A now famous novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, was first published in 1960. The book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize immediately, becoming a classical book of modern American literature and a bestseller, and was soon adapted into a film in 1962. Being one of only two books by Harper Lee, it brought her instant fame.
The book is written in the genre of American (Southern) Gothic and Bildungsroman, dealing first of all with the themes of racial inequality, injustice, racial and social prejudice, as well as innocence destroyed by harsh realities of life, courage, sympathy, compassion and tolerance.
The historical period when the book was written and published saw the most important and controversial social change in the US South since the Civil War, which was the attempt to change the position of black people in the traditional Southern American society. In spite of the book’s setting taking place in the mid-1930s, the views expressed in it are inspired by the situation in the 1950s.
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The story is set in the times of the Great Depression, during 1933-1935, in the fictional little town of Maycomb, Alabama. The protagonist of the story is a girl aged six, Jean Louise Finch (also called Scout), living with her family, who are Scout’s elder brother Jeremy (Jem) and their father, Atticus, a widowed lawyer. The children are friends with the neighborhood boy Dill, and the three spend much time together. There is also a mysterious reclusive neighbor Arthur Radley, nicknamed “Boo”. While little is known about him, the children are both interested in and afraid of Boo, collecting rumors and making up stories about him and sharing the ideas of how to lure him from his house. Later they start finding small gifts in a tree that Radley leaves for them, but they fail to see him.
The book appears to be divided into two parts, and the second part tells about Atticus being appointed a lawyer to defend Tom Robinson, a Negro man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, white, a daughter of the town drunk. Both Atticus’s relatives and the majority of the town residents think Tom is guilty and should be put to death, disapproving of Atticus’s firm decision to defend him. Atticus is mocked at by some of the town’s dwellers and called the “nigger-lover”. His conservative family members seem ashamed of his actions.
A mob of aggressive men want to lynch Robison, but Scout, Jem and Dill manage to persuade them not to do it.
Although Atticus Finch is against the children attending the trial, they manage to sneak into the courtroom and observe the proceedings from the so-called “coloured balcony” for black people. In course of the trial, Atticus provides evidence that the people accusing Tom – Mayella Ewell and her father Bob Ewell, known as the town drunk – are telling lies. However, despite all the evidence presented to support Robinson’s innocence, the jury, comprised of white farmers, finds him guilty.
When desperate Tom tries to get over the prison fence to escape, he gets shot dead. This shocks Jem and makes both the children and Atticus doubt their faith in justice.
Despite the fact that Bob Ewell has actually won the case, he feels that his credibility is destroyed because of Atticus’s actions. Ewell is enraged and fights back. He spits in Atticus’ face, threatens Robinson’s widow, attempts to break into Judge Taylor’s house, and then attacks Jem and Scout on their way home from the school Halloween celebration. Scout’s costume protects her from injuries, but Jem’s arm is broken by the attacker. During the fight, an unknown man appears and saves the children. Having defeated their attacker, he carries the wounded Jem home, and Scout understands this man is Arthur “Boo” Radley.
The local sheriff arrives and finds Bob killed in the fight, stabbed with a knife. The sheriff and Atticus finally agree that Bob accidentally killed himself by falling upon his knife.
Scout and Boo walk to his house, and then say goodbye to each other and part, and Scout returns home, thinking about how Boo views life. She and her father stay for a while in Jem’s room, and then she goes to sleep.
The central conflict of the novel deals with racism, prejudice, justice and the lengths a person may go to defend it. The book highlights a situation when the lawyer choosing to stand for an innocent but generally despised black man has to oppose the opinion of the entire town and risk his reputation. His children are also involved and have to suffer for their father’s position, but they are learning from the conflict and have to make tough choices and adopt more mature views of life.
The main characters of the book are Atticus Finch, a lawyer; his daughter, a six-year-old girl Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), a protagonist; her brother Jeremy (Jem); a neighborhood boy Dill; a reclusive man Arthur Radley (“Boo”); Tom Robinson, a local black man accused of a rape of a white woman, as well as Mayella Ewell, a daughter of the town drunk, a woman accusing Tom of raping, and Bob Ewell, her father.
The most important themes or issues of the book include racial injustice in the South, class issues, social prejudice, the need for courage, compassion and tolerance, questioning the existing laws and traditions, and the defeat and loss of innocent illusions that characters have to face.
Quotes about Racism:
“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker), Scout.
Explanation and Analysis:
In this quote, Atticus explains his daughter the issue of racism and the fact that he doesn’t want any special rights for Negroes, but rather tries to love everybody equally, irrespective of their skin colour. He also explains that calling someone names does not work as an insult but actually shows how poor is the person trying to insult other people.
Lula stopped, but she said, “You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here—they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?”
Related Characters: Lula (speaker), Scout and Jem, Calpurnia
Explanation and Analysis:
Scout and Jem get into a situation where they become objects of racism and prejudice, thus experiencing this kind of injustice themselves, which helps the reader to feel what it is.
Quotes about Justice:
“Atticus, you must be wrong….”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong….”
Related Characters: Scout, Atticus
Explanation and Analysis:
In this conversation with Scout, answering her questions, Atticus tries to explain her that the majority is not always right and a person must follow their own conscience when deciding what is wrong and what is right.
Quotes about Morality and Respect:
“If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?”
“For a number of reasons,” said Atticus. “The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” […]
“Atticus, are we going to win it?”
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus said.
Related Characters: Atticus Finch, Scout
Explanation and Analysis:
For Atticus Finch, his moral authority and self-respect are based on his ability to do the things he considers proper and lawful. If in some situation he chooses to give up supporting justice and moral values, he will lose his self-respect, and his ability to judge and guide people, and even his own children, will suffer. He will feel he has lost his reputation and his moral ground. Thus, he decides to defend the black man, even though the chances are slim that he will win.
“There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,” she whispered fiercely, “but you ain’t called on to contradict ’em at the table when they don’t. That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?”
“He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham-”
“Hush your mouth! Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house’s yo’ comp’ny, and don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty! Yo’ folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ’em—if you can’t act fit to eat at the table you can just set here and eat in the kitchen!”
Related Characters: Calpurnia (speaker), Scout
Explanation and Analysis:
Cal teaches Scout to treat people with respect, no matter their differences or social position (the Cunninghams are a poor family). This quote also shows that black people have morals, too, and can teach white people how to behave properly.
Quotes about Family:
“If Uncle Atticus lets you run around with stray dogs, that’s his own business, like Grandma says, so it ain’t your fault. I guess it ain’t your fault if Uncle Atticus is a nigger-lover besides, but I’m here to tell you it certainly does mortify the rest of the family-”
“Francis, what the hell do you mean?”
“Just what I said. Grandma says it’s bad enough he lets you all run wild, but now he’s turned out a nigger-lover we’ll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb again. He’s ruinin’ the family, that’s what he’s doin’.”
Related Characters: Scout’s Cousin Francis, Scout
Explanation and Analysis:
Family is an important theme in the novel’s world. The relatives of Atticus Finch think his position is not only his own business, but it influences the reputation of the entire family. And in a small town like fictional Maycomb, reputation matters, while defending a black man is an unpopular move. The racist relatives of Atticus know it and try to persuade his children not to support their father.
“I’m sorry, brother,” she murmured. Having never heard her call Atticus “brother” before, I stole a glance at Jem, but he was not listening. He would look up at Atticus, then down at the floor, and I wondered if he thought Atticus somehow responsible for Tom Robinson’s conviction.
Related Characters: Aunt Alexandra (speaker), Scout, Atticus
Explanation and Analysis:
Normally Scout does not really like Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister. She thinks her aunt is too conservative, harsh, and never supports other people. So when the aunt comes to the court to see the trial where Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, Scout thinks trouble will come of it.
However, she is mistaken. When Tom Robinson is found guilty and sentenced to death, and Atticus and the children feel really down and frustrated, the aunt expresses her support and sympathy for her brother. In fact, this is the first time Scout hears her addressing Atticus as “brother”, a word showing Alexandra’s support in this hard situation. Although Aunt Alexandra still keeps her racist views, she chooses to care for her brother’s feelings and shows that she is a kinder and more caring person than she seemed before.
There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb, but to my mind it worked this way: the older citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time. Thus the dicta No Crawford Minds His Own Business, Every Third Merriweather Is Morbid, The Truth Is Not in the Delafields, All the Bufords Walk Like That, were simply guides to daily living: never take a check from a Delafield without a discreet call to the bank; Miss Maudie Atkinson’s shoulder stoops because she was a Buford; if Mrs. Grace Merriweather sips gin out of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles it’s nothing unusual—her mother did the same.
Related Characters: Scout
Explanation and Analysis:
In Maycomb, family means destiny and people are expected to behave exactly like their parents did. This might give rise to prejudice and limit individual freedom, but on the other hand, people are not expected to improve themselves and can blame their families for their vices. Everybody is comfortable with that.
The book uses a mockingbird as a symbol of innocence. Atticus Finch forbids his children to kill mockingbirds, declaring it a sin. Another symbol is a mad (rabid) dog that Atticus has to shoot to defend himself and other people. This dog symbolizes racism, prejudice and lack of humanity prevailing in the town that Atticus has to fight.
When the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was out, it became an immediate success, which greatly surprised its author. However, the reviews varied. Some reviewers liked the author’s style, called her a skilled writer and found the book nationally significant; other found the book childish, melodramatic, or even immoral. Some noted than a six-year-old protagonist cannot think and speak as an adult, which she does in the book, and that she draws too complicated conclusions for a young child leading an isolated life.
One year after the novel was published, it was translated into 10 languages, and subsequently into more than 40 languages. It is now studied in most American schools and considered to be one of the classical books of the 20th century.
Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was an American writer famous for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. The book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize immediately, becoming a classical book and a bestseller, and was soon adapted into a film in 1962. Being one of only two books by Harper Lee, it brought her instant fame.
In 2007 the author got the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to her for an important contribution to literature, as well as received several honoris causa degrees throughout her life.
Besides creating To Kill a Mockingbird, in 2015 she published what was called a “sequel” to it – a novel Go Set a Watchman, originally created in the 1950s, which later proved to be an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. In addition to these works, she also helped Truman Capote, an old friend of hers, to do the research for his book In Cold Blood (1966), as well as wrote and published a number of articles and essays.
The writer was born on April 28, 1926, in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, to Frances Cunningham (Finch), a lawyer, and Amasa Coleman Lee. Nelle was the youngest of four children. Once her father defended in court two black men accused of killing a white storekeeper; however, his efforts went in vain, and the defendants were found guilty and executed. Similar events, as well as many other autobiographical details, were later included into the novel.
As a child, Lee attended Monroe County High School. During that period, she got interested in English literature. Upon graduation in 1944, she studied in Huntingdon College in Montgomery during one year, and later entered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There Lee studied law for a few years and wrote articles for a local magazine. However, she left the University without obtaining a degree.
In 1948, she was a student at a summer school at Oxford University. Her father hoped that she would continue her legal studies, but in 1949 she moved to New York, where she started working as an airline reservation agent for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC.
Nevertheless, she continued writing in her free time. After she wrote a number of long stories, she managed to find a literary agent in 1956.
When her friends presented her with an amount of money equal to her year’s earnings as a gift for Christmas, telling her she had a year to write whatever she pleased, she got an opportunity to finally become a professional writer.
In the spring of 1957 a manuscript of her novel was ready. It was originally titled Go Set a Watchman.
The publishing house J. B. Lippincott Company agreed to publish it, but they told it required a lot of editing. For 3 following years the writer collaborated with the company’s editor Tay Hohoff (Therese von Hohoff Torrey) who helped her to give the book its final form. A new title for the novel was chosen – To Kill a Mockingbird. Before publishing her book, Nelle Harper Lee adopted a shorter pen name Harper Lee.
The book was published in 1960 and became an immediate success, to the great surprise of its author. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The book still remains a bestseller. The novel was called the “Best Novel of the Century” by the Library Journal in 1999.
After Lee finished the novel, she and Truman Capote traveled to Holcomb, Kansas, to research the reaction of the town residents to the murder of a local farmer and his family members. The material they collected was then used by Capote to write his bestseller non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, published in 1966.
After publishing her unexpectedly famous novel, Harper Lee almost completely disappeared from public view.
In 1966, she was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by the Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States at the time.
Although the writer accepted the awards provided to her, she rarely spoke in public and despite working on several other books, never completed any. The only writings she published were short essays and articles.
In 2005, Lee received the inaugural ATTY Award for positive depictions of lawyers in her book from the Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation. The same year she also accepted the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award.
One year later, in 2006, she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame.
In 2007, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US, by the President George W. Bush.
In 2010, she was presented with the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama.
In 2011, a manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was found in Harper Lee’s safe-deposit box by her lawyer Tonja Carter. In 2014, a decision was made to publish it, and in 2015 the book was published as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite actually being an early draft of the latter. The books differ in plot, but there are many same phrases and passages found in both of them.
The Go Set a Watchman was the last published book in the writer’s lifetime. Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016, aged 89.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
- Go Set a Watchman (2015)
- “Love—In Other Words”. Vogue. April 15, 1961. pp. 64–65.
- “Christmas to Me”. McCall’s. December 1961.
- “When Children Discover America”. McCall’s. August 1965.
- “Romance and High Adventure”. 1983. A paper presented in Eufaula, Alabama, and collected in the anthology Clearings in the Thicket (1985).
- “Open letter to Oprah Winfrey”. O: The Oprah Magazine. July 2006.