Substantive Education

September 23, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

This post is for one of my literature classes.  We are reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and was an immediate success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.  Since it’s publication it has never been out of print and has consistently been named one of the best books ever written. In fact, British Librarians listed it as the book every person should read before they die…  leaving the Bible to come in at second place.  Two years after the book was published it was made into a motion picture with Gregory Peck in the starring role.  The movie won three Academy Awards.

Oddly, this is the only book Harper Lee ever published.  After it’s success she retreated from the public eye and is rarely seen or heard from.  There are only a handful of interviews that have been given by the elusive author.  She had expected that the book would not be popular, and her publicist had told her they didn’t expect the book would ever sell more than a few thousand copies due to it’s subject matter.  Instead, the book has become a staple on high school and college reading lists, and Atticus Finch has become a modern day role model and hero to many.

The novel is set in a small, tired, Southern town, very like the one that Harper Lee grew up in.  Although she has admitted to pulling from some of her childhood experiences, Lee has tried to downplay the connections saying the people and the town she described could have been anywhere…that people are people everywhere and that each town probably had similar characters.

Truman Capote

What we do know is that Scout’s life parallels Harper Lee’s in some fairly obvious ways.  Her father served in the State legislature and was an attorney.  In 1919, he defended two black men accused of murder. After they were convicted, hanged, and mutilated, he never tried another criminal case. Like Scout, Lee also had a brother four years older than herself, a black maid who cared for the family during the day, and she had gone to the town courthouse to watch her father argue cases. Harper Lee’s next door neighbor was the author Truman Capote (author of In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and many other works) and he was the inspiration for the character of Dill.  Capote reported that he had also used Lee as the model for a character in one of his first books.  The two, Lee and Capote, would remain friends for the rest of their lives and she would help him with his research.  Down the street from Lee and Capote was an old boarded up house which served as the model for Boo Radley’s house.  In real life a family lived there and the son had some legal troubles.  Out of shame the boy’s father kept him shut away in the house for 24 years, until his death in 1952. Obviously, there are parallels to the Boo Radley character.

Harper Lee has denied that the trial of Tom Robinson was based on any one case in particular, but there were three different rape trials that gained a lot of press and notoriety during her childhood in the south.  In each of them, it is now believed, the black men convicted of the crime of raping a white woman, were innocent.  The racism of the south and the inequalities between black and white is a theme that Lee was intimately familiar with.

It took Lee 2 1/2 years to finish the book and it was published just as the civil rights movement was reaching it’s peak.  Although the book has at times been labeled as a work on civil rights, in truth Atticus Finch was not an activist.  He is a man, doing what he believes to be right in his own quite, dignified way.  He realized, that his actions, on behalf of Tom Robinsonn would in all likelihood change nothing, but he pressed on.  He doesn’t become an activist, pushing for changes in the system, instead he tries to live with integrity within the system.  It is an interesting contrast and dilemma that many in the South faced in those years.

There are many images and themes that run throughout the book that students should consider and be aware of.  Taking note of these is not just a literary exercise, but a useful tool to help reach a deeper understanding and appreciation for the story as it unfolds.


The idea of innocence runs throughout.  Obviously we have three children at the heart of the storyline and children by definition are innocents.  These children, however, will encounter evil, disillusionment, and confusion before we reach the end of the book.  Scout, Jem, and Dill are surrounded by the inequalities of life and these inequalities are going to erupt in to violence.   Other innocents who appear in the book are Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, and Mr. Raymond.

The title of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, also alludes to innocence.  The children are told that it is a sin to kill a Mockingbird because the bird is not a pest, it just brings us it’s song.  In another allusion, the last name Finch is another small, defenseless bird, and brings to our awareness the precarious position that the entire Finch family is soon  going to be in.

Interestingly, Atticus Finch, the children’s father, is not trying to maintain their innocence, or to protect them from all  that they are going to encounter during the summer of the trial…instead he is hoping to bring them through the experience, wiser, but with their spirits intact.  He expresses his hope to his brother that when they have questions and confusion that they will come to him.  It is this idea,  how people deal with the loss of innocence, that becomes central to the story.

Coexistence of Good and Evil.

Gregory Peck and Harper Lee during the filming of the movie

I have always found that one of the most compelling aspects of the character of Atticus Finch is his ability to see people for who they are, both the good and the bad, and to be able to deal with that.  He deals with everyone with grace and integrity, not because he blindly believes in their goodness.  He sees peoples shortcomings quite clearly, yet he is also able to praise their strengths.  He recognizes the reality that good and evil dwell together in all men, towns, and societies.  His goal is to teach Jem and Scout how to process this reality without losing faith.


Education is used in many ways in the story.  Our first glimpses into the character of Scout are in love of reading and the bond that that has forged with her father, contrasted with her first experiences in the school setting.  Lee uses the differences between these two, the home and the school, to mirror the differences in the society at large.  At school Scout is taught in, what appears to her to be, an arbitrary and largely useless manner.

Atticus seems to be uniquely equipped to place himself in the shoes of his children, and to educate them with sympathy and understanding.  He is always honest and forthright as he seeks to instill a moral and social conscience in his children.  This moral education is in direct counterpoint to the experience Scout has at school.  At school, Scout is confronted by teachers who are ignorant or unsympathetic to the needs of the children they are teaching and are often portrayed as morally hypocritical.  We see Atticus as an excellent and effective teacher, while Miss Caroline is completely ineffective due to her rigid commitment to the educational techniques she learned in college.

Social Inequality

While the injustices of the treatment of blacks and whites appears to be the central theme of the book, I believe it is a much more effective theme because it is layered with so many other examples of social inequality.  The small towns of the south had a complicated social hierarchy that ruled all social interactions.  At the beginning of the book Scout and Jem are somewhat ignorant of these complexities because they are insulated by their standing near the top of Maycomb’s elite.  It is not just the black community that falls below them in terms of social clout, but most of the other townfolk as well.

Scout is continually baffled by, and questions, the unfairness of this hierarchy. As she comes to interact with the Cunninghams, the Ewells and the extended black community she doesn’t know what to make of the rigid social divisions that the adult world seems so preoccupied with.  Her understanding is probably both clarified and confused, in turn, by her father.   Atticus obviously understands and frequently abides by the rules of social decorum, even while declaring them as irrational and destructive. Scout’s perplexity at  class status and prejudice gives us a critique, not just of the roles of the various races in Maycomb, but of nearly all of the social interactions recorded in the book.

Gothic Images vs. Small Town Life

To Kill a Mockingbird paints a wonderful picture of quaint small town life during the 1930’s.  Time moves slowly, neighbors all know one another, and children play in yards and drink lemonade during the long, hot days of summer.  In many ways, it is the ideal childhood and hearkens back to a simpler time and pace that we look back on with nostalgia.

This view of slow-paced southern life is contrasted with dark, haunting Gothic details.  (Gothic here has nothing to do with black clothing etc.  In literature, the term Gothic refers to a a style of fiction that features supernatural occurrences, gloomy and haunted settings etc.)  Adding drama and atmosphere to our idyllic small town are the spooky Radley house, the mad dog, the events occurring on Halloween night.  These elements suggest that not all is as it seems in this small town.  There is darkness lurking under the veneer of decency.

While all of this just scratches the surface…hopefully it gives you all some things to think about.


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