouble they over-react, lock Boo away, and “Mr Radley’s boy was not seen again for fifteen years.” Boo takes revenge by stabbing his father in the leg, by which time he is 33 years old, too damaged to be a fully functioning adult. Miss Maudie attributes their woes to being “foot-washing Baptists...They take the Bible literally, you know...so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” It is Boo who suffers from the attitudes of this unloving family.