Born in 1926, Harper Lee grew up in depression-era Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest of four children, Lee followed her attorney father into law.
Lee attended the University of Alabama law school and spent the 1950's working for Eastern Airlines and writing short stories. On the suggestion of her editor, Lee developed one of her short stories into her only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, published in 1960.
The novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and spent 80 weeks on the bestseller list. It has been translated into 40 languages and there are over 30 million copies in print.
The story of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Alabama in the Depression, and is narrated by the main character, a little girl named Scout Finch.
Her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer with high moral standards. She and her brother, Jem, and their friend Dill are intrigued by the local rumours about a man named Boo Radley who lives in their neighbourhood but never sets foot from his house.
Legend has it that he once stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors, and he is made out to be a kind of monster. Dill is from Mississippi but spends his summer in Maycomb at a house near the Finches.
The children are curious to know more about Boo, and create a mini-drama to enact which tells the events of his life as they know them. They slowly begin moving closer to the house itself, which is said to be haunted. They try leaving notes for Boo on his windowsill, but are caught by Atticus, who firmly reprimands them.
Then they try sneaking to the house at night and looking through its windows. However, Boo's brother, Nathan Radley, who lives with him, thinks he hears a prowler and begins firing his gun.
The children get away, though Jem loses his pants in a gate. When he returns, his ripped pants have been folded and roughly sewn up.
Other mysterious things happen to the Finch children. A certain tree near the Radley house has a hole in which little presents are often left for them, such as pennies and chewing gum. When they leave a note for the giver of these gifts, Boo's brother plugs up the hole the next day with cement.
The next winter brings unexpected cold and snows, and the house of the kind neighbour Miss Maudie catches on fire. While Jem and Scout, shivering, watch the blaze from near the Radley house, someone puts a blanket around Scout. She doesn't realise until afterwards that Boo Radley must have been the one to do this.
Atticus decides to take on a case involving a black man named Tom Robinson who has been accused of raping a very poor white girl named Mayella Ewell, a member of the notorious Ewell family, who belong to the layer of Maycomb society that people refer to as "trash.”
The Finches all face harsh criticism in racist Maycomb because of Atticus’s decision to defend Tom, but Atticus insists upon going through with the case because his conscience could not let him do otherwise.
He knows that Tom has almost no chance, because the white jury will never believe his story, but he wants to reveal the truth of what happened to his fellow townspeople as well as expose their bigotry.
Scout and Jem find themselves whispered at and taunted, and they have trouble keeping their tempers. At a family Christmas gathering, Scout beats up her cloying relative Francis when he accuses Atticus of ruining the family name.
Jem cuts off the tops of an old neighbour's flower bushes after she derides Atticus, and then as punishment he has to read out loud to her every day while she breaks her morphine addiction.
Atticus holds this old woman up as an example of true courage: the will to keep fighting even when you know you can't win.
The time for the trial draws closer, and Atticus's sister Alexandra comes to stay with the family. She is proper and old-fashioned and wants to shape Scout into the model of the Southern feminine ideal, much to Scout's resentment.
Dill runs away from his home, where his mother and new father don't seem interested in him, and stays in Maycomb for the summer of Tom's trial.
The night before the trial, Tom is moved into the county jail, and Atticus, fearing a possible lynching, stands guard outside the jail door all night. Jem is concerned about him, and the three children sneak into town to find him.
A group of men arrives ready to cause some violence to Tom, but Scout runs out and begins to speak to one of the men, the father of one of her classmates in school. Her innocence brings them out of their mob mentality, and they leave.
The trial pits the evidence of the white Ewells against Tom's evidence. According to the Ewells, Mayella asked Tom to do some work for her while her father was out, and Tom came into their house and forcibly beat and raped Mayella until her father appeared and scared him away.
Tom says that Mayella invited him inside, then threw her arms around him and began to kiss him. When her father arrived, he flew into a rage and beat her, while Tom ran away in fright.
According to the sheriff's testimony, Mayella's bruises were on the right side of her face. Tom Robinson's left arm is useless due to an old accident, whereas Mr. Ewell leads with his left.
Given the evidence, Tom should go free, but after hours of deliberation, the jury pronounces him guilty.
Though the verdict is unfortunate, Atticus feels some satisfaction that the jury took so long deciding‹usually the decision would be made in minutes, because a black man's word would not be trusted. Atticus is hoping for an appeal, but unfortunately Tom tries to escape from his prison and is shot to death. Jem has trouble handling the results of the trial, feeling that his trust in the goodness and rationality of humanity has been betrayed.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ewell has been threatening Atticus and other people connected with the trial because he feels he was humiliated. He gets his revenge one night while Jem and Scout are walking home from Halloween play at their school. He follows them home in the dark, then runs at them and attempts to kill them.
Jem breaks his arm, and Scout, who wearing a confining costume, is helpless throughout the attack. However, the elusive Boo Radley stabs Mr. Ewell and saves them. Scout finally has a chance to meet the shy and nervous Boo. The sheriff declares that Mr. Ewell fell on his own knife so that Boo won't have to be tried for murder. Scout walks Boo home. He goes inside and she never sees him again.
Scout : Six-year-old Jean Louise "Scout" Finch narrates the novel. A tomboy at heart, Scout works hard not to "act like a girl" by wearing overalls instead of dresses and beating up other children who antagonise her. Scout spends her days playing outside with her older brother, Jem, and her best friend, Dill. Extremely smart and bright for her age, Scout loves to read spends time reading with her father, Atticus, every night. Being head strong, Scout often finds herself in trouble with her father, her housekeeper, Calpurnia, her neighbours, her aunt Alexandra, and her teachers. Despite the rules of etiquette governing life in her small town, Scout voices her opinions and recognises hypocrisy and injustice in her elders.
Atticus : Father of Jem and Scout, Atticus Finch sits on the Alabama State Legislature and acts as Maycomb's leading attorney. The epitome of moral character, Atticus teaches his children and his community how to stand up for one's beliefs in the face of prejudice and ignorance by defending a black man, Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Having lost his wife when Scout was two years old, Atticus devotes himself to his children despite criticism from family and neighbours who think his children lack discipline and proper guidance. Atticus stands as one of literature's strongest and most positive father figures.
Jem : Ten years old when the book begins , Jeremy "Jem" Finch acts as Scout's playmate and protector. Entering adolescence during the course of the novel. Jem matures as he struggles with issues of racism and intolerance. On the brink of manhood, Jem goes through phases as he comes to grips with his family's past and his future role in society. Sometimes moody and sullen, sometimes kind and gentle, Jem emerges as a leader as he helps Scout understand how to get along in school and reminds her to respect Atticus and their other elders.
Dill : Harper Lee based her character, Charles Baker "Dill" Harris, on her girlhood friend and famous writer, Truman Capote. Spending his summers with his relative, Miss Rachel, in Maycomb, Dill, who is Scout's age, comes from a broken family. Dill spins grand tales about his father but runs away from home late in the book because he feels his mother and step-father don't care about him. During his summers however, he, Jem, and Scout entertain themselves by pretending they are characters in plays and attempting to coax Boo Radley out of his house.
Calpurnia : The Finch's black housekeeper, Calpurnia acts as a mother figure and disciplinarian in the Finch household. Atticus trusts Calpurnia, relies on her for support raising his children, and considers her part of the family. Calpurnia also gives the children insight into her world when she takes them to her church.
Boo Radley : Arthur "Boo" Radley is Maycomb's town recluse. Myths and rumours about Boo and his family abound. According to town gossip, Boo stabbed his father in the leg when he was a boy and has since been confined to his house. The children imagine Boo as a ghoulish figure who eats cats and stalks about the neighbourhood under the cover of night. In fact, Boo stands as a figure of innocence who befriends and protects the children in his own way.
Aunt Alexandra : Atticus' sister, Aunt Alexandra is a proper Southern woman who maintains a strict code about with whom she and her family should associate. She criticises Atticus for letting Scout run wild and when she moves into their home during Tom Robinson's trial, Alexandra urges Scout to wear dresses and become a proper lady.
Tom Robinson : The most important client of Atticus' career, Tom Robinson, a young, black man, is a church going, father of four accused of rape by Mayella Ewell.
Bob Ewell : The father of eight, Bob Ewell, a white man, and his family live behind Maycomb's dump. Desperately poor, Ewell uses his welfare money to buy alcohol while his children go hungry. His nineteen year old daughter, Mayella, accuses Tom Robinson of rape and battery.
Miss Maudie : Miss Maudie is the counterpoint to Aunt Alexandra. A neighbour to the Finch family, Maudie offers Scout a female role model opposite from Alexandra. Maudie respects the children and admires Atticus. Unlike the other women in the town, Maudie minds her own business and behaves without pretension or hypocrisy.
Walter Cunningham : Walter Cunningham plays a small but important role in Mockingbird. A farming family, the Cunninghams occupy a middle position in Maycomb's class hierarchy above African American citizens and the Ewells but below Atticus and the Finch family. Honest and hard working, Walter Cunningham and his son are respectable community members who represent the potential in everyone to understand right from wrong despite ignorance and prejudice.
1) Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.—Scout
2) "What I meant was, if Atticus Finch drank until he was drunk he wouldn't be as hard as some men are at their best. There are just some kind of men who—who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results." –Miss Maudie
3) "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." –Atticus
4) When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn't teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn't interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem, "I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever hear Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "You're father's right," she said. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mocking bird."
5) "The witnesses for the state…have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption—the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber. Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson's skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men cannot be trusted around women, black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men…"—Atticus
6) "I don't know [how they could convict Tom Robinson], but they did it. They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep…"—Atticus talking to Jem
7) "…As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."—Atticus
8) "…If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? If they're all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time…it's because he wants to stay inside."—Jem
9) "I'm not a very good man, sir, but I am sheriff of Maycomb County. Lived in this town all my life an' I'm goin' on forty-three years old. Know everything that's happened here since before I was born. There's a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it's dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead."—Sheriff Tate
10) "Neighbours bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbours give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad."—Scout
Mockingbird : The mockingbird represents innocence. Like hunters who kill mockingbirds for sport, people kill innocence, or other people who are innocent, without thinking about what they are doing. Atticus stands firm in his defence of innocence and urges his children not to shoot mockingbirds both literally and figuratively. The mockingbird motif arises four times during To Kill a Mockingbird. First, when Atticus gives Jem and Scout air guns for Christmas and instructs them not to kill mockingbirds. Second, when B.B. Underwood writes about Tom Robinson's death in his column. Third, a mockingbird sings right before Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout. Finally, Scout agrees with Atticus that prosecuting Boo for Ewell's murder would be like killing a mockingbird.
Boo Radley : Boo Radley represents fear. Small town folks fear that if they act eccentric and fail to adhere to social rules they too will end up like Boo, isolated and remembered as a grotesque monster. It is this fear that supports the social status quo and keeps individuals from standing up for that which they believe. Until people can understand and accept Boo, as Scout does at the end of the book, they will always be stuck in a world filled with fear, lies, and ignorance.
Guns : Guns represent false strength. According to Atticus, guns do not prove manhood or bravery. Manhood and bravery come from a man's ability to persevere and fight using his wits, his heart, and his character. Neighbours use and venerate guns to the detriment of developing their own personal strength.
During the first half of Mockingbird Harper Lee constructs a sweet and affectionate portrait of growing up in the vanished world of small town Alabama. Lee, however, proceeds to undermine her portrayal of small town gentility during the second half of the book. Lee dismantles the sweet façade to reveal a rotten, rural underside filled with social lies, prejudice, and ignorance. But no one in Mockingbird is completely good or evil. Every character is human, with human flaws and weaknesses. Lee even renders Atticus, the paragon of morality, symbolically weak by making him an old and widowed man as opposed to young and virile. It is how these flawed characters influence and are influenced by the major themes underpinning their society.
Three major themes run through To Kill a Mockingbird : education, bravery, and prejudice. We learn how important education is to Atticus and his children in the first chapter when Jem announces to Dill that Scout has known how to read since she was a baby. Atticus reads to the children from newspapers and magazines as if they are adults who can understand issues at his level. By the time Scout attends her first day of school she is highly literate, far surpassing the other children in the classroom and frustrating her teacher whose task it is to teach her students according to a predetermined plan.
It soon becomes clear why Atticus thinks education is so important. During his closing arguments Atticus explicitly acknowledges the ignorance blinding people's minds and hearts: "the witnesses for the state…have presented themselves to you gentlemen…in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the…evil assumption…that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber". Education is the key to unlocking the ignorance that causes such prejudice. Jem begins to understand this lesson toward the end of the book when he wonders whether family status could be based more on education than on bloodlines.
Jem also learns powerful lessons from his father regarding bravery and cowardice. Early in Mockingbird we learn that Atticus does not approve of guns. He believes that guns do not make men brave and that the children's fascination with guns is unfounded.
To prove his point, he sends Jem to read for Mrs. Dubose who struggles to beat her morphine addiction before she dies. He wants to show his son one shows true bravery "when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what". Atticus also role models his sense of bravery by refusing to carry a gun to protect Tom Robinson from angry farmers and refusing to carry a gun to protect himself after Bob Ewell threatens guns.
But bravery runs deeper than the decision to carry a gun. Atticus shows bravery when he takes Tom's case despite knowing that his town would turn against him and his children. Jem shows bravery when the children intervene on behalf of Atticus and Jem refuses to leave his father's side during the showdown with farmers at the jailhouse. And, perhaps the biggest lesson Scout must learn is to turn away and show real bravery rather than fight when people antagonise her.
The most important theme of Mockingbird remains the notion of prejudice in all of its forms. Clearly, with the Tom Robinson case, Lee's characters deal with racial prejudice head on. References to black men as "niggers" and "boys" persist throughout the book.
Black people occupy the lowest class level of Maycomb society as Maycomb's white population of every class waste no time reinforcing their rigid class rules. The fact that Atticus realises that he has no chance to win his case defending Tom because Tom is black offers the most explicit indicator of deep-rooted racism. His closing argument in Chapter Twenty clearly outlines Atticus's views on racism. However, Lee also shows us prejudice as it pertains to gender and social class.
Although the entire town subscribes outwardly to traditional gender roles and class distinctions, Aunt Alexandra stands plays the greatest role in reinforcing these notions within the Finch family.
Alexandra believes that because the Finch family comes from a long line of landowners who have been the county for generations they deserve greater respect than do other people and they must comport themselves according to their status. She refuses to associate with both black and white citizens alike because they do not fill the same social position. Atticus, on the other hand, urges his children to sympathise with others and to "walk in their skin" before they judge or criticise others.
Scout suffers acutely from the stereotypes imposed upon her because of the rigid sexism and gender rules that govern southern life. Although the characters do not explicitly deal with gender issues, Lee does offer several characters, Miss Maudie and Miss Stephanie in particular, who illustrate the broad spectrum of southern womanhood that lies beneath the simplistic "southern belle" stereotype.
Reflect on your reactions to the main characters in To Kill A Mockingbird - Scout, Atticus, Jem, Bill, Calpurnia, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell, Bob Ewell, and Boo Radley. Which of these did you find most likeable? Least likeable? Did any of the characters have some qualities you sympathised with and other qualities you didn't like? Jot down the likeable and unlikeable aspects of each of the characters, and compare your impressions and reasons for them with the responses of your classmates.
Literary characters are considered to be "flat" when they are presented by the author as one-sided and unchanging, behaving in ways that are predictable. Characters are considered "round" when they are depicted as having greater complexity and depth, some weaknesses and some strengths, and a wide range of human emotions
. Which characters in the Harper Lee novel struck you as being more "flat" or more "round"? Why might an author create flat characters in a given work? Are the minor characters in To Kill A Mockingbird - e.g. Miss Maudie, Calpurnia, Aunt Alexandra, Miss Fisher (the schoolteacher), Nathan Radley, Mrs. Dubose, Mr. Cunningham, Sheriff Tate, and others - one dimensional, or do some have "round" qualities?
An important part of the novel is Harper Lee's characterisation of the three children - Scout, Jem, and Dill, who gain life experiences and mature as they face different problems and interact with the adults in the novel.
Think about your childhood and the way you viewed the other children and the adults in your environment. Discuss how your impressions of people changed or did not change as you gained experience and came to know people better over the years.
Many of the characters in the novel are depicted by the author as classifying each other according to rigid categories. They hold stereotypes about how individuals will behave as a result of their age, gender, race, social status, and other fixed categories. Which characters are the victims of stereotyping? Do any of them break through the behaviour expected of them, showing individuality and exposing the falseness of narrowly labelling people?
The novel begins as the voice of a mature adult recalling events from childhood and sometimes shifts to the point of view of a six-year old. Did you notice the shifts occurring? If so, did you find them distracting? How are these perspectives - the knowing adult's and the innocent child's - developed in the narration? What advantages did the author have as a result of being able to move from one perspective to the other?
W. E. B. DuBoise speaks of "double-consciousness" - the sense of having to look at oneself through the eyes of others. Which characters in To Kill A Mockingbird are basically forced to look at themselves through the lens of others, being expected to behave as other people want them to behave?
Do you believe that the sense of "double consciousness" is still strong in our present society? That is, to what extent are people of different ethnicities, social classes, genders, and age levels essentially defined by others today? To what extent do you feel that you are forced to behave according to other's views of you? How are you affected when others define you? Consider how the person doing the defining is affected.
Is some measure of "double consciousness" inevitable in human relations and in society? Why, or why not?
Compare the city of Maycomb to the place where you grew up, noting similarities and differences.
The story is set in a small town in southern Alabama during the Depression of the 1930s. What aspects of the story seem to be particular to that place and time? What aspects of the story are universal, cutting across time and place? In what ways are the people you know today similar to and different from those in Maycomb?
Did To Kill A Mockingbird hold your interest? What parts of the story held your interest most strongly? Why? What parts seemed less interesting? Why?
What are the chief conflicts in the story? Do they have clear starting points and resolutions? Were any conflicts left unresolved? Were any conflicts resolved in ways that you found disturbing?
Many readers see To Kill A Mockingbird as having two parts, one centering on Boo Radley and the other on the trial of Tom Robinson. How were the two stories brought together at the end of the novel? When you were reading the novel, how did you handle the shift of emphasis from Boo Radley to the trial?
Certain objects take on symbolic value in the TKM . That is, an object is used by the author as apart of the setting or narrative, yet that object points to or represents something outside itself. Of course, a central symbol is the mockingbird, described by Miss Maudie as a creature that should never be killed because it is harmless and even provides song for the enjoyment of others. Both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are basically blameless individuals who are at the mercy of society, yet society is cruel to Boo, and ultimately Tom is murdered. The symbol of the mockingbird also points to Scout, both as an innocent child and as the grown-up narrator, who "sings a song" in telling the story.
In the Southern United States, before the 1960's, blacks were segregated from whites. This meant that not only did they live in different areas, but by law they were not permitted to go to the same schools, sit in the same part of the courthouse, eat in the same restaurants, use the same public rest rooms or drink at the same water fountains. These laws were unconstitutional and have now been changed.
The Constitution of the United States requires that before a person is convicted of a crime he must be given "due process of law." In the case of persons accused of a felony or a crime for which they can be imprisoned for a long time, this includes the right to a lawyer.
If the defendant is poor and cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the state must provide a lawyer for him. The judge appointed Atticus as defence counsel for the man accused of rape to comply with this provision of the Constitution .
Lynching is an execution, usually by hanging, in punishment for a crime or offence for which there has been no conviction. Often, people who are lynched have committed no crime at all.
Lynching was named after a Virginia Justice of the Peace, Charles Lynch, who ordered the extra-legal hanging of Tory sympathisers during the American Revolution.
Why did the Judge ask Atticus to defend the black man accused of rape? How does this relate to the Constitution of the United States?
Why were there no black children at the school attended by Jem and Scout? Were the black children permitted to attend school? What were the differences between the schools attended by the white children and the schools attended by the black children?
Why was it so threatening for the white community if a black man raped a white woman? Why was it so bad for the accuser if the community believed that she had sought the attentions of a black man?
Why did Atticus shoot the dog? Why were the children not allowed to go near the dog, even after it was shot dead?