How to Study the Novel to Kill a Mockingbird

How to Study the Novel to Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Harper Lee and published in 1960. Set in the Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, Lee explores prejudice and racism, good and evil, and justice and the law through the eyes of a little girl named Scout Finch. If you're looking to understand this classic novel better, keep reading for insights on the plot, characters, themes, symbols, form, and style.

Method 1 of 3:
Analyzing the Plot and Characters

1
Follow Scout and Jem Finch through their childhoods. The novel spans several years in the lives of the Finch children. Focus on how each child changes over the course of the novel. While the kids are innocent and preoccupied with playing games and superstitions at first, their exposure to prejudice and evil contributes to the way they mature into people who can spot injustice and see things from other people’s perspectives. One of the main events in the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African-American man accused of raping a white woman. Consider how various characters react to the trial and how it shapes Jem and Scout’s opinions of the world. Other things to pay attention to include Scout’s education, the snow in Maycomb, the fire at Miss Maudie’s, the confrontation between the townspeople and the Finches outside the jail, the arrival of Aunt Alexandra in Maycomb, and the pageant on Halloween.
2
Recognize Atticus’s role as a moral beacon. Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem’s father, is a lawyer appointed to represent Tom Robinson. Atticus is a kind, calm, fair man that doesn’t discriminate based on race. Think about how Atticus shows respect to everyone, including people who treat him poorly, and what this says about his character.
3
Factor in how Boo Radley plays a part in the story. Though Boo Radley doesn’t appear in person until the end of the novel, his presence is felt throughout. Scout and Jem continually try to figure out how to get Boo to come out of his house because they are curious about him. Consider how other people in Maycomb talk about Boo Radley and how his actions on the night Bob Ewell attacks Scout and Jem support or refute other characters’ opinions of him. Don’t forget about the gifts that Boo leaves for the Finch children in the knothole in the tree or how he sews up Jem’s pants.
4
Consider the way African-American characters are portrayed. Though many citizens of Maycomb view African-Americans as second-class members of society not capable of civility, Lee depicts Calpurnia, Tom, Reverend Sykes, and other blacks in Maycomb as polite, generous people. Think about how this juxtaposition demonstrates Lee’s attitude toward prejudice and racism. In contrast, consider how white characters like the Ewells and Mrs. Dubose treat other people, both black and white.
5
Scrutinize how other members of Maycomb contribute to the novel. Think about how Dill affects the way the Finch children see Boo Radley. Consider how Aunt Alexandra’s opinions shape Scout’s behavior and role as a female in the Southern United States. Miss Maudie and Heck Tate, in particular, frown upon the prejudice that runs rampant in their town. On the other hand, Mrs. Dubose, Bob Ewell, and Mayella Ewell display racism and hatred toward those that are dissimilar to themselves. What do the character's opinions and actions say about the town of Maycomb itself? Is it representative of other small towns in the southern United States during this time?
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Method 2 of 3:
Interpreting Themes and Symbols

1
Explore how prejudice and racism shape Maycomb and its citizens. In this novel, blacks are not seen or treated as equals by a majority of the characters. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence that Tom Robinson actually raped or harmed Mayella Ewell, he is convicted of the crimes because the jury believes a white man’s word over a black man’s. Which characters display racism? Which do not?
2
Think about how good and evil play a part. Even in a small town like Maycomb, evil exists. Scout and Jem learn that most people aren’t wholly good or wholly evil—everyone has the capability to be both and it is people’s actions and choices that define them. Are there any characters that are wholly good? Any that are wholly evil? Who is a mix of both and how so?
3
Contemplate the roles of justice and the law in To Kill a Mockingbird. Since Atticus is a lawyer and the Tom Robinson trial is an important plot point, the law is a prevalent theme. Though the law is meant to protect innocent people and condemn the guilty, it doesn’t always work out that way. Does Tom Robinson get justice? What about Bob Ewell?
4
Ponder how social inequality in Maycomb impacts the novel. There are several social classes of white people, but one only class of blacks, and they are placed lower than any others. Think about how each class lives and behaves differently from the others and how each group’s children are educated. Where are the Finches in this class system? The Cunninghams? The Ewells? The Robinsons?
5
See the mockingbird as a representation of innocence. As the title of the novel indicates, to kill a mockingbird is a sin. Because mockingbirds are innocent creatures that do no harm, there’s never a reason to take one’s life. Are there any characters that could be considered mockingbirds? Why or why not?
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Method 3 of 3:
Exploring the Form and Style

1
Reflect on the way flashbacks and foreshadowing help to develop the novel. The entire story is a flashback told from Scout’s perspective as she looks back on her childhood. Did you notice how Scout tells the reader that Jem broke his arm when he was thirteen? The events that led to his broken arm are then detailed throughout the novel. Many important plot points are foreshadowed, including Boo’s heroics and Bob Ewell’s ability to hold a grudge and seek revenge.
2
Think about the connection between Gothic elements and the small town of Maycomb. Though this isn’t a gothic novel, Harper Lee includes many Gothic elements, from superstitions like “haints” and “hot steams” to the unnatural events such as the snow in Alabama and the mad dog. The climax of the novel even falls on Halloween night. Mull over when these Gothic elements appear and see if you can find a link between them and the immoral events that take place.
3
Look up the definitions of any words you don’t know. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, so you may come across some unfamiliar words as you’re reading. Take the time to look up the meanings of these words so you can fully understand what Harper Lee is saying. Some key words include: Arbitrate (v): to judge between Chattel (n): personal property, (“human chattel” would be a slave) Infallible (adj): not prone to mistakes Malignant (adj): bad-intentioned Purloin (v): to steal
Advertisement

Method 1 of 3:
Analyzing the Plot and Characters

1
Follow Scout and Jem Finch through their childhoods. The novel spans several years in the lives of the Finch children. Focus on how each child changes over the course of the novel. While the kids are innocent and preoccupied with playing games and superstitions at first, their exposure to prejudice and evil contributes to the way they mature into people who can spot injustice and see things from other people’s perspectives. One of the main events in the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African-American man accused of raping a white woman. Consider how various characters react to the trial and how it shapes Jem and Scout’s opinions of the world. Other things to pay attention to include Scout’s education, the snow in Maycomb, the fire at Miss Maudie’s, the confrontation between the townspeople and the Finches outside the jail, the arrival of Aunt Alexandra in Maycomb, and the pageant on Halloween.
2
Recognize Atticus’s role as a moral beacon. Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem’s father, is a lawyer appointed to represent Tom Robinson. Atticus is a kind, calm, fair man that doesn’t discriminate based on race. Think about how Atticus shows respect to everyone, including people who treat him poorly, and what this says about his character.
3
Factor in how Boo Radley plays a part in the story. Though Boo Radley doesn’t appear in person until the end of the novel, his presence is felt throughout. Scout and Jem continually try to figure out how to get Boo to come out of his house because they are curious about him. Consider how other people in Maycomb talk about Boo Radley and how his actions on the night Bob Ewell attacks Scout and Jem support or refute other characters’ opinions of him. Don’t forget about the gifts that Boo leaves for the Finch children in the knothole in the tree or how he sews up Jem’s pants.
4
Consider the way African-American characters are portrayed. Though many citizens of Maycomb view African-Americans as second-class members of society not capable of civility, Lee depicts Calpurnia, Tom, Reverend Sykes, and other blacks in Maycomb as polite, generous people. Think about how this juxtaposition demonstrates Lee’s attitude toward prejudice and racism. In contrast, consider how white characters like the Ewells and Mrs. Dubose treat other people, both black and white.
5
Scrutinize how other members of Maycomb contribute to the novel. Think about how Dill affects the way the Finch children see Boo Radley. Consider how Aunt Alexandra’s opinions shape Scout’s behavior and role as a female in the Southern United States. Miss Maudie and Heck Tate, in particular, frown upon the prejudice that runs rampant in their town. On the other hand, Mrs. Dubose, Bob Ewell, and Mayella Ewell display racism and hatred toward those that are dissimilar to themselves. What do the character's opinions and actions say about the town of Maycomb itself? Is it representative of other small towns in the southern United States during this time?
Advertisement

Method 2 of 3:
Interpreting Themes and Symbols

1
Explore how prejudice and racism shape Maycomb and its citizens. In this novel, blacks are not seen or treated as equals by a majority of the characters. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence that Tom Robinson actually raped or harmed Mayella Ewell, he is convicted of the crimes because the jury believes a white man’s word over a black man’s. Which characters display racism? Which do not?
2
Think about how good and evil play a part. Even in a small town like Maycomb, evil exists. Scout and Jem learn that most people aren’t wholly good or wholly evil—everyone has the capability to be both and it is people’s actions and choices that define them. Are there any characters that are wholly good? Any that are wholly evil? Who is a mix of both and how so?
3
Contemplate the roles of justice and the law in To Kill a Mockingbird. Since Atticus is a lawyer and the Tom Robinson trial is an important plot point, the law is a prevalent theme. Though the law is meant to protect innocent people and condemn the guilty, it doesn’t always work out that way. Does Tom Robinson get justice? What about Bob Ewell?
4
Ponder how social inequality in Maycomb impacts the novel. There are several social classes of white people, but one only class of blacks, and they are placed lower than any others. Think about how each class lives and behaves differently from the others and how each group’s children are educated. Where are the Finches in this class system? The Cunninghams? The Ewells? The Robinsons?
5
See the mockingbird as a representation of innocence. As the title of the novel indicates, to kill a mockingbird is a sin. Because mockingbirds are innocent creatures that do no harm, there’s never a reason to take one’s life. Are there any characters that could be considered mockingbirds? Why or why not?
Advertisement

Method 3 of 3:
Exploring the Form and Style

1
Reflect on the way flashbacks and foreshadowing help to develop the novel. The entire story is a flashback told from Scout’s perspective as she looks back on her childhood. Did you notice how Scout tells the reader that Jem broke his arm when he was thirteen? The events that led to his broken arm are then detailed throughout the novel. Many important plot points are foreshadowed, including Boo’s heroics and Bob Ewell’s ability to hold a grudge and seek revenge.
2
Think about the connection between Gothic elements and the small town of Maycomb. Though this isn’t a gothic novel, Harper Lee includes many Gothic elements, from superstitions like “haints” and “hot steams” to the unnatural events such as the snow in Alabama and the mad dog. The climax of the novel even falls on Halloween night. Mull over when these Gothic elements appear and see if you can find a link between them and the immoral events that take place.
3
Look up the definitions of any words you don’t know. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, so you may come across some unfamiliar words as you’re reading. Take the time to look up the meanings of these words so you can fully understand what Harper Lee is saying. Some key words include: Arbitrate (v): to judge between Chattel (n): personal property, (“human chattel” would be a slave) Infallible (adj): not prone to mistakes Malignant (adj): bad-intentioned Purloin (v): to steal
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