To Kill a Mockingbird Study Guide

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

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's coming-of-age tale, To Kill a Mockingbird, is set in the Deep South, and is a searing portrayal of race and prejudice told through the eyes of a little girl. Filled with atmospheric evocations of life at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and underpinned by a moral and caring sensibility, To Kill a Mockingbird is both a brilliant rendering of a specific time and place as well as a universal tale of how understanding can triumph over old and evil mindsets.

Published in New York by J. B. Lippincott in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern-day morality tale of how prejudice must be met, fought and overcome—no matter where it is present or how difficult that task might seem.

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 number of bad rumors surround this man (he is rumored to be a runaway murderer who steals children), but their fair-minded father warns them that they should try to see the world from other people's perspectives.

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. Given the cold shoulder by their white neighbors, the Finches are welcomed into the black community. 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.

Despite the overwhelming evidence provided at the trial, however, the all-white jury nevertheless convicts Robinson; and he is later killed while trying to escape from jail. Meanwhile, 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. It is clear that he wants to do them harm, but they are saved by the mysterious Boo, who disarms their attacker and kills him.

Scout finally comes face-to-face with the enigmatic and frightening Boo and realizes that he is just a kindly man, who has been kept away from the world because of a mental disability. The lesson that Scout learns from both Tom Robinson's fate and her new found friend, is the importance of seeing people how they are, and not being blinded by the fears and misunderstandings of prejudice.

Major Characters

  • Scout Finch: the narrator and protagonist of the story, is a six-year-old girl living with her family in the south. Scout learns about the goodness of people as well as the dark side of humanity.
  • Jem Finch: Scout's older brother Jem serves as her protector. His presence also highlights Scout's youthful innocence.
  • Atticus Finch: Atticus is a proud, moral, respected father and lawyer in their community.
  • Tom Robinson: A young man wrongly accused of rape.
  • "Boo" Radley: A mysterious neighbor.

Major Themes

Coming of Age during the Depression: To Kill a Mockingbird is enormously touching and powerful in its simplicity. Because it is narrated by young Scout, we are able to grow up with her and come to an understanding about the world in the same way that she does, creating order from the chaos of her everyday life.

The Plight of African-Americans in 1930s America: The novel has a courageous and powerful political message about the downtrodden lives of African-Americans in 1930s, and the prejudice and fear they faced every day. Tom Robinson is innocent, but he is arrested and convicted, then killed. When she encounters blacks in their own communities, Scout is amazed by the feeling of cohesion and happiness that these poor, oppressed people are able to muster.

Importance of Moral Consciousness: Atticus believes in the innate goodness of human beings that pushes him to defend Tom Robinson despite the approbation of his peers. He takes on the case despite the community's objections because he believes that there has been a serious miscarriage of justice. At the same time, he implores his children to try and see the good in Boo Radley.

The Role of Innocence: The mockingbird of the title is a reference to innocence, an important theme in this book. Some of the "mockingbirds" in the book are characters whose goodness is injured or squelched: Jem and Scout, whose innocence is lost; Tom Robinson, who is killed despite his innocence; Atticus, whose goodness is almost broken; and Boo Radley, who is judged for his strange behavior.

Literary Style

The small, Depression-era southern town of Maycomb, Alabama provides a backdrop for a brooding Southern Gothic theme. Harper Lee impresses upon her readers how poverty reinforces the hypocritical nature of a race-based class system.

Beautifully written from Scout's perspective, To Kill a Mockingbird is an evocative, tender, but with a passionate message that drives the novel's action. To Kill a Mockingbird is thus rightfully a much-loved and much-studied classic. It is a tale of childhood, but also a tale of how the world should be (and how we can change it): the book lives on in the hearts of those who have read it well after the final page has been turned.

Historical Context

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the segregated small town south of the Great Depression, where deep levels of poverty and ignorance are conditions that drive the plot. Lee demonstrates that the people who are caught up in the misery of ignorance and poverty resort to racism as a way to hide their own shame and low self-esteem.

In the 1960s when the book was first published, the character Atticus Finch became a strong fictional voice of moral consciousness in the United States, representing the ideals and hopes of the liberal classes who hoped to see the end of segregation and racism.

Key Quotes

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

“Atticus said to Jem one day, "I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "Your father’s right," she said. "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

“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”

“You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don't you let 'em get your goat. Try fightin' with your head for a change."

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

“You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family, an' they're still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge 'em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don't.”