To Kill a Mockingbird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee (above) published in 1960. It was instantly successful and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author's observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.
The novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator's father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers. One critic explained the novel's impact by writing, "In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism."
As a Southern Gothic novel and a Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Scholars have noted that Lee also addresses issues of class, courage and compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South. The book is widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice. Despite its themes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been subject to campaigns for removal from public classrooms. Often the book is challenged for its use of racial epithets, and writers have noticed that regardless of its popularity since its publication, some readers are displeased by the novel's treatment of black characters.
Lee's novel was initially reviewed by at least 30 newspapers and magazines, whose critics varied widely in their assessments. More recently, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one "every adult should read before they die." The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. Since 1990, a play based on the novel has been performed annually in Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. To date, it is Lee's only published novel, and although she continues to respond to the book's impact, she has refused any personal publicity for herself or the novel since 1964.
Death of Innocence
Lee used the mockingbird to symbolize innocence in the novel.Songbirds and their associated symbolism appear throughout the novel. The family's last name of Finch also shares Lee's mother's maiden name. The titular mockingbird is a key motif of this theme, which first appears when Atticus, having given his children air-rifles for Christmas, allows their Uncle Jack to teach them to shoot. Atticus warns them that, although they can "shoot all the bluejays they want", they must remember that "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." Confused, Scout approaches her neighbor Miss Maudie, who explains that mockingbirds never harm other living creatures. She points out that mockingbirds simply provide pleasure with their songs, saying, "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." Writer Edwin Bruell summarized the symbolism when he wrote in 1964, "'To kill a mockingbird' is to kill that which is innocent and harmless—like Tom Robinson." Scholars have noted that Lee often returns to the mockingbird theme when trying to make a moral point.
Tom Robinson is the chief example among several innocents destroyed carelessly or deliberately throughout the novel. However, scholar Christopher Metress connects the mockingbird to Boo Radley: "Instead of wanting to exploit Boo for her own fun (as she does in the beginning of the novel by putting on gothic plays about his history), Scout comes to see him as a 'mockingbird' — that is, as someone with an inner goodness that must be cherished." The last pages of the book illustrate this as Scout relates the moral of a story Atticus has been reading to her, and in allusions to both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson states about a character who was misunderstood, "when they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things ... Atticus, he was real nice," to which he responds, "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."
The novel exposes the loss of innocence (and innocents) so frequently that reviewer R. A. Dave claims it is inevitable that all the characters have faced or will face defeat, giving it elements of a classical tragedy. In exploring how each character deals with his or her own personal defeat, Lee builds a framework to judge whether the characters are heroes or fools. She guides the reader in such judgments, alternating between unabashed adoration and biting irony. Lee uses irony to describe Scout witnessing the Missionary Society meeting, whose members mock Scout, gossip, and "reflect a smug, colonialist attitude toward other races" while giving the "appearance of gentility, piety, and morality." Conversely, when Atticus loses Tom's case, he is last to leave the courtroom, except for his children and the black spectators in the colored balcony, who rise silently as he walks underneath them, to honor his efforts.