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To Kill a Mockingbird: Full Text Analysis

By Harper Lee

Plot Overview

To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story that explores the themes of race, prejudice, and justice in the small Southern town of Maycomb during the Great Depression. The story is told through the eyes of Scout Finch, a young girl who is growing up in the town with her brother Jem and her father Atticus, a lawyer who represents a black man named Tom Robinson.

The novel opens with Scout and Jem meeting their neighbor, Arthur "Boo" Radley, who is rumored to be a reclusive, dangerous man. Scout and Jem become fascinated with Boo and try to draw him out of his house, but are prevented from doing so by their father.

Scout and Jem spend their summers playing with their friend Dill and acting out stories they've heard about Boo Radley. As they grow older, Scout and Jem begin to see the darker side of Maycomb. They witness racism and prejudice firsthand when Atticus takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Atticus becomes the target of harassment and ridicule from the white community for defending Tom, and his children also become the subject of teasing and taunts. The trial brings to light the harsh realities of racism and injustice in Maycomb, and Atticus fights for Tom's innocence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

As the trial progresses, Scout and Jem witness firsthand the power of prejudice and the flaws of the justice system. Tom is found guilty despite Atticus's efforts, and he is later killed while attempting to escape from prison. The verdict deeply affects Scout and Jem, forcing them to confront the harsh realities of racism and injustice in their town.

In the novel's final act, Scout and Jem are attacked by Bob Ewell, the father of the woman who accused Tom of rape. Boo Radley, who has been watching over the children from afar, comes to their rescue and kills Bob Ewell. Scout finally meets Boo face-to-face and learns that he is not the monster she had imagined him to be.

The novel ends with Scout's realization that there is both good and evil in the world, and that people must learn to see beyond the surface to understand one another. Scout comes to understand her father's message that "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." The novel suggests that true empathy and understanding are the keys to overcoming prejudice and achieving justice.

Plot Overview

Context and Purpose

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama, during the Great Depression era. The novel explores themes of racial injustice, social inequality, and the loss of innocence through the eyes of its young protagonist, Scout Finch.

The story is influenced by the historical context of the South during the 1930s, a time of deep racial segregation and discrimination. The novel takes place during the Jim Crow era, a period of legalized segregation in the South, where black people were subjected to institutional racism, violence, and intimidation. The social, economic, and political conditions of this time influenced the novel's themes and characters.

Harper Lee's personal background and experiences also shaped the story. Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, a small town that closely resembles the fictional Maycomb. Her father was a lawyer who defended black people in court, including two black men accused of murder. These experiences informed the character of Atticus Finch and his role as a lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape.

The novel's purpose is to challenge the deeply ingrained racism and social inequality of the South. Through Scout's perspective, Lee exposes the hypocrisy and injustice of the white community towards black people. Lee critiques the narrow-mindedness and prejudice of the white community who refuse to recognize the humanity and dignity of black people.

The novel's characters, including Scout, Jem, Atticus, Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley, serve as symbols of the different attitudes and beliefs in the South during the 1930s. The character of Atticus represents the moral compass of the novel, as he stands up against the institutional racism of the South. Tom Robinson represents the injustice and tragedy of the Jim Crow era, while Boo Radley represents the outsider who is misunderstood and feared.

Overall, To Kill a Mockingbird highlights the issues of racism, social inequality, and the loss of innocence in the American South during the 1930s. It is a powerful critique of the social norms and values of the time and serves as a reminder of the dangers of discrimination and prejudice.

Context and Purpose

Critical Author Information

Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, and died on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89. She grew up in a small town similar to the one depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, which was her only published novel.

Lee's father, Amasa Lee, was a lawyer and served as the model for the character Atticus Finch. Lee's mother suffered from mental illness and rarely left the house, which left Lee to spend much of her childhood with her father and siblings. Lee was an avid reader and writer from a young age and was influenced by the works of William Faulkner and Jane Austen.

After attending the University of Alabama, Lee moved to New York City to pursue a writing career. There, she worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and wrote in her spare time. In 1957, Lee's friend and fellow author Truman Capote invited her to accompany him to Holcomb, Kansas, to research the brutal murder of the Clutter family for his book In Cold Blood.

The experience in Kansas inspired Lee to write her own book, which would become To Kill a Mockingbird. She took a break from her job to focus on writing and received support from friends and fellow writers, including Capote and her editor Tay Hohoff.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and was an immediate critical and commercial success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The novel was also adapted into a successful film in 1962.

Lee was known for her reclusive nature and rarely gave interviews or made public appearances after the success of her novel. She also never published another book in her lifetime, despite working on a manuscript titled Go Set a Watchman, which was eventually published in 2015, over 50 years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Understanding Lee's upbringing and personal experiences with social injustice and inequality can provide a greater appreciation for the themes and messages in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her close relationship with her father and his influence on her writing also adds depth to the character of Atticus Finch.

Author Information
Characters

CharacterS

Scout Finch: 

Scout Finch is the precocious and curious narrator and protagonist of "To Kill a Mockingbird." As a tomboyish girl growing up in the racially divided town of Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930s, Scout is intelligent, spunky, and outspoken. She is fiercely loyal to her father, Atticus Finch, and her older brother, Jem, and has a strong sense of justice and fairness. Scout's curiosity and sense of adventure lead her to investigate the mysterious Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbor, and to witness the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. Through these experiences, Scout learns about the harsh realities of racism and injustice in her community, but also discovers the power of empathy and human goodness.


Atticus Finch

Atticus Finch is Scout and Jem's wise and compassionate father, as well as a respected lawyer in Maycomb. He is a widower who values education, morality, and empathy, and instills these values in his children. Atticus is one of the few residents of Maycomb committed to racial equality and justice, and he agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of rape. Despite facing backlash and threats from the white community, Atticus remains steadfast in his principles and provides a moral compass for his family and community.


Jem Finch: 

Jem Finch is Scout's protective and adventurous older brother, who gradually becomes more disillusioned with the injustices and prejudices of Maycomb. He is a typical American boy, with a love of sports and a fascination with the mysterious Boo Radley. However, as he witnesses the trial of Tom Robinson and the violent aftermath, Jem's idealism is shattered and he struggles to reconcile his belief in fairness and justice with the reality of racism and violence.


Calpurnia: 

Calpurnia is the black cook and housekeeper for the Finch family, and serves as a maternal figure to Scout and Jem. She is wise, patient, and nurturing, and is respected by the Finches and the black community of Maycomb. Despite the racial divisions of her time, Calpurnia bridges the gap between the white and black communities and provides a source of stability and comfort for Scout and Jem.


Boo Radley: 

Boo Radley is the mysterious and reclusive neighbor of the Finches, who is rumored to be a monster and a danger to the community. However, as Scout and Jem become more curious about Boo, they discover that he is a kind and gentle person who has been misunderstood and mistreated by the town. Boo ultimately becomes a symbol of the power of empathy and human connection, and helps Scout and Jem understand the importance of looking beyond appearances and prejudices.


Tom Robinson: 

Tom Robinson is a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, and becomes the focus of a trial that exposes the racial tensions and injustices of Maycomb. Tom is kind, honest, and hardworking, but is vulnerable due to the color of his skin. Despite Atticus's best efforts to defend him, Tom is ultimately found guilty by an all-white jury and is killed while trying to escape from prison. Tom represents the tragic consequences of racism and injustice, and serves as a reminder of the need for empathy and understanding in our society.

Most Important Themes and Concepts

Racism

One of the most prominent themes in "To Kill a Mockingbird" is the pervasive racism and prejudice that exists in Maycomb, particularly towards African Americans. The novel shows how these attitudes lead to discrimination and injustice, as well as the moral courage required to challenge them.

Atticus's powerful speech to his children highlights the harsh realities of racism and prejudice in Maycomb: "There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life." This extended metaphor conveys the sense that there are powerful forces at work that perpetuate discrimination and injustice.

Another quote from Judge Taylor during the trial of Tom Robinson emphasizes the importance of perception and interpretation in the pursuit of justice: "People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for." This use of dialogue highlights the idea that people's preconceptions and biases can often influence their understanding of events, and that a fair and objective perspective is essential to achieve true justice.

Through Scout's innocent words, the novel emphasizes the importance of seeing people as individuals, rather than judging them based on their race or social status: "I never heard of anybody looking at a flower and saying, 'What's that?'...I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks." This use of analogy emphasizes the idea that we should look beyond superficial differences and treat everyone with respect and dignity.

Coming of Age

Another important theme in "To Kill a Mockingbird" is coming of age, as Scout and Jem gradually learn about the complexities of the adult world and the injustices that exist in their society. This theme is particularly evident in Scout's growing understanding of the trial of Tom Robinson, and the moral lessons that Atticus teaches her about courage and justice.

Atticus's advice to his children on the importance of empathy highlights this theme: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." This metaphor emphasizes the importance of empathy and understanding in human relationships.

Another quote from Scout highlights her early attitude towards learning and the importance of education: "I never loved reading until Jem broke the old record...an' I realized that there was someone in this world who took an interest in me." This use of hyperbole emphasizes the idea that reading and learning can be transformative experiences that open up new worlds and possibilities.

Scout's rejection of traditional gender roles also reflects the theme of coming of age: "I was not so sure, but Jem told me I was being a girl, that girls always imagined things, that's why other people hated them so, and if I started behaving like one I could just go off and find some to play with." This use of irony emphasizes the idea that gender roles are socially constructed, and that they can be challenged and redefined.

Moral Courage

The theme of moral courage is central to "To Kill a Mockingbird," as demonstrated by Atticus and other characters who stand up for their beliefs and challenge injustice, even when doing so is difficult or dangerous.

Atticus's definition of courage highlights this theme: "Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what." This use of dialogue emphasizes the importance of moral courage in the face of adversity.

Another quote from Atticus emphasizes the idea that moral courage is essential to maintaining personal integrity: "But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court." This use of anaphora emphasizes the importance of the legal system as a means of upholding justice and equality, and the need for individuals to stand up for what is right, even when it is unpopular.

Finally, Scout's realization at the end of the novel that Boo Radley is a kind and gentle person who has been misunderstood highlights the idea that moral courage involves looking beyond surface appearances: "Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough." This use of foreshadowing emphasizes the transformative power of empathy and understanding.

Most Important Quotes,
Literary Techniques and Analysis

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." (Chapter 3)

This quote uses the literary technique of metaphor to encourage empathy and understanding towards others, particularly those who are different from oneself. The quote highlights the importance of perspective-taking and the need to put oneself in another's shoes.

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." (Chapter 11)

This quote uses the literary technique of paradox to redefine the concept of courage. The quote highlights the importance of standing up for what is right, even in the face of insurmountable odds. The quote is significant because it underscores the bravery of Atticus Finch in defending Tom Robinson, despite the almost certain outcome of the trial.

"People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for." (Chapter 10)

This quote uses the literary technique of epigram to highlight the dangers of preconceived notions and prejudices. The quote suggests that people tend to find evidence to support their existing beliefs and biases, rather than seeking out objective truth. The quote is significant because it underscores the pervasive nature of racism and the need to challenge and question one's own assumptions and biases.

"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 mockingbird." (Chapter 10)

This quote uses the literary technique of symbolism to represent the innocent and vulnerable members of society who are unjustly persecuted. The quote underscores the novel's theme of the loss of innocence, particularly in relation to the trial of Tom Robinson.

"Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case." (Chapter 25)

This quote uses the literary technique of metaphor to highlight the pervasiveness of racism and the limitations of the justice system in addressing it. The quote is significant because it underscores the novel's critique of a society that values justice in theory but fails to uphold it in practice.

"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." (Chapter 11)

This quote uses the literary technique of aphorism to highlight the importance of individual conscience and personal integrity. The quote is significant because it underscores the novel's message that it is important to stand up for what is right, even in the face of social pressure and opposition.

Themes and Concepts
Quotes and Techniques

Practice EssaY Questions

How does the novel challenge and subvert traditional gender roles, and what effect does this have on the characters and themes?


Analyze the significance of the title "To Kill a Mockingbird" and how it relates to the themes of the novel.


How does the novel explore the relationship between race and class, and what effect does this have on the characters and their interactions?


Examine the role of education in the novel, and how it contributes to the development of the characters and themes.


Discuss the theme of courage in the novel, and how it is portrayed through the characters and their actions.


Analyze the role of the community in the novel, and how it shapes the characters and their attitudes towards prejudice and social inequality.


How does the novel depict the justice system, and what commentary does it offer on the flaws and limitations of the legal system?


Discuss the theme of morality in the novel, and how it is explored through the characters and their interactions with one another.

Practice Essay Questions

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS)

What is the plot of "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a novel set in the 1930s in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The story follows Scout Finch, a young girl growing up in the town, and her father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer who is defending a black man named Tom Robinson who has been accused of raping a white woman. The novel explores themes of racial inequality, justice, and morality.


Who are the main characters in "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

The main characters in the novel are Scout Finch, her brother Jem Finch, their father Atticus Finch, their friend Dill Harris, and Tom Robinson, the man Atticus is defending in court.


What is the significance of the title "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

The title "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a reference to a line in the novel where Atticus tells his children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they do nothing but sing and make music. The mockingbird is seen as a symbol of innocence, and the title suggests that it is a sin to harm innocent people, such as Tom Robinson.


What is the historical context of "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

The novel is set in the 1930s, during the Great Depression and a time of racial segregation in the American South. The novel was published in 1960, during the Civil Rights Movement, and is often seen as a commentary on the injustices and racism that were prevalent during that time.


What are some themes in "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

Some themes in the novel include racial inequality, justice, morality, and the loss of innocence.


What is the symbolism of the mockingbird in the novel?

The mockingbird is a symbol of innocence, and is used to represent characters who are unfairly persecuted or harmed because of their innocence. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are two characters who are often associated with the mockingbird symbol.


What is the role of Atticus Finch in the novel?

Atticus Finch is a central character in the novel, and is known for his integrity and commitment to justice. He is also a father figure to Scout and Jem, and serves as a moral compass for the entire town.


Is "To Kill a Mockingbird" a banned book?

Yes, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been banned in some schools and libraries for its use of profanity, racial slurs, and sexual content. However, it is still widely regarded as an important and influential work of literature.

FAQs

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