To Kill a Mockingbird Overview

Fighting Poverty, Racism, and Ingorance in Depression-Era Deep South

To Kill a Mockingbird
HarperCollins

To Kill a Mockingbird is a searing portrayal of racial prejudice, justice, and innocence lost into a complex mixture of childish naivete and mature observation, while simultaneously being a sort of love letter to small town Southern life. The end result is a novel that is both a brilliant rendering of a specific time and place as well as a study in the meaning of justice, the loss of innocence, and the realization that a place can be both a beloved childhood memory and where you first realized there was evil in the world.

Plot Summary

Scout Finch lives with her father, a lawyer and widower by the name of Atticus, and her brother, a young boy named Jem. The first part of the To Kill a Mockingbird tells of one summer. Jem and Scout play, make new friends, and first come to know of a shadowy figure by the name of Boo Radley, who lives in a neighboring house and yet is never seen.

A young black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman. Atticus takes on the case, despite the vitriol this arouses in the largely white, racist townsfolk. When the time of the trial comes around, Atticus proves that the girl that Tom Robinson is accused of raping actually seduced him, and that the injuries to her face were caused by her father, angry that she had tried to sleep with a black man. The all-white jury nevertheless convicts Robinson and he is later killed by while trying to escape from jail.

The girl's father, who holds a grudge against Atticus because of some of the things he said in court, waylays Scout and Jem as they walk home one night. They are saved by the mysterious Boo, who disarms their attacker and kills him.

Major Characters

Scout Finch. Jean Louise ‛Scout’ Finch is the narrator and main character of the novel. Scout is a ‛tomboy’ who rejects traditional feminine roles and trappings. Scout initially believes that there is always a clear right and wrong in every situation; as Scout grows older, she begins to understand more about the world around her and begins to value reading and education more.

Atticus Finch. Scout’s widower father is an attorney. Atticus is a bit of an iconoclast. He values education and indulges his children, trusting their judgment despite their young age. He is an intelligent, moral man who believes strongly in the rule of law and the necessity of blind justice.

Jem Finch. Jeremy Atticus ‛Jem’ Finch is Scout’s older brother. He is protective of his status and often uses his superior age to force Scout to do things his way. He has a rich imagination and an energetic approach to life, but displays difficulty dealing with other people who do not rise to his standard.

Boo Radley. A troubled recluse who lives next door to the Finches (but never leaves the house), Boo Radley is the subject of many rumors. Boo naturally fascinates the Finch children, and displays affection and kindness towards them, ultimately rescuing them from danger.

Tom Robinson. Tom Robinson is a black man who supports his family by working as a field hand despite having a crippled left arm. He is charged with the rape of a white woman, and Atticus defends him.

Major Themes

Maturation. Scout and Jem are frequently confused about the motivations and reasoning of the adults around them. Lee explores the way that growing up and maturing into adults makes the world clearer while also less magical and more difficult, ultimately connecting racism with childish fears that adults ought not to experience.

Prejudice. Lee explores the effects of prejudice of all kinds—racism, classism, and sexism. Lee makes it clear that racism is inextricably linked to economics, politics, and self-image. Sexism is explored in the novel through Scout and her constant battle to engage in behaviors she finds interesting instead of ‛appropriate’ behaviors for a girl.

Justice and Morality. In the earlier parts of the novel Scout believes that morality and justice are the same thing. Tom Robinson’s trial and her observation of her father’s experiences teach her that there is often a stark difference between what is right and what is legal.

Literary Style

The novel utilizes subtly layered narration; it can be easy to forget that the story is actually being told by a grown-up, adult Jenna Louise and not the 6-year old Scout. Lee also restricts the point-of-view to Scout and what she directly observes, creating an air of mystery for the reader that mimics the childish sense of not quite understanding what all the adults are up to.

About the Author

Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. She published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 to instant acclaim, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She then worked with her friend Truman Capote on what would become Capote’s ‛nonfiction novel,’ In Cold Blood. Lee retreated from public life afterwards, granting few interviews and making almost no public appearances—and publishing almost no new material. She passed away in 2016 at the age of 89.

Fast Facts Literature Study Guide

  • Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Author: Harper Lee
  • Publisher: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
  • Year Published: 1960
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original language: English
  • Themes: Prejudice, justice, growing up
  • Characters: Scout Finch, Atticus Finch, Jem Finch, Tom Robinson, Calpurnia
  • Notable adaptations: A 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Peck won a Best Actor Oscar for the role, and Harper Lee expressed satisfaction with the adaptation.
  • Fun Fact: The ‛sequel’ novel Lee published in 2015 just a year before her death is actually first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that was rejected by publishers. Lee took what were flashback scenes to Scout’s childhood and built on those to revise the novel into what became To Kill a Mockingbird.