Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird was a book written by Harper Lee that is often a popular choice in the GCSE English Literature specification. These are some notes that I still have and I thought it may be helpful to share this with students who are studying the book.

Courage

There are several kinds of courage demonstrated in the book. There is the basic courage that the children required to overcome their childish fears such as the Radley place. Atticus also shows the same kind of physical courage when he faces the mad dog. However, Atticus seeks to teach his children a form of courage that is more difficult and not simply the physical courage he displayed when facing the mad dog as shown by this quote:

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” – Chapter 10

This quote is referring to the most difficult form of courage that is: carrying through a task which is certain to end in failure. Atticus has to do this in order to defend Tom Robinson despite being told that the case would not end in his favour anyway due to the prejudice and racism in the society.

“In our courts, , when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but these are the facts of life.” – Chapter 23

He wants his children to realise that courage is far more than a “man with a gun in his hand”.

Mrs Dubose also chooses to do this when she attempts to rid herself of drug addiction which she knows she is too late for because she is near death and there is no apparent point in her battle. She eventually wins her battle and Atticus calls her “the bravest person” he knows and insists that his children take on that example of courage. Scout shows moral courage when she has to refrain from retaliating to her friends calling Atticus names.

On the other hand, Bob Ewell is a character totally without courage, Even when he tries to take revenge on the children, he doesn’t have the courage to face them in daylight and instead strikes them in darkness. Boo Radley shows courage when he saves the children.

Justice

Although all American Africans have had equal rights in law since the end of the Civil War in 1865, that doesn’t always mean that they received equal justice. Harper Lee endeavored to emphasise this through the court’s verdict against Tom Robinson, shown through the innocent and inexperienced eyes of Jem.

Prejudice and hatred

A dominant theme in To Kill a Mockingbird is the cruelty people inflict upon others by the holding of pre-formed ideas: “the simple hell people give other people”

These pre-formed ideas are not solely deep racial prejudice but also the intolerant and narrow behaviour that the townspeople in Maycomb impose on others. This bigotry is made all the more menacing by other characters in the book depicting it as ‘normal’ behaviour because it shows how common it is in the past roots of Maycomb. Tom Robinson is a character who becomes the victim of this prejudice as he dared to go against ‘acceptable Negro behavior’ by feeling sorry for a white person. This racial prejudice is so deeply entrenched within Maycomb that the townspeople don’t even realise their own hypocrisy.

The Mockingbird

The image of the mockingbird occurs frequently in the book.

“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 corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” 

The literal meaning of this quote shows the children being warned that killing this bird is a sin because all it does is sing. However, it can also be interpreted as a metaphor to show Tom Robinson and Boo Radley as mockingbirds who are both gentle people who have done no harm but only try to help others. Like the mockingbird, Tom and Boo should be protected but instead, they are hunted down by the mob, who are full of ignorance and false courage much like the children who shoot mockingbirds. The mockingbird symbol links two strong themes in the book: justice and childhood. Justice is ‘killed’ when the jury follow the racist prejudices in town and ignore the evidence supporting Tom. And the innocence of childhood dies for Jem, Scout and Dill when they have to observe the the cruel and unjust verdict through their trusting eyes as they gain their first personal experience of the adult world.

“Well it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” – Chapter 30

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4 thoughts on “Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    • I’m so sorry I couldn’t upload this earlier but I also just completed my GCSEs last year so I thought it’d be helpful to share my notes with other students who might find it useful. I will be uploading other GCSE revision notes and some A level revision notes soon too.
      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

      • haha I just sat my Psychology AS exams recently and I have high hopes of taking A2 psychology next year so we’ll see, thanks again! 🙂

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