Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird

October 17, 2023

themes in to kill a mockingbird

Even though it’s a tried-and-true classic, the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird are far from worn out. In fact, they’re just as poignant and relevant today as they were in 1960 when the book was first published. Here, I’ll go through some of the more prominent themes in To Kill a Mockingbird and examine how they’re explored and developed over the course of the novel.

Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird

1) The loss of innocence and the coexistence of good and evil

Of all the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird, this is the one that really drives the story forward. To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story. When the story begins, Scout is six years old (though an older, adult Scout—Jean Louise—is doing the narrating) and her older brother Jem is just about to turn ten. We accompany them on their journey from childhood innocence to adulthood. That journey—or we could call it their “maturation”—is characterized by their increasing exposure to and awareness of the world’s iniquities.

Scout, Jem, and their summertime friend Dill assume the world to be a fair and just place. Their worldview is almost Manichean—they believe that the world’s made up of good people and bad people and nothing in between. There’s no room for moral ambiguity or grey areas in their worldview, and they’re unable to accommodate the idea that otherwise good people are capable of morally wrong acts.

Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird (Continued) 

In Scout’s mind, the rules must apply to everyone equally, regardless of circumstance. So when it’s revealed that Burris Ewell doesn’t have to go to school because his family’s poor and his father’s an alcoholic who doesn’t much care whether or not his kids go to school, Scout thinks she should get to stay home, too. When Walter Cunningham, another poor classmate of hers, comes over for lunch and smothers his food with syrup (probably because he doesn’t have any at home), Scout is scandalized. To Scout, there’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way of doing things. The way she approaches conflicts reflects her worldview, too: her fights always result in a winner and a loser.

The same pattern of black-and-white thinking occurs in relation to Scout and Jem’s neighbors. In part due to the town rumor mill, they think Boo Radley is a “malevolent phantom” that comes out at night to prey on pet dogs and cats. And their neighbor Mrs. Dubose isn’t supernatural, but she’s evil nonetheless. The following quote sums it up nicely: “The Radley Place was inhabited by an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end; Mrs. Dubose was plain hell.”

Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird (Continued) 

Scout and Jem’s good/bad, fair/unfair dualism comes under more and more scrutiny as they progress through life. When Mrs. Dubose dies, Atticus tells Jem that she was a “great lady” and the bravest person he ever knew. It’s difficult for Jem to assimilate that assessment of her with his experience of Mrs. Dubose as a mean, cantankerous, vindictive old woman. Something similar happens when Atticus calls a member of the lynch mob formed to kill Tom Robinson—Mr. Cunningham—“basically a good man.” To Jem and Scout, that shouldn’t be possible. People are either good or bad. The good ones always win, and the bad ones get what’s coming to them.

Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird (Continued) 

But reality shatters that illusion. When Tim Johnson, a dog with a very human name, gets rabies and has to be put down, Scout and Jem are confronted with an uncomfortable truth: moral innocence is not protective against pain, suffering, and death. It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because they do no harm, but mockingbirds still wind up shot, maimed, crushed under the tires of trucks or against a pane of glass. Tom Robinson (whose name sounds a lot like “Tim Johnson”) is a fundamentally good person—a mockingbird—who’s subjected to the horrors of American racism. Boo Radley, another of the book’s innocent mockingbirds, is subjected to societal cruelty, too.

That’s the realization that marks Scout and Jem’s transition into adulthood. In the wake of Tom Robinson’s death, Jem is disillusioned and seems to retreat from the world. But Scout, at the end of the novel, maintains a cautiously optimistic outlook on humanity. Good people can do bad things, bad things happen to good people, and every permutation in between.

2) Empathy and morality

The interplay between empathy and morality is another one of the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird that’s really at the forefront of the book, and Atticus Finch is the embodiment of that theme. Empathy, according to Atticus, is what enables us to go through life without becoming disillusioned, misanthropic, cynical. If we can empathize with others, see the world through their eyes, then we can understand their circumstances and extend our sympathy without losing our sense of right and wrong.

From the beginning of the book, Atticus knows what Scout and Jem have to learn: that people aren’t simply good or evil. Rather, most people are some combination of the two. Let’s return to mean old Mrs. Dubose. She calls Atticus a racial epithet used to describe someone who defends Black people. Despite this, Atticus is still able to commend her courage in the face of death. Compare that with Scout. The previous Christmas, her cousin Francis used the same racist term to refer to Atticus. Scout’s impulse was to fight her cousin, to condemn him wholesale and “win” the conflict accordingly. In Scout’s adolescent world, there are only the righteous and wrongdoers, winners and losers.

Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird (Continued) 

We can see the same dynamic at work in Atticus’s appraisal of Scout’s classmate, Burris Ewell. Whereas Scout only sees the wrongdoing—Burris skipping school—Atticus sees Burris as a victim of circumstance. To use Atticus’s own phrase, he “climbs into his skin,” and recognizes that it’s “better to bend the law a little in special cases.” Burris is a victim of generational poverty and societal scorn. Importantly, though, this recognition doesn’t lead Atticus to moral relativism. He maintains his moral compass: using empathy to understand, condemning the condemnable, admiring the admirable. 

By the end of the novel, Scout is on her way to assimilating Atticus’s brand of morality. Watching Tom Robinson’s trial from the balcony of the courthouse, she begins to empathize with Mayella Ewell despite being disgusted by her racism:

It came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world…When Atticus asked had she any friends, she seemed not to know what he meant…Tom Robinson was probably the only person who was ever decent to her. But she said he took advantage of her, and when she stood up she looked at him as if he were dirt beneath her feet.

Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird (Continued) 

Scout sees Mayella’s humanity while also condemning her racism. In other words, she’s learning to see the good and the bad in people. Later on, Scout catches her teacher Miss Gates in a contradiction. In the classroom, Miss Gates decries the injustices suffered by the Jews under the Nazis. But as Miss Gates walks out of the courthouse, she makes racist remarks about Tom Robinson and Black people in general. Scout reflects on the contradiction, asks her brother about it, tries to come to terms with it. Maybe Scout ought to have had a more visceral, outraged reaction at the gross hypocrisy and blatant racism. But in any case, she’s learning to cope—via empathy and understanding—with the fact that people can be both good and bad, moral and immoral.

3) Racism and classism

The theme of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t become explicit until chapter 9, when Scout learns (via a racist remark made by one of her classmates) that her father is defending Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of a crime he didn’t commit. But the fact of racism is made apparent from the very first pages of the book. One of the Finches’ ancestors, Simon, was a slave owner. Racial epithets are a part of Scout’s vocabulary, whether she understands the brutality of the words or not. And racist attitudes and remarks amongst the Maycomb citizenry are all too commonplace.

The book presents racism as a harmful, immoral, and, importantly, learned attitude. Scout’s maturation occurs in large part as she comes to terms with living in a racist society. As a result, she also becomes aware of the existence of class in Maycomb. The Ewells are poor, so they’re societal outcasts and objects of derision. In the courtroom, Scout realizes that racism and classism are linked—that the Ewells’ racism is at least partly attributable to their rage at their economic position and the way they’re treated by Maycomb society at large.

It’s important to note that the book depicts racism primarily as a conflict between white people—between educated, nonracist white people and poor, ignorant white people. We very rarely hear from Black characters on the topic of racism, and Black characters have very little agency in their struggle for justice.

4) Gender

As I’ve noted in a previous article, gender is one of the recurring themes in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout doesn’t wear dresses or play with dolls. She wears overalls and spends time rough-housing with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill. She’s tough, curious, and unafraid of physical confrontation, and she doesn’t seem to have any interest in learning to act “ladylike.” The project of making Scout “ladylike” becomes explicit when Atticus’s sister moves in with them to be a “feminizing” force.

Atticus also bucks traditional ideas about gender. He’s bookish and wears glasses; he doesn’t work with his hands, or play tackle football, or drink, or smoke. At one point in the book, Scout is insecure about what she perceives to be her father’s lack of masculinity. Scout and Atticus’s depictions call into question traditionally held beliefs about femininity and masculinity—and what it really means to be “feminine” or “masculine.”

To Kill a Mockingbird Themes – Additional Resources

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