To Kill a Mockingbird

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Title To Kill a Mockingbird
Author Harper Lee
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Southern Gothic (semi-autobiographical)
Publisher HarperCollins nee J.B. Lippincott
Released July 11, 1960
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 336 (Hardcover 40th Anniversary edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-06-019499-5 (Hardcover 40th Anniversary edition)

To Kill a Mockingbird is a Southern Gothic novel by Harper Lee. Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The novel is loosely based on the lives of various friends and members of the author's family, but with differing character names. Lee has acknowledged that the character Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, who serves as the novel's narrator, is somewhat based on herself.

To Kill a Mockingbird contains many themes such as selfishness, courage, pride, prejudice, and life's many stages, set against a backdrop of life in the Deep South. The book was successfully adapted for film by director Robert Mulligan with a screenplay by Horton Foote in 1962. To date, it is Lee's only published novel.

Plot introduction

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The novel is a coming of age story about a sister and a brother named Jean Louise "Scout" Finch and Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch respectively, who are growing up in the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the Deep South of America in the 1930s. The story takes place over a period of three years and is told through the recollections of the younger sister, Jean Louise Finch or "Scout", as she is commonly referred to by friends. During the story the children's father, attorney Atticus Finch, is appointed to defend a black man (Tom Robinson) falsely accused of raping a white girl (Mayella Ewell). Robinson is subsequently convicted, although there is no evidence to prove Mayella Ewell had been raped at all.

Explanation of the novel's title

After giving Jem and Scout air-rifles as Christmas presents, Atticus warns the children that, although they can "shoot all the bluejays [they] want," they must remember that "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird". Maudie later explains that it is a sin because mockingbirds do no harm. They only provide pleasure with their songs: "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us". The mockingbird is used as a recurring motif to symbolise innocence and victims of injustice throughout the novel. It is a symbol of innocence and beauty against racism and hatred.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Scout Finch lives with her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer, in Maycomb county, Alabama. One summer, Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Charles Baker Harris (Dill), who has come to live in their neighbourhood for the summer. They are afraid of a man named Boo Radley, a mysterious recluse who has lived in the next door house for years without venturing outside in daylight. Boo is infamous for the rumors that abound about him in Maycomb County as a result of his reclusiveness, the most famous being that he once stabbed his father in the leg on an impulse, and that he sneaks out of the house every night, eats squirrels and cats and lurks outside people's houses.

Scout goes to school for the first time that autumn and has a disastrous day, but gives the readers an introduction to the Ewell family in one of her classmates, the child of infamous town drunk Bob Ewell, layabout and ne'er-do-well who has built a house on the town dump. On the way home, she and Jem find gifts apparently left for them in a knothole of a tree on the Radley property. Dill returns the following summer, and he, Scout, and Jem begin to act out the story of Boo Radley. Atticus puts a stop to their antics, urging the children to try to see life from another person's perspective before making judgments. But on Dill's last night in Maycomb for the summer, the three sneak onto the Radley property, where Nathan Radley shoots in the air, scaring them away. Jem loses his pants in the ensuing escape. When he returns for them, he finds them mended and hung over the fence. The next winter, Jem and Scout find presents in a tree, presumably left for them by the mysterious Boo. Boo's brother Nathan Radley eventually plugs the knothole with cement claiming it was "diseased". However, when the children ask Atticus of the tree's health, he says that it is perfectly fine. Jem breaks down, understanding that their first friendly connection with Boo Radley had been severed. Scout, being too young, thinks of it only as the end of the presents.

To the consternation of Maycomb's racist white community, Atticus was allocated to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Although, not choosing to defend him, Atticus nevertheless agrees. Atticus promises to defend Tom Robinson to his best ability because of his firm belief in the equal rights of all men. Because of Atticus's decision, Jem and Scout are subjected to abuse from other children, even when they celebrate Christmas at the family compound on Finch's Landing. Calpurnia, the Finches' black cook, takes them to the local black church, where the warm and close-knit community largely embraces the children.

Atticus's sister, Alexandra, comes to live with the Finches the next summer. Dill, who is supposed to live in another town with his "new father" who hasn't paid enough attention to him, runs away and comes to Maycomb. Scout finds him hiding under her bed. Tom Robinson's trial begins, and when the accused man is placed in the local jail, a mob gathers to lynch him. Atticus faces the mob down the night before the trial. Jem, Dill, and Scout, who sneaked out of the house, soon join him and refuse Atticus's advice to leave. Scout recognizes one of the men as Walter Cunningham, father of one of her schoolmates, and her polite questioning about his son shames him into dispersing the mob.

At the trial itself, the children sit in the "colored balcony" with the town's black citizens. Atticus provides clear evidence that the accusers, Mayella Ewell and her father, Bob Ewell, are lying: in fact, it was Mayella who was making sexual advances towards Tom Robinson, and then was caught evidence that the marks on Mayella's face are from wounds that her father inflicted; upon discovering her with Tom, he called her a whore and beat her. Everyone pointed out that the right side of Myella's face was bruised, which would show that the abuser was left-handed. Mr. Bob Ewell himself is left-handed and Tom was handicapped on his left arm. Yet, despite the significant evidence pointing to Tom's innocence, the all-white jury convicts him. The innocent Tom later tries to escape from prison and is shot seventeen times, killing him. In the aftermath of the trial, Jem's faith in justice is badly shaken because of the unbelievable verdict, and he lapses into despondency and doubt as Tom Robinson's verdict was chosen by the jury clearly because he was black.

Despite the verdict, Bob Ewell feels that Atticus and the judge have made a fool out of him and he vows revenge. He menaces Tom Robinson's widow, tries to break into the judge's house, spits in Atticus' face on a town street, and finally attacks Jem and Scout as they walk home from a Halloween pageant at their school. After a brief scuffle in the dark, in which Jem breaks his arm, Ewell disappears and Jem and Scout are discovered by an unnamed man and brought to their house. There, it is revealed that the man is, in fact, Boo Radley. The sheriff arrives with the news that Bob Ewell has died of a knife wound to the stomach; Atticus at first believes that Jem fatally stabbed Ewell in the struggle, but the sheriff insists that Ewell tripped over a tree root and fell on his own knife. It is evident (although unsaid) that Boo had actually intervened and killed Ewell to save the children; the sheriff wishes to protect the reclusive Boo, contrary to Atticus's belief, from the publicity certain to follow from the townspeople if they learned the truth of Boo's involvement. Atticus asks if Scout understands what is going on, Scout replies that doing otherwise would be "killing a mockingbird" (as Boo had done nothing to hurt them and has only done good). After sitting with Jem for a while, Scout is asked to walk Boo home. While standing on the Radley porch, Scout imagines many past events from Boo's perspective and feels sorry for him because she and Jem never gave him a chance, and never repaid him for the gifts that he had given them.

Walking back home from the Radley house, she recalls all the events that have happened so far in the story (which have taken up about two or three years) and comes home to Atticus and a sedated Jem. While being tucked in, she remarks to Atticus that Boo Radley turned out to be a nice person; Atticus leaves her with the words: "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."


  • Jean Louise "Scout" Finch - the novel's narrator. We see the world of Maycomb from her point of view, and her childhood innocence is used to expose the illogical and hypocritical prejudices which exist in the town.
  • Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch - Scout's older brother. At first he is shown to be childlike, but as the novel progresses he matures due to his father's parenting, and by the end is very similar to Atticus in many ways, although he has only just become a teenager.
  • Atticus Finch - Scout's father, and the lawyer who defends Tom Robinson. He is shown to have very high moral standards and retains his integrity by maintaining these values in all situations, no matter what the consequences.
  • Calpurnia - the Finches' black housekeeper, who although she is a servant, is treated as a member of the family by the Finches, unusual in the extremely racist society that the book is set in.
  • Alexandra Hancock (née Finch) - Atticus's sister. She comes to live with the Finches to ensure that Jem and Scout are brought up correctly, as she is concerned about Atticus's style of parenting.
  • Charles Baker "Dill" Harris - a friend of Jem and Scout. Neglected by his mother and her partner, he spends time with various relatives, including his Aunt Rachel in Maycomb in summer, which is how he befriends the children. He is very small for his age, and is shown to have an impressive imagination.
  • Mayella Violet Ewell - the girl who accuses Tom Robinson of rape. Although in reality she had fallen in love with him and embraced him, prompting her father's violent outburst, she was forced by Bob Ewell to lie under oath and testify that Tom Robinson had beaten and raped her.
  • Robert E. Lee "Bob" Ewell - the father of Mayella, he was accused of numerous beatings to his daughter. Only evidential in Atticus' testimony, used her beaten up body as evidence for his abuse for her embracing Tom Robinson. Although never specifically stated, readers can be implicitly lead to believe Bob raped Mayella. After making several threats towards Atticus, he is killed by Arthur "Boo" Radley in the climax of the novel, in the act of attempting to murder Jem and Scout to get revenge on Atticus for his role in the court case.
  • Tom Robinson - the black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell. He only has the use of his right hand, as his left arm is crippled from a childhood accident. Although Atticus proves he is innocent of the crime, he is nevertheless convicted and is later shot dead attempting to escape jail.
  • Arthur "Boo" Radley - a shy recluse who is kind to the children. At various points throughout the novel he reaches out to them in small acts of kindness, and ultimately saves their lives by confronting and killing Bob Ewell, who planned to murder them.

Major themes

In To Kill a Mockingbord, Harper Lee explores several major themes. These include courage, prejudice, the destruction of beauty through selfishness, and hypocrisy.

Courage is a central theme in To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout the book, Jem and Scout's understanding of courage gradually changes. At the start of the novel, Jem runs over and touches the Radley house. Jem believes this to be an act of great courage (placing oneself in a dangerous situation). However, as Jem matures, he learns that "true" courage is moral courage, standing up for what is right. He learns that what he did is an act of cowardice, as he did not want to be subjected to the ridicule of Scout and Dill.

Another major theme is the destruction of beauty through selfishness, or circumstances beyond one's control. The title itself is derived from Atticus' warning to Jem that it is a sin to shoot mockingbirds, as all they do is create beauty.

Prejudice is another prominent theme in To Kill a Mockingbird. The most obvious example is racial prejudice; the mob Atticus and the children confront at the jail wishes to lynch Tom Robinson without a trial. Another form of prejudice is class prejudice. This is shown when Aunt Alexandra refuses Scout's request to invite Walter Cunningham, son of the farming Mr. Cunningham, to play, claiming that "he is trash."

Many characters in the book display acts of hypocrisy, with the most obvious example being Mrs. Grace Merriweather. While educating all the women about the "poor Mrunas" in Africa, she fails to notice the poverty and suffering of the Negroes in her own community.

Literary significance & criticism

The American Library Association reports that To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the 100 most frequently challenged books of 1990-2000, and cites several cases from that period and earlier of the book being challenged or banned.

Awards and nominations

1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The book was made into the well-received and Academy Award-winning film, starring Gregory Peck, with the same title, To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1962.

This book has also been adapted as a play by Christopher Sergal.

Release details

  • 1960, USA, J.B. Lippincott ISBN 0397001517, Pub date July 11, 1960, Hardcover
  • 1999, USA, HarperCollins ISBN ISBN 0060194995, Pub date December 1, 1999, Hardcover

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