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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee




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11. Our knowledge of the character of Atticus is limited to what we learn from his young daughter, Scout. In the early chapters of the novel Scout thinks of her father as distant and strange, unlike the younger fathers of the other children in town. We do hear, in Chapter 1, that Atticus dislikes practicing criminal law because he hates to see his clients go to jail. This information could be interpreted two ways: Perhaps Atticus is a good, sensitive man; or perhaps he simply lacks the desire to fight tough battles. Scout herself is not sure which of these interpretations is true. At times, she suspects that her father is too old and weak to do anything worthwhile. In the scene where Atticus shoots the mad dog we learn that he is indeed capable of action when the situation calls for it. And in the story of Mrs. Dubose we learn more of Atticus' beliefs about courage. We are not surprised, then, when at the time of Tom's trial Atticus emerges as a hero, ready to fight for what is right even though he knows he has no chance of winning.

Throughout the novel, Atticus puts into action the right values that Scout can usually only feel and think about. But there are also times when Atticus holds back from a fight. He tries to be nice to his sister Alexandra for the sake of family unity, for example, and he won't allow Scout and Jem to fight even when the other children call them names. Unlike Scout, who sees right and wrong in very simple, straightforward terms, Atticus understands that there are times when it is important to be able to compromise. -

12. It is the children in the novel who always seem to have the clearest awareness of the line between justice and injustice. The adults, on the other hand, are frequently blinded by side issues. At the time of Tom Robinson's trial, almost everyone is concerned with something other than Tom's fate. The jurors do not want to go against public opinion and the accepted social system. The prosecutor is only doing his job. The Ewells are desperately trying to salvage their self respect, even if it means hurting someone else in the process. No one, not even Bob Ewell, has anything against Tom personally- yet everyone has some excuse for doing him an injustice.

It is interesting to compare the events of the trial with the story of Boo Radley. In the latter case, it is the adults who condemn the children for unthinking cruelty in teasing Boo and making him the butt of their games. To a certain extent, the adults are right. But at least the children have enough sense to see that there is something very wrong with the way Boo Radley stays shut up inside his house day after day and year after year. Once again, the adults are so busy minding their own business and worrying about propriety that they have closed their eyes to a tragic wrong. What's more, Boo Radley, who is childlike in his own view of the world, understands that the children's interest is basically well meaning and does his best to communicate with them.

You may be able to think of still other times during the course of the novel when children or adult eccentrics seem to be wiser about justice than the supposedly responsible adults who can see so many sides to every question that they overlook the basic issue of right and wrong. -

13. In the early chapters of the novel Scout and her brother are fascinated by Dill's tales of "haints" and supernatural happenings. They are even thrilled and impressed that he has actually seen the movie version of Dracula. Dill's tales motivate them to make up their own superstitions about Boo Radley- and they dare each other to so much as touch the outside of the Radley house, as if to do so might bring on some terrible fate.

By the end of the novel, however, this childlike fascination with superstition has been replaced with a knowledge of the everyday evil of the adult world. In the final chapters, we learn that the grownups of Maycomb have even taken over organizing the children's Halloween celebrations. Having decided that the young people's pranks have gotten out of hand the adults organize a pageant that is dull and stupid. The magic has gone out of the holiday. But the threat of evil is more present than ever before, in the form of Bob Ewell who stalks and tries to kill Scout and Jem on their way home from the pageant.

In the final chapter of the story, Scout asks her father to read to her from "The Gray Ghost", a book she had always found too frightening in the past. Superstitions and scary stories have lost their power to terrorize Scout now that she has come face to face with the terrors that real life holds in store. -

14. The title is first explained in Chapter 10 of the story when Atticus warns Scout and Jem that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Miss Maudie explains that this is because the mockingbird is a harmless creature who does nothing but entertain us with its song.

Atticus makes this warning at a time when he is already preoccupied with Tom Robinson's forthcoming trial, and it makes sense to draw a connection between the mockingbird and Tom Robinson. Tom, too, is a harmless creature. He has done nothing to bring on his own troubles, and his only fault is that he tried to be kind to Mayella Ewell.

After further thought, you may think of other ways in which the title relates to the events of the story. Isn't Boo Radley another "harmless creature?" Boo is the victim of his own father and brother, who are ashamed of him and who have apparently made him afraid to leave his own house.

You might also want to discuss the ways in which the mockingbird is a symbol of the good things about the traditional southern way of life, a way of life that is being destroyed from within by the evils of segregation and racial prejudice. In this case, it is the innocent children- Scout, Jem, and Dill- who are wounded by the unthinking cruelty of the adult community. They grow up carrying a burden of guilt and shame for a system they had no part in creating. Still other victims are the eccentrics and individualists like Dolphus Raymond, who have to give up their pride and place in the community in order to live and think as they please.

Finally, you might want to answer a question like this by considering the reasons why the author has chosen a bird to symbolize victims of injustice. Notice that in the novel the author seems to be saying that simple things are superior- the beauty of Miss Maudie's flower garden is more loved by Miss Maudie than her house; the innocent children see events more clearly than most adults; and so on. Does Harper Lee mean to say that civilization is the source of evil and cruelty in the world or only that civilization is the source of customs that prevent us from attacking evil head on? You will have to decide for yourself which meanings the mockingbird of the title stands for.


ECC [To Kill a Mockingbird Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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