To Kill a Mockingbird Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

To Kill a Mockingbird seems like a very simple, well-written morality tale at first glance. But underneath the easy markers of racism and heroism is a much more complex story. Your first hint is the sleight of hand author Harper Lee employs in the point of view, which is actually Jenna Louise Finch as an adult recounting her adventures as a child. The mature, grown-up perspective is buried under the rambunctious, naive perspective of her younger self so skillfully most readers forget that the story isn’t being narrated by a little kid. This allows Lee to explore her sub-themes of racism, justice, and innocence while masterfully dealing with her main theme: How our view of the world changes as we grow older.

Maturation

The story of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place over the course of several years, beginning when Scout is 6 years old and ending when she is close to 9 years old, and her brother Jem is 9 (though very close to being 10) in the beginning and is 13 or 14 by the end of the story. Lee uses the young age of the children to tease out many of the complexities in her themes; Scout and Jem are frequently confused about the motivations and reasoning of the adults around them, especially in the earlier sections of the novel.

Initially, Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill make many incorrect assumptions about the world around them. They assume that Boo Radley is some sort of monster and ascribe near-supernatural powers to him. They assume that aunt Alexandra does not like them or their father. They assume that Mrs. Dubose is a mean old woman who hates children. And Scout in particular assumes that the world is a fair and honorable place.

Over the course of the story, the children grow up and learn more about the world, and many of these initial assumptions are revealed to be incorrect. Lee explores the way that growing up and maturing into adults makes the world clearer while also less magical and more difficult. Scout’s rage against Mrs. Dubose or her teachers at school is simple and easy to comprehend, as is her terror of Boo Radley. Understanding the complexities underneath the behaviors she sees makes it more difficult to hate Mrs. Dubose or fear Boo, which in turn ties into the more obvious themes of racism, intolerance, and innocence in the story. The end result is that Lee connects racism with childish fears that adults ought not to experience.

Prejudice

There’s little doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is concerned with racism and its corrosive effects on our society. Lee explores this theme with an initial subtlety; Tom Robinson and the crimes he is accused of are not explicitly mentioned until Chapter 9 in the book, and Scout’s understanding that her father, Atticus, is under pressure to drop the case and that his reputation is suffering because of it is developed slowly.

Lee is not, however, solely concerned with racial prejudice. Rather, she explores the effects of prejudice of all kinds—racism, classism, and sexism. Scout and Jem slowly come to understand that all of these attitudes are incredibly harmful to society as a whole. Tom’s life is destroyed simply because he is a black man. Bob and Mayella Ewell, however, are also looked down upon by the town for their poverty, which is assumed to be due to their low class status and not to any sort of economic cause, and Lee makes it clear that they persecute Tom in part in order to assuage their own feelings of rage at the way they are treated, 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 and exciting instead of the behaviors that people like aunt Alexandra feel are more appropriate for a girl. Part of Scout’s development as a person is her journey from simple perplexity at these pressures to an understanding that society as a whole expects certain things from her solely due to her gender.

Justice and Morality

To Kill a Mockingbird is a surprisingly deft analysis of the differences between justice and morality. In the earlier parts of the novel Scout believes that morality and justice are the same thing—if you do wrong, you are punished; if you are innocent you will be fine. 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. Tom Robinson is innocent of the crime he is accused of, but loses his life. At the same time, Bob Ewell triumphs in the legal system but finds no justice either, and is reduced to drunkenly stalking children to compensate for being humiliated despite his victory.

Symbols

Mockingbirds. The title of the book references a moment in the story where Scout recalls Atticus warning her and Jem that killing mockingbirds is a sin, and Miss Maudie confirms this, explaining that Mockingbirds do nothing but sing—they do no harm. The mockingbird represents innocence—an innocence Scout and Jem slowly lose over the course of the story.

Tim Johnson. The poor dog that Atticus shoots when it goes rabid has a name purposefully similar to Tom Robinson’s. The event is traumatic to Scout, and teaches her that innocence is no guarantee of happiness or of justice.

Boo Radley. Arthur Radley is not so much a character as a walking symbol of Scout and Jem’s growing maturity. The way the children perceive Boo Radley is a constant marker of their growing maturity.

Literary Devices

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. This allows Lee to present the world in the stark black and white morality of a little girl while preserving the details whose significance would escape a child.

Revelation. Because Lee restricts the point of view to Scout and what she directly observes, many details of the story are only revealed long after their occurrence. This creates an air of mystery for the reader that mimics the childish sense of not quite understanding what all the adults are up to.