30 Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

Mr. Abu Saleh

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This module introduces you to the renowned American Author Harper Lee and more specifically to her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. First, we will discuss personal life, career and other writings of Lee. Later you would learn about the novel, its themes and critical analysis along with some other interesting facts about the novel.

About the Writer:


Nelle Harper Lee is widely known for her much acclaimed Pulitzer Prizewinning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). She was born on 28th April, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer and also owned a local newspaper in partnership. Lee’s mother, Frances Cunningham Finch, was mentally ill due to this reason Lee used to spend most of her time at home. She grew up along with her three siblings. Lee and Truman Capote, the renowned writer, actor and scriptwriter, were childhood friends. After the divorce of Truman’s parents he was sent to live with his mother’s relatives where he met Lee. Truman was mocked by other boys of his age for not sharing the same interest. Lee who grew up as a tomboy would often rescue Truman from those naughty friends.


Like Truman, Lee also developed interest in literature from very early in life. After completing her graduation she joined the Huntingdon College in Montgomery. She was a brilliant student. She was unlike ordinary girls and hardly cared for fashion, makeup or dating. She was rather focused on her studies and writings. Soon she became the member of the Literary Honor Society and Glee Club. Since she was little different from other girls of her age in interests, she was considered as a loner.


Lee continued her literary interest by contributing to her school’s humour magazine and also became its editor. Further, she moved to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. The University had a system that allows its undergraduate students to practice Law. Thus, while she was still a junior she was accepted into the University’s Law School. This new area of study took most of her time and eventually she had to leave the editorship of the magazine.


Initially, Lee studied Law but after a year she began to express her unhappiness about it to her parents. She informed them about her interest in literature and pursuing a career in it. However, she continued her studies for one more semester and went to Oxford as an exchange student. Later, she left for New York leaving her degree incomplete. There she worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and the British Overseas Air Corp. With the  help of an editor she began her journey as a writer and wrote the much acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird and received the Pulitzer Prize for it. During this time she devoted her full time to writing and her friends used to provide her financial assistance. After a gap of many decades Lee published her second novel Go Set a Watchman in the year 2015. Lee died on 19th February, 2016.


Works and Literary Style of Harper Lee:


Nelle Harper Lee has written only two novels one is To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and a sequel of it Go Set a Watchman which was published in 2015. Lee in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird used first person narrative style to delineate the characters and to create empathic feelings in the readers. Through language she has maintained the distinction of social class and educational background. There is a marked difference in the language spoken by the people of White and Black racial backgrounds.


For example Calpurnia who switches to White man’s language at Atticus’s home but later speaks in Black’s jargon in the company of other Black people. Language has also been used to describe characters like Ewell who uses foul words which reflects his poor social and educational backgrounds; Mayella’s conversations reveal her lack of education. On the other hand Atticus is formal in his use of language. Tom uses colloquial English like ‘suh’ for ‘sir’ and ‘chillun for ‘children’. Thus language plays a significant role in Lee’s work.

Background of the Novel:


The novel is inspired by the real life incident of Lee’s father. The incident happened in 1936 when the writer was only 10 years of age. The character of Truman’s and Lee’s three maternal aunts’ names also find place in this novel. The locale described in the novel is very much similar to the real life locale where Lee used to live. Hence, the novel has many personal observations and incidents that have inspired the writer most importantly the issue  of racial inequality. It was a very successful novel and considered as one of the classics of American Literature.

Summary of the Novel:


After their mother passed away, Scout and Jem live with their father Atticus in Alabama, Maycomb. Atticus is a renowned lawyer and the family is quite well off than the others in the society. Dill has come to his relative’s place for summer vacation. They live next to the Finch’s family. The three children Scout, Jem and Dill become friends. Dill gets fascinated by the Radley Place, a spooky house owned by Mr. Nathan Radley where his brother Arthur Boo lived for years but never stepped outside of it. Generally, the residents of the area hesitate to talk about Boo. One day Scout and Jem find a gift for them near the Radley’s house.


Next summer Dill comes again to stay at their relative’s house. The three children get fascinated by Boo and create imaginary tales about him and act it out. Atticus does not like their behaviour and asks them to see the world from another’s point of view instead of  making fun of it. Following the incident on the last night of Dill’s summer at Maycom they sneak into Radley’s house and Nathan shoots at them. While escaping Jem loses his pants which he finds later hanging on the fences. Once again Scout and Jem find presents for them on the tree. Irritated with the children’s behaviour Nathan pads the hole with cement. A fire breaks out in a neighbor’s house and Scout goes to see it and as she watches someone slips a blanket on her shoulders.


Atticus is appointed as a lawyer to Tom Robinson. Tom is charged of raping a White woman called Mayella Ewell. No one in Maycomb wanted to defend Tom but Atticus takes up the challenge. For this his children are teased and taunted by calling names like ‘nigger lover’. Scout wants to stand by her father and fight for him but Atticus stops her from it. One day a group of men come with the intent to lynch Tom but the incident is averted by the children, Scout, Jem and Dill. Tom does not want his children to be present at the trial. However, they are invited by Rev and they see the whole trial from the coloured balcony. Atticus establishes the innocence of Tom but unfortunately he is punished for the act that he never committed. It was also evident during the trial that it is Mayella who made sexual advances towards Tom and her father Bob Ewell also witnessed it.


However, one night Tom tries to escape from the prison and is shot dead. Feeling humiliated despite the verdict Bob avenges against Atticus. He attacks on Jem and Scout who were returning from Halloween party but someone comes to rescue them. However, in this scuffle Bob dies and Jem breaks his arm. The stranger takes the children back to their home and Scout realises that it is Boo who has rescued them.

Characters in the Novel: 


Jean Louise Finch (Scout) is the narrator of the story. The story begins when Scout is six years old and ends when she is nine. It is told when she is adult. She is a tomboy who likes to use fist rather than mind to solve a problem.


Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem): He is the elder brother and friend of Scout.


Atticus Finch is the father of Scout and Jem. He is the Maycomb attorney and also the state legislative representative. He is asked to defend Tom Robinson who is falsely accused in a rape case.


Mr. Arthur Radley (Boo Radley): He is the mysterious man in the story. He is never seen outside by the children.


Nathan Radley: He is the brother of Boo Radley.


Charles Baker Harris (Dill): He visits his aunt every summer where he met Scout and Jem and befriends them.


Tom Robinson: He is accused in the rape case.


Mayella Violet Ewell: The young lady who accuses Tom in rape charges.

Bob Ewell: The father of Mayella Ewell and Burris Ewell. He claims to have seen Tom attacking Mayella.


Reverend Skyes: He helps children understand the Tom’s case and arranges seats for them in the coloured balcony.


Miss Rachel Haverford: She is Dill’s aunt who lives next to Finches.


Miss Maudie Atkinson: She lives across the street from Finches. She spends her time gardening and talking to children. She helps Jem and Scout understand the society.


There  are  various  other  characters  who  appear  in  the  novel  like  Miss Stephanie Crawford who gossips about her neighbours; Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose who is an elderly woman who teaches lesson in bravery to Jem and Scout. Similarly there are various other characters  like  Mrs.  Grace  Merriweather,  Mrs.  Gertrude  Farrow,  Link  Deas,  Judge John Taylor,  Mr.  Horace  Gilmer,  Sheriff  Heck,  Mr.  Braxton  Bragg  Underwood,  Dolphus Raymond, Walter Cunningham and so on.

Major Themes and Other Relevant Issues Discussed in the Novel:

Issues Related to Racism:


Racism is one of the major themes of the novel. The novel set in the early 1930s a time of Great Depression Era. During this time Blacks were the highly subjugated people of the society. They were not allowed to move along with Whites even the public spaces were demarcated and separated on the basis of racial grounds. Thus, no one can share their spaces, walk or sit with them or vice versa. This is seen throughout the novel. For example the separate place for the Blacks in the court where Scout, Jem and Dill, children of white man were sitting in the coloured balcony to see the trial since there was no place and also because their father chose to defend the Black man, Tom.


The whites and blacks never stayed together in the same area. Their areas in towns were separated. Further, the intermarriage between whites and blacks was never heard of. However, in the novel one finds the white man, Mr. Raymond is married to a black woman and has mixed children. Mr. Raymond is a drunkard. But he reveals the secret to the three children saying that “I try to give ‘em a reason, you see. It helps folks if they can latch onto a reason. When I come to town, which is seldom, if I weave a little and drink out of this sack, folks can say Dolphus Raymond’s in the clutches of whiskey that’s why he won’t change his ways. He can’t help himself, that’s why he lives the way he does.” (204) Thus, he gives the reason to the white people so that they do not interfere in his life and accepts his ways of living.


Another most significant aspect of the novel is the trial of Tom. In the novel the trail of Tom stands as the fight against racism. Mr. Atticus defends Tom and all the evidences very strongly support and prove innocence of Tom. The only factor that can go against Tom is his colour and eventually it becomes reality. Tom is punished for the crime he did not commit. He is punished because he is a black man and more importantly his accuser is a white woman. Atticus and a handful of people stand against the racial discrimination but remain unsuccessful. However, Atticus explains to Scout that though they have lost the case but it did help them stand against racism and it is proved through the jury’s long period of discussion before the decision is made. Otherwise it does not take much time for them to decide.

The Mockingbird:


In the beginning of the novel the symbol of Mockingbird is established. Mockingbird represents all that is good in this world as they do not harm anyone. They just busy themselves in singing. Thus, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. This is what is explained to the children especially to Scout and Jem and it is maintained throughout the novel too. For example in the novel Tom becomes the symbol of mockingbird since the whites have sinned by killing an innocent man just because he is black. Further, Atticus also explains his children when he gives them a shooting gun for the first time. He explains them, in the words of Scout “When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”” (92). Mrs. Maudie emphasized the matter by explaining the reason why it is a sin to kill the bird and according to her, ““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.”” 


Further, before the decision was made by the jury members and declared Tom guilty there was a dense stillness in the atmosphere even the mockingbirds were silent. “…I shivered, through the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when the mockingbirds were still,… (214), Further, there is another example of mockingbird in Boo Radley who lives his life silently and has never harmed anyone in his life.


Similarly the novel explores other varied important themes and issues for example social inequality, education, bravery, law, the tussle between good and evil and so on.

Summary :


So, in this module we have discussed about Harper Lee, the author of the text. We came to know about her personal life. We also learnt about Lee’s literary works and style of writing. Further, we have discussed the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. We came to know about the background then plot and summary of the text. Then we have also discussed various characters in it. After then we have focused on themes and other relevant issues discussed in the novel. Hope these are useful to you. For more on this module, please follow the other section of the module.

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  • Author- Biography. “Harper Lee”. http://www.biography.com/people/harper-lee-9377021 Accessed on 06.11.2016
  • Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Chelsea House, Infobase Publishing, 2007.
  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: McIntosh and Otis, Inc.1960. https://archive.org/stream/ToKillAMockingbird_201604/To%20Kill%20A%20Mockingbird# page/n3/mode/2up