To Kill a Mockingbird: Main Themes

Main Themes

By Harper LeeRelease Year: 1960

Major Themes and Analysis

1. Moral choices and dilemmas

The novel is basically a guide on how people behave in what the existentialists called the limit situation. Such situations examine what we are capable of and reveal our moral nature. For the people of Maycomb, this kind of situation is Tom Robinson’s case. While some of them keep their minds sober and urge for justice, others are blinded by the racial hatred and the thirst for violence.

Briefly recall the events. The local attorney Atticus Finch takes a case of a colored man who is accused of raping a white woman. Step by step, Finch proves that the accuser  (the supposed victim) is lying. Yet, as the trial goes, he and his family are persecuted by the locals for the ‘nigger-loving’. What really dumbfounds Scout and Jem (Atticus’s kids)

is that the people, with whom they’ve been living in the same town for a long time, now are ready to hurt their father just for doing his job.  

The very fact that Atticus takes this case, despite all the possible troubles it could cause to him, is a central moral action of the book. He explains it as something he had to do because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have the right to say anything to his children from now on. On the other pole of a morality, we see Ewells, the people who are ready to сondemn the innocent person to death just to conceal their own actions (the fact that Mayella tempted Tom and that her father has beaten her up for that).  

Most of the locals despise the Ewells and don’t believe them for a minute. Despite that, they cannot tolerate the least possibility that the black man can be treated as any white member of society. That is the moral background of the town’s life, and what Atticus calls ‘Maycomb's usual disease’. It opens another important agenda of the novel - prejudices. 

2. Prejudices

Even from the brief retelling of the novel, it gets clear that the central issue the book discusses is racial prejudices. The culmination of the general ignorance and racial hatred in Maycomb becomes a condemnation of Tom Robinson. He is found guilty, despite that all the evidence proves the opposite.

However, it is not the only signal of the racist views domination in the town. The society is segregated. African Americans have much fewer possibilities to get educated. They attend the community parish for the colored people only. They are socially vulnerable and by default have a lower status compare to the white people. The author challenges such state of affairs. Through the main characters, she brings the central message. According to it, thoughtless and unreasonable hatred, what racism is, causes the sufferings of the innocent people. Besides, it embitters those who live up to this prejudices.

Although the most apparent partiality concerns the question of the skin color, it is not the only kind of prejudice that is shared in Maycomb. The Great Depression has noticeably staggered the town. Most of the local farmers have found themselves on the verge of poverty. So another reason for the division among the town’s people is the financial situation. Class prejudices play their role in the life of the Robinsons, Ewells, Cunninghams. However, we also see how different people act in the same financial circs. When the Ewells get angry and sneaky, the Robinsons and the Cunninghams try to lead an honest and descend life. We know that Walter Cunningham, despite his family difficulties, is a good school student. Scout calls him ‘a good boy’ while talking to his father. Yet, the race is still the more powerful indicator of the social deprivation in the town.

Another motive for discrimination is gender. We see the Scout’s inner conflict regarding the way she acts and feels and the social standards for a girl’s behavior. While she is a clear tomboy, it turns out it’s not a proper way to be. According to her Aunt Alexandra, she needs to behave like a lady, so she doesn’t disgrace the name of her family. It sounds quite vaguely and strange to Scout. She is confused about why she cannot simply be who she wants to be. We follow this conflict through the mainly comic situations but it apparently shatters Scout’s world a lot. However, she keeps resisting. To the Jem’s advice to pretend to be a lady and start sewing or something, she answers ‘Hell no.’ The rare hints the narrator gives us about her grown-up life reveal that she ultimately hasn’t changed herself for others.

 3. The ambiguity of a human nature

The idea that runs like a thread through the narrative is that you cannot understand the person until you stand in her/his shoes. Through this idea, Atticus tries to teach his children not to judge people rashly. All of the mentioned themes in the novel challenge the children’s attitude to the world and to the people around them. They are overwhelmed with all the experience they get. To mitigate those feeling for his kids, Atticus teaches them how to accept someone’s actions through the understanding of the reasons for them.

The episode with  Mrs. Dubose is demonstrative in this context. Atticus makes Jem help and reads for the arrogant and grumpy old lady. She never misses a chance to humiliate and insult the boy and his whole family, including the father. However, his father refuses to accept any excuses. The boy must spend with Mrs. Dubose as much time as she needs. After her death, Atticus reveals the circumstances that Jem wasn’t aware of. The old woman was a morphine addict, but in the last month of her life, she decides to go cold turkey off it. According to Atticus, to do so is an unthinkable struggle. So he wants Jem to see what the real courage is and to understand that sometimes people have a fair reason to be mean. Finch adds that Mrs. Dubose is the bravest person he has ever known.  

There are a lot of examples that prove to Scout and Jem that they cannot judge someone until they take this person’s position. Besides Mrs. Dubose, the people who surprise the kids are Arthur Radley, Mr. Dolphus Raymond, Mr. Underwood, Aunt Alexandra, Mr. Cunningham, and, of course, their own father. 

4. The shaping of personality and family relationships

Throughout the novel, we follow the development of numerous characters. It allows us to see some patterns of behavior, prevailing among the Maycomb’s people. Some of the town residents are naïve and forthright like Scout and Jem, some are vicious and cowardly like Mayella, and some are kind and simple-hearted like Tom Robinson. The author unobtrusively shows that a family plays the role of a basis for the shaping of every particular personality. On the examples of the Finch and Ewell families, we see how people’s actions are predetermined by the relationships in their family.

Harper Lee offers us the soft instructions on how to gain trust with the children, how to refrain them from the rash judgments, how to teach them to survive in the full of injustice life. Atticus Finch – the father of a Scout and the main protagonist of the novel. Through the trustful chats and patient explanations, he teaches his children about what is right and wrong. Yet, he never points it out directly; he leaves the space for the children to make the conclusions by themselves. In other words, he trusts and respects his children. For most of the people, it is hard to understand that children can have their own opinion. Arguing with Aunt Alexandra, who prefers the normative way of upbringing, Atticus states that it doesn’t matter for him how well his children fit the society standards. Instead, he wants them to grow up curious and independently-thinking.

In contrast to the Finches, we can see how the atmosphere of the anger and fear in the Ewells family impacts Mayella. We know about them that they are the poorest and the most notorious family in the town. The class prejudices and social disrespect discouraged them from leading a decent way of life. An image of Bob Ewell represents nearly every vice one person can have. An abusive father and a squalid man, he tries to prove that his daughter couldn’t have wanted to tempt a colored man, Tom Robinson. Instead, he lies that Tom tried to rape Mayella. Accustomed to lying, she out of fear of her father is ready to bring Tom to the scaffold.

In general, most of Maycomb residents consider the public opinion and social norms as the values that they need to pass to their children regardless of the reasons for such norms. They are conservative and mainly close-minded. The Finch family and Atticus himself contrast with the rest of the town people because they (Finches) value the honesty, courage and each other's opinion above everything else.

Thus, one of the main themes of the book is family and its influence on personal formation. Through the compare and contrast, the author proves that the more trust and closeness the family shows, the more secure and independent its members are.

5. Coming of age and dispelling illusions

All the themes and symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird are unfolded from the child’s perspective. That makes the collision of the child and the adult worlds the central issue of the novel. The form of the first-person narrative exposes the feelings that the child is going through while growing up. Adult Jean Louisa is the narrator of the book. Basically, all she tells is a story of how her brother Jem has broken his arm. The story covers three years of her childhood and as it goes, Scout and Jem are getting mature and learn important life lessons that concern the mentioned topics and events. That is why the novel is often labeled as a bildungsroman. It consistently demonstrates how crucial the experiences of their life become for their personalities formation.   

The world around and people’s actions confuse Scout and Jem. They don’t understand the reason for the racial and class hatred, reasons for the disdain people feel for each other. Jem doubts the Scout’s famous ‘there's just one kind of folks. Folks’. He wonders how come that people don’t get along with each other and always find a way to despise each other if they are basically alike. In the end, they seem to go along with the idea that human nature is ambiguous, but there is always a chance to rouse the good side of it.

Another important lesson the children learn is about their father’s personality and motivation. They respect Atticus and listen to him. At the same time, they don’t think much of his professional or physical skills. Jem and Scout think that their father is old and feeble. They are not much impressed with his lawyering results as well. However, they utterly change their mind due to some symbolic episodes, such as with the mad dog and, of course, with everything about Tom Robinson’s trial.

Finally, the events of the novel make the kids change their mind about Arthur Radley or, as they call him, Boo. At first, they don’t understand how he possibly can sit at the house all day long. Since they have never seen him, they start to mystify him, without showing much respect to his private space or feelings. In the end, it turns out that he has been watching them all the time and, finally, saved their lives. It impresses Scout deeply and she now understands her father’s words about standing in one’s shoes.

After all that they have been through, she resumes ‘Jem and I will get grown but there isn’t much else left for us to learn, except possible algebra.’

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