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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

THE NOVEL

OTHER ELEMENTS

THEMES

PREJUDICE

The title of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a key to some themes of the novel. The title is first explained in Chapter 10, at the time that Scout and Jem Finch have just received air rifles for Christmas. Atticus tells his children that it is a sin to shoot a mockingbird. Later Miss Maudie explains to the children what Atticus meant: Mockingbirds are harmless creatures who do nothing but sing for our enjoyment. Therefore, it is very wrong to harm them.

It is easy to see that the "mockingbird" in this story is Tom Robinson- a harmless man who becomes a victim of racial prejudice. Like the mockingbird, Tom has never done wrong to anyone. Even the jurors who sentence him to death have nothing personal against him. They find him guilty mostly because they feel that to take the word of a black man over two whites would threaten the system they live under, the system of segregation. Tom himself is guilty of nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is possible that the mockingbird of the title has more than one meaning. Today mockingbirds live in many northern states, but only a few decades ago mockingbirds lived principally in the southeastern United States. Like the mint julep or the song "Dixie," the mockingbird symbolized the southern way of life- a culture that emphasized good manners, family background, and a relaxed, unhurried pace of living. Unfortunately, another aspect of this way of life was racial segregation, a system that had been tolerated for decades by many southerners who knew in their hearts that it was morally wrong.

By the time this novel was written perceptive southerners could see that the opportunity for them to take the lead in ending segregation was already past. The civil rights movement, led by blacks and supported by whites in other parts of the country, was not only ending segregation, it was transforming the politics and class structure that southerners had taken for granted for decades.


To Kill a Mockingbird contains criticism of the prejudice and moral laziness that allowed Southern society to have a double standard of justice. The novel also presents a somewhat optimistic view of white Southerners that was somewhat unusual at the time the novel appeared. The story indicates there are good human beings like Atticus Finch everywhere, even in the midst of a corrupt society. Even those who do wrong, the novel goes on to suggest, often act out of ignorance and weakness rather than a deliberate impulse to hurt others.

There are always a few readers who feel that the novel offers an overly optimistic and simplified view of human nature. On the other hand, the hopeful note it strikes may be one of the reasons for the book's great popularity. The author does not ignore the existence of evil in society, but she does suggest that human beings are born with a desire to do the right thing.

Although most readers think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel about racial prejudice, you will notice that the mockingbird theme does not apply only to victims of this form of discrimination. Boo Radley, the eccentric recluse, is another "harmless creature" who becomes a victim of cruelty. Here again, the author seems to be emphasizing the universality of human nature. Tom Robinson's problems may be bound up with the complex social problem of racial prejudice, but any neighborhood can have its Boo Radley, all but forgotten except as the subject of gossip and rumor.

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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