The main themes of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird cover both adult and children’s concerns, including the dignity of human life, the importance of truth, the rights of people to be different, the need for a humane and holistic approach to education, and the corrosive destructiveness of racism. Lee uses several story lines and a whole town full of vivid characters to make her points, and, along the way, honor her lawyer father.
She clearly has seen, in her own life, the worst of racism, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, as well as the best of integrity and upright behavior in a variety of people. She wants readers to think about how they treat others, whether of different race, or mental ability, or style of learning, or any other difference that does no harm to the rest of us, exactly like the harmless mockingbird.
Harper Lee grew up in a town very like the setting of the novel. Her father was a local lawyer, a lean and lanky man very well represented by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie. There were mysterious and shuttered homes in her neighborhood, and doubtless racial tensions. She was admired by her fellow townsfolk for her writing and her bravery in articulating the poisonous atmosphere of racism (Life Magazine, 1961).
In the final section of the novel, these points come to a dramatic culmination. The trial of Tom Robinson, which showcases the venal, mendacious, and violent tendencies of the Ewell family, especially Bob Ewell, is unsuccessful in vindicating Robinson. Nonetheless, Atticus is recognized by the African-American community as having done a masterful job in defending Robinson.
This is evidenced by the way Scout and Jem are prodded to rise in respect, along with all the African-Americans in attendance in the balcony (Lee, 1960, p. 350). This unshaken conviction that Atticus has done his best is also supported by the gifts in kind which the African-American community leaves at the Finch home (Lee, 1960, p. 352).
The summer passes with an uneasy sense of threat from Ewell (Lee, 1960, p. 360). There is plenty of time for Atticus to explain the criminal justice system, and why no one “like us” shows up on juries, as Jem wonders (Lee, 1960, p. 365). He also theorizes about Boo Radley’s motivations for staying shut up in his house (Lee, 1960, p. 376).
This is the calm before the storm, however, with the missionary circle’s almost surreally disconnected tea party that Scout is drawn into to teach her to be a young lady. It offers her an opportunity to listen to the sometimes-poisonous gossip (Lee, 1960, p. 379).
All this putative peace is shattered when Atticus announces Tom Robinson’s deeply suspicious death during an alleged escape attempt. Ewell’s hatred and desire for revenge are well-known. The pace of things picks up here and it is during Scout’s awkward homeward walk inside her ham costume that she is attacked by Bob Ewell, and rescued, as we learn later, by the reclusive Boo Radley.
In this event, Bob Ewell, the destroyer of Tom Robinson, a harmless cripple, is destroyed by Boo Radley, also a cripple. Radley has lived his life behind closed doors and shuttered windows because of his mysterious past behavior, but he has watched out for the Finch children, who are also harmless like the mockingbird.
Thus, there is a sort of justice carried out finally. The adults around Boo agree to ignore Boo’s role in the killing of Bob Ewell, and allow him to return to his secluded life undisturbed. Tom Robinson is avenged, although that does not help his wife or children. The Finch children are wiser, and perhaps sadder, but alive to tell the tale and change the world for the better. African-Americans are not any farther along, but there is some recognition of their worth as people (Shuman, 2002, p. 551).
Lee, H. (1960). To Kill A Mockingbird. New York: Harper Collins.
Life Magazine. (1961, May 21). Literary Laurels for a Novice. Life , 77.
Shuman, R. B. (2002). Great American Writers: Twentieth Century. Tarrytown, NY, USA: Marshall Cavendish.