to kill a mockingbird

Alabama marks fifty years of To Kill a Mockingbird. Laura Wolff Scanlan. HUMANITIES, May/June 2010, Volume 31, Number 3. Classic novel examines American racism and justice. Read Common Sense Media's To Kill a Mockingbird review, age rating, and parents guide. To Kill a Mockingbird Summary · Tensions mount in Maycomb, Alabama, as Scout's father, Atticus Finch, prepares to defend Tom Robinson, a Black.

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To kill a mockingbird

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To kill a mockingbird -

  Special to The Clarion-Ledger

On Tuesday, Harper Lee’s new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” will be available for purchase. A long-lost manuscript that takes place 20 years after “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Go Set a Watchman” will have an adult Scout as the narrator.

Saturday was the 55th anniversary of the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Although it was not published as a children’s book, it has become a staple in literature classrooms. Injustice, racial prejudice and “coming-of-age” scenarios resonate with younger readers. The lens through which this particular story is told (taking place during the Great Depression from 1933-1935) is through the eyes of a child. As the first-person narrator, Scout looks back on the events that took place in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama (only fictional in name), between her sixth and ninth year.

Why is it that children, of all people, make the most reliable narrators? Perhaps it is because they notice the unnoticeable and look where grown-ups cease to search. Scout and her older brother Jem discover small gifts in the hollow tree from their recluse neighbor, “Boo.” Beyond this small gesture of kindness, they, along with the other children, consider him to be somewhat of a neighborhood ghost.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a testament to seeing the world through the eyes of a child — things are unfair, people are treated poorly, and the good guys don’t always win. But it doesn’t mean the good guys have to stop fighting for what they know is right. One of these “good guys” is Scout’s father, the esteemed lawyer Atticus Finch.

Even children can grow into prejudices and are quick to judge others based on what they are taught and what they observe. As Scout so plainly says, “I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year.”

The voice of the child is the voice of the mockingbird, a symbol for the innocent. The only way this story that deals with racial injustice in the South could be told was through the voice of a child. At the end of the novel, it is Scout who finally sees Boo in the light of her porch as a person and not a ghost. When she calls him Mr. Arthur, he is no longer Boo.

She tells her father, “Atticus, he was real nice.”

To which the moral compass of the book, in the form of Atticus Finch, replies to his daughter, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Clara Martin works for Lemuria Books.



To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a child’s view of race and justice in the Depression-era South. The book sells one million copies per year, and Scout remains one of the most beloved characters in American fiction. Explore a character analysis of Scout, plot summary, and important quotes.


Read our full plot summary and analysis of To Kill a Mockingbird, chapter by chapter breakdowns, and more.


See a complete list of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird and in-depth analyses of Scout Finch, Atticus Finch, Jem Finch, Boo Radley, and Calpurnia.

Literary Devices

Here's where you'll find analysis of the literary devices in To Kill a Mockingbird, from the major themes to motifs, symbols, and more.

Questions & Answers

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Find the quotes you need to support your essay, or refresh your memory of To Kill a Mockingbird by reading these key quotes.

Quick Quizzes

Test your knowledge of To Kill a Mockingbird with quizzes about every section, major characters, themes, symbols, and more.


Get ready to ace your To Kill a Mockingbird paper with our suggested essay topics, helpful essays about historical and literary context, a sample A+ student essay, and more.

Further Study

Go further in your study of To Kill a Mockingbird with background information, movie adaptations, and links to the best resources around the web.


Q&A: Should Teachers Still Assign ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?

Geoffrey Glover in a blue shirt and green tie

This month, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” turns 60. In recent years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has sparked criticism for how it addresses race and racism. Some have labeled it having a white savior complex.

The novel, set in the 1930s in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, is anchored around the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus Finch, a white man, serves as Robinson’s lawyer. Widely considered a coming-of-age novel, the story is told from the perspective of Scout Finch, Atticus’ daughter, who is six years old when the book begins.

As the book marks its 60-year milestone, and as teachers prepare for fall, Pittwire reached out to Geoffrey Glover, a lecturer in the Department of English in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, for a conversation about the book amid renewed controversy—and guidance on how to approach it in the classroom.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is studied in classrooms across America. More recently, the book has come under scrutiny. Where do you see it being problematic?

That’s one of the things I’ve been getting my students and teachers to focus on. The very idea that this novel actually speaks about racism as a complex well-rounded treatment is a bit of a misnomer.

Rather, it approaches racism from one direction—from an external, white outsider mentality. The focus of the novel is zeroed in on either Scout as an innocent character or Atticus, a paragon of moral virtue standing up against injustices. But what’s lost in that is the focus on Black humanity and Black complexity. We have Tom Robinson, who is literally killed by the system of judicial practice that is going on during this time period. That’s often neglected in these discussions. The text moves us away from that and moves toward a portrait of white courage, even white guilt to a certain extent.

That said, if we can’t modernize the discussion of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we’re doing a disservice to the spirit of the book.

So, do you think the novel should be taken out of curriculum altogether?

I still believe this text should be taught, but how it’s taught should be carefully contextualized.

It also matters when it’s taught. The discussions are different in middle school, high school and college classrooms. I would argue that you may need to teach it more than once. Revisiting it would encourage students to actually see their growth in their understanding of racism as a systemic process and their growth in their participation in that system, whether voluntary or not.

What are reasons that the novel should be taught?

We can hold the novel up as an early attempt of dealing with racism. It deals with race as a problem of personal morality. That’s the implication you get. There’s a loss of innocence we see in the story, that gaining of experience and the moral compass of the story. Especially if you locate it in Scout versus Atticus. Race is a problem that can be addressed through multiple generations. It acknowledges that white America needs to own this problem too.

The story also recognizes the interconnectedness of race, class and gender. The crime that’s investigated is a rape of a white woman of lower class by a Black man. The woman is questionable in her credibility because of her class, and the Black man isn’t believed because of his race. It reflects the story of Emmett Till. It’s not just an issue of race, but also of class and gender.

The book does promote an early form of anti-racism that we are building off of and adding to now. You can see it as a process novel. It’s an early step in formulating an anti-racist mentality for the majority of the United States. It does imply that white Americans should fix inequality following years of inequality.

What are some better ways to approach this novel?

One way to approach it is to de-center whiteness. You can have an oppositional reading of the text that focuses on the few instances of Black characters and give students the opportunity to create their own meaning for some of the scenes.

Teachers can also have their students act out certain scenes. You have white characters who are given a whole lot of direction through the text, but consider asking students, “What are Tom’s motivation for scenes, how is he acting? How would you portray that?” You can go into depth into these characters by changing the medium.

In the book, the Ewells are poor white individuals; they aren’t good or upstanding. That’s a good thing. It shows there are ranks of power and control within whiteness. In classrooms, we can talk about how those are constructed and maintained. Important questions to ask are: “What does whiteness mean in the 1960s, when it was written? What does it mean in the 1930s when the book is set? And what does it mean now?” Those are three historical contexts we have to balance as readers.

How about framing Atticus, the classic hero figure in the story?

I think we should be de-romanticizing Atticus. The reasons why are clearer when you look at Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” In that story, Scout returns to her hometown later in life and is dealing with her father, who hasn’t aged well. He’s more than arguably racist in this second story. That suggests that his actions in the novel may not be motivated by a heroic need to right the wrongs of racial inequality in America. Rather, he just likes the idea of fairness, order and continuity and dislikes the idea of chaos and illegal behavior of all kinds.

This is a discussion that can be valuable to students. But if you hold him up as a hero, it undermines the complexity that we don’t like to see in our heroes. It’s an interesting way of teaching the text.

You mention pairing the novel with something else is also a good approach. Do you have any suggestions?

There are a host of different readings you can pair it with to meet different purposes. For talking about a Black child’s interaction with racism versus white child’s interaction with racism, and the loss of innocence they both experience, I’d pair it with “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison—obviously for college students.  

“Recitatif,” a short story also by Toni Morrison, is another. The characters in this story are never defined by their race; there are no racial markers. We, the readers, bring race into it. So, consider reading this short story and then bring that process into “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

There’s Octavia Butler’s “Kindred.” It humanizes Black experiences and the legacy of slavery and racism. Compare that that approach to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s interesting because “Kindred” a time-travel story about a Black woman in the 1970s who travels back in time and is enslaved.

“Internment,” by Samira Ahmed is another one. It talks about being crushed under institutional racism from a Muslim’s perspective. That in and of itself is valuable because it’s talking about different vectors of the same problem.

Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” or “Battle Royale” both focus on the failure of institutions to support help or free African Americans during the middle of the 20th century.

“They Eyes are Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston is another.

My personal favorite: “If He Hollers Let Him God,” by Chester Himes. It’s very much about Black rage and rage against institutions of racism. It links to the despair Tom felt as he went to escape.

How are conversations about this book different today than they may have been as recent as last year?

Just in the past three months, we’re seen a massive transformation in the kind of social discussion we’re having and the awareness of policing and law enforcement.

You can actively see an awareness by larger groups of people. Folks that may not have concerned themselves with race at all may now be thrust into these conversations they can’t help but deal with. They may feel indicted or oppressed themselves. We may not have been able to have that conversation last year. I don’t think the same people would’ve shown up.


The 100 best novels: No 78 – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Earlier in this series, I excluded Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) from this series on the grounds that, in the 19th century, much of its phenomenal popularity derived from its timely advocacy of abolition in the run-up to the American civil war. Similarly, To Kill a Mockingbird owed some of its success to extra-literary circumstances: it was published in the year JFK went to the White House, then caught the mood of the civil rights movement,sold tens of millions of copies, and inspired a movie classic starring Gregory Peck. But, where Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a simple tale with an explicit moral, intended to change hearts and minds, Harper Lee’s only published book to date is a complex and subtle work of literature that has inspired and influenced generations of schoolchildren in the US and, most especially, in the UK. It’s that rare thing: a truly popular classic.

Narrated by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, at the outset the six-year-old tomboy daughter of widowed small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird is ostensibly about race prejudice in the American south. At the core of its main plot is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African-American accused of raping a white girl. When Atticus Finch is instructed to conduct Robinson’s defence, his fortune-cookie declaration that “You never really understand a person until ... you climb inside his skin” becomes the rhetorical heart of a novel based on Nelle Harper Lee’s formative years in the Alabama of the 1930s. Scout’s coming of age, another major strand in the story, will involve her realisation that “Boo” Radley is a benign mystery in her life and that many childhood terrors have mature meaning.

For all Atticus Finch’s noble defence, Robinson is convicted by an all-white jury, condemned to death, and shot dead while attempting a jailbreak. The death of an innocent man is linked to the dominant metaphor expressed in the novel’s title. The mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), a thrush-like bird with a long tail, creamy grey breast and white flashes, is a popular creature in American folklore. For Harper Lee it is the quintessence of innocence and the goodness of the natural world. Mockingbirds, says one character, “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”.

A note on the text

To Kill a Mockingbird was published by JB Lippincott on 11 July 1960. It was initially titled Atticus but Lee renamed it to represent a novel that went far beyond a character study. Her editor at Lippincott warned Lee to anticipate a modest sale of a few thousand copies. She herself once said, “I never expected any sort of success”, and claimed that she was “hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers”. This is disingenuous. She also remarked that “at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. I hoped for a little, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” Instead of a “quick and merciful death”, a Reader’s Digest reprint gave the novel an immediate audience, with sales eventually topping 40m worldwide (and counting). Despite her publisher’s warnings, the book soon brought acclaim to Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, and throughout Alabama.

Critical reactions varied. To The New Yorker it was “skilled, unpretentious and totally ingenious”. Time magazine declared that the novel “teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life”. Some reviewers lamented the use of poor white southerners, and one-dimensional black victims. The great southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, said: “I think for a child’s book it does all right. It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.”

Within a year of its publication To Kill a Mockingbird had been translated into 10 languages. In the years since then it has been translated into more than 40, has never been out of print in hardcover or paperback, and has become part of the standard school curriculum. A 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated behind only the Bible in books that are “most often cited as making a difference”. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writing in the Guardian, stated that Lee writes with “a fiercely progressive ink, in which there is nothing inevitable about racism and its very foundation is open to question”, and compared her to Faulkner, who wrote about racism as an inevitability.

Further books from Harper Lee

American literature has several examples of one-book writers who burned out fast. In 1946, for instance, Raintree County by Ross Lockridge Jr and Mister Roberts by Thomas Heggen both became bestsellers and got the Hollywood treatment. But then Lockridge and Heggen became hopelessly blocked. By the end of the 40s, both had committed suicide.

Until last month, Harper Lee was famous as the quintessential one-book author, often the subject, over many years, of wild rumours. One of the most bizarre was that her friend Truman Capote (whose In Cold Blood she helped research) was the true author of Mockingbird. More seriously, she claimed to be working on another novel “ever so slowly”, a manuscript entitled The Long Goodbye. But it remained unseen, and the rumours continued to ebb and flow.

But now we have a new rumour, and one that seems to be essentially true. There is, apparently, more to come at last. In February, HarperCollins announced the forthcoming publication of Go Set a Watchman, news which came with a quote from the 88-year-old Harper Lee in which she declared herself “humbled and amazed” that this book, revisiting some of her old characters, would see the light of day, 55 years after her first novel. Inevitably, there is controversy about the timing of this news. Harper Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, is at the centre of the mystery surrounding the book, which is said to be in production with a first printing of 2m copies.

To Kill a Mockingbird is published by Arrow (6.99). Click here to buy it for £5.59


“To Kill a Mockingbird”: What children see

Clara Martin 

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'Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'

A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel - a black man falsely charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man's struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an anti-racist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.
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