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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

A STEP BEYOND

TERM PAPER IDEAS

  1. Discuss the concept of a gentleman that is presented in Chapter 11, where Atticus shoots the mad dog. How does that definition of gentlemanly behavior contrast with the philosophy of self-expression? With the "macho" concept of masculine behavior?

  2. Who is responsible for Tom Robinson's death? What answers do various characters in the novel give to this question? What answer do you think best represents the author's point of view? What do you think?

  3. What does the author's physical description of the town of Maycomb tell you about the people who live there? Notice especially the description of the town in Chapter 1. Doesn't the insistence that Maycomb is a lazy town where nothing ever happens make you feel that something very ominous is going to occur before long? How can this be?

  4. Jem Finch is one of the most important and complex characters in the novel. How does his relationship with Scout change over the course of the story? Who do you think resembles Atticus the most- Jem or Scout?

  5. Both Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra represent types of the southern lady. How do the two characters differ? How are they alike? What does Scout learn from each of them?

  6. Describe the differences among the Finches, the Cunninghams, and the Ewells. What do you think of the novel's suggestion that individual members of the same family more often than not run true to type? In considering this question, pay attention to what the novel says about why this is so, noticing especially what Atticus has to say about heredity versus environment.

  7. How important is it to the novel that the narrator, Scout Finch, is a child at the time the events of the story take place?

  8. Harper Lee has said that the South is "the refuge of genuine eccentrics." What do you learn from the various eccentric characters in the novel, for example, Boo Radley and Dolphus Raymond? Can you think of any reasons why a society that is very conscious of class and family tradition might also have more than its share of eccentrics?

  9. Do you think the character of Scout is a convincing portrait of childlike behavior? Why or why not?

  10. The voice you hear telling the story of the novel is actually that of the adult Jean Louise Finch telling you about events that happened when she was a child. At what points in the novel do you become aware of this? How does this adult narrator's reflections contribute to your understanding of the people of Maycomb? How does the adult Jean Louise create suspense by hinting at certain developments yet to come in the story?

  11. Some readers have objected that the black characters in the novel are two-dimensional and thus the story presents a superficial view of the problem of racial prejudice. Do you feel that this is a valid criticism? In thinking about this question you might want to read a novel by Richard Wright, or some other black author presenting a view of life under segregation. How do the two viewpoints compare?

  12. Why does Mr. Underwood come to the aid of Atticus in defending Tom Robinson from the mob? Contrast Mr. Underwood's behavior with the decision of Heck Tate to file a false police report about Bob Ewell's death. How do the two men's ideas about justice differ?

  13. What does the story have to say about the importance of tradition? In framing your discussion, notice that there are times when the narrator approves of tradition, for example, in defending old-fashioned ideas about education, and ridiculing Miss Caroline's modern ideas about how to teach reading. On the other hand, Atticus, the hero of the story, criticizes Aunt Alexandra for being too concerned with family traditions. And he himself violated these traditions when he became a lawyer instead of a farmer.

  14. Some readers think that Jem's broken arm symbolizes the wound that the system of segregation inflicted on white southerners. What do you think of this idea? What evidence can you find in the story that the author might have intended to make the broken arm a symbol?

  15. When To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960 a number of reviewers compared the character of Scout with Frankie, the tomboy in Carson McCullers' play The Member of the Wedding. You might like to read The Member of the Wedding for yourself and discuss how the two characters are alike. Or, if you think they are very different, why you think the comparison is a bad one.

  16. Discuss how Scout's attitude toward superstition changes over the course of the novel. Don't forget to talk about the final chapter in the story, where Atticus reads to Scout from the novel The Gray Ghost. Why doesn't Scout find such stories scary anymore?

  17. Why do you think the scene in which Jem and Scout build a snowman was included in the novel? Explain.

  18. Contrast the characters of Miss Maudie and the newspaper editor Mr. Underwood. How can two individuals whose values are so different both be "good" characters?

  19. What is the significance of Scout's criticisms of progressive education? If innocent children are sometimes wiser than the adults around them, as the story seems to be saying, why doesn't the narrator trust a system of teaching that depends on children's ability to learn through instinct and their own initiative?

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