20 Best To Kill a Mockingbird Quotes
September 14, 2023
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age classic that deals with the themes of American racism, social inequality, the loss of innocence, and the coexistence of good and evil (though that’s far from an exhaustive list). By taking a look at some crucial To Kill a Mockingbird quotes, we can see how the book approaches and explores those themes—through its setting, characters, language, and more.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #1
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
This is Scout’s introductory description of Maycomb. It’s important for several reasons. First, it situates us in place and time—Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression. Hoover carts, named for President Herbert Hoover, were engineless cars pulled by horses, and they were a common sight in Depression-era America. The reference to Maycomb County having “nothing to fear but fear itself” comes from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural speech after he won election in 1932.
TKAM Quotes (Continued)
This passage also situates Scout in time. She describes Maycomb when she “first knew it.” We understand, therefore, that Scout the narrator is recollecting, writing about her childhood from a later stage in life.
Plus, the language is great. The use of the word “tired” to describe the town suggests that its inhabitants are literally tired, weary, fatigued—worn out from the poverty of the Depression and the oppressive heat. But “tired” also suggests “boring” or “expected.” We can refer to a fad as being “tired”—overused, played out. Lee’s use of “tired” here makes the town’s customs—the men’s stiff collars, the ladies’ talcum powder—seem tedious and banal. Maycomb being “tired” in this sense of the word also foreshadows how Scout comes to view the town later in the novel.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #2
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—”
“—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
This is one of the more famous To Kill a Mockingbird quotes. Scout is home from her second day of first grade. Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline, told her she’s not allowed to write—writing instruction doesn’t begin until the third grade. So Scout doesn’t want to go back to school. That’s when Atticus offers her his advice, his “simple trick” for understanding people. But it’s more than a “trick”, really—it’s a moral principle that Atticus spends his whole life trying to uphold. Being able to empathize with others—not just to understand them but to climb into their skin—is how we can transcend our biases, superstitions, and prejudices.
Atticus’s advice sticks with Scout throughout the course of the novel. In the book’s penultimate scene, she lives Atticus’s words as she imagines seeing the world through Boo Radley’s eyes. It’s an optimistic note to strike, especially in contrast to the book’s pessimism when it comes to race and the criminal justice system.
TKAM Quotes #3
“You can’t do that, Scout,” Atticus said. “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases. In your case, the law remains rigid. So to school you must go.”
This is a variation on the empathy theme. Here, Scout is still upset that she has to go to school and sit through class with Miss Caroline. Burris Ewell, she tells Atticus, doesn’t go to school. He just shows up on day one to appease the town’s truant officer. Why can’t she just do what Burris does?
Atticus replies: “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases.” Burris deserves special consideration, an understanding that acknowledges his circumstances. The Ewells are mired in generational poverty. They’re chronically uneducated, and the head of the family, Bob Ewell, is an alcoholic who doesn’t look after his kids. Scout, in comparison, is privileged. So to school she must go. Is Atticus’s principle of equality becoming a kind of moral relativism here? Not exactly. He squarely condemns Bob Ewell for neglecting his children, but extends his compassion and understanding to Bob’s victim—in this case, Burris.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #4
“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.”
Scout has been hearing things about her father’s case at school, and she asks him about it. Atticus explains that he’s defending Tom Robinson, a Black man who’s been accused of rape. And when Scout asks him if he has a shot at winning, he gives her a sober, though not completely cynical, prediction.
Atticus is again articulating his morality. Circumstances—like hundreds of years of state-sanctioned racism and personal prejudice—can explain. But they don’t necessarily absolve one of responsibility or moral duty. We can still talk about right and wrong, good and evil. Acknowledging the role of history and circumstances doesn’t necessarily lead to moral relativism. Atticus still has a moral duty to defend Tom Robinson, even though he knows a racist white jury will inevitably convict him.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #5
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Like so many other important To Kill a Mockingbird quotes, this one comes from Atticus. Jem has been getting teased about Atticus’s decision to defend Tom Robinson, and Scout is trying to tell Atticus what she’s been hearing around town—that his decision to defend Tom Robinson is foolish and wrong. Atticus calmly dismisses her concerns—and the town’s—by appealing to his own conscience. As much as Atticus tries to understand and empathize with other people, he will not let his moral compass be affected by the whims and biases of society at large.
Atticus makes this statement in a very general sense, as if it were true of everyone. But I’m not so sure that’s true. People’s consciences are sometimes affected by majority rule. Most Maycombians have a clean conscience about how Black people are treated—it’s just the way things are, and it goes unquestioned. Really, it’s Atticus’s conscience that doesn’t abide by majority rule.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #6
Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This To Kill a Mockingbird quote is where the book gets its title, and it’s key to understanding the book’s moral framework. It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because mockingbirds are basically good, morally innocent creatures.
Boo Radley, then, is one of the book’s mockingbirds. He’s a morally good person—leaving gifts for Scout and Jem in the tree, cloaking Scout with a blanket as her neighbor’s house burns, eventually saving Scout and Jem’s lives by killing Bob Ewell. But Boo is a mockingbird that’s gone through some trauma. He experienced abuse at the hands of his father. He’s all too aware of how cruel his fellow humans can be. That, Scout theorizes, is the real reason why he shuts himself in his house all day.
Tom Robinson is another one of the book’s mockingbirds—essentially a good man who is subjected to the brutality of poverty and racism. In fact, in chapter 25, Mr. Underwood explicitly compares Tom Robinson’s murder to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children.”
TKAM Quotes #7
“Mr. Cunningham’s basically a good man,” he said, “he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.”
Jem spoke. “Don’t call that a blind spot. He’da killed you last night when he first went there.”
“He might have hurt me a little,” Atticus conceded, “but son, you’ll understand folks a little better when you’re older. A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know—doesn’t say much for them, does it?”
This passage occurs after lynch mob comes for Tom. Atticus was there to try to talk the mob down, but really, it was Scout who broke the tension and caused the mob to disperse without any violence. Mr. Cunningham, father to one of Scout’s classmates, was among the would-be murderers. So it’s interesting that Atticus says he’s “basically a good man.” It might sound like he’s dismissing a potentially murderous racism as just a “blind spot.” But he’s not. He’s just avoiding the trap of binary thinking. He refuses to categorize Mr. Cunningham as essentially good or evil. In fact, one of the book’s central themes is the coexistence of good and evil in all of us. Atticus articulates that theme here, while also managing to express an appropriate level of pessimism about society’s racism—“doesn’t say much for them, does it?”
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #8
He jerked his head at Dill: “Things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being—not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him.”
“Cry about what, Mr. Raymond?” Dill’s maleness was beginning to assert itself.
“Cry about the simple hell people give other people—without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.”
To contextualize this excerpt: Scout, Jem, and Dill have been watching Tom Robinson’s trial from the balcony of the courthouse. Mr. Gilmer, the prosecutor, begins to question Tom. And, as one might expect, Mr. Gilmer’s treatment of Tom is abhorrent. He tries to put words in Tom’s mouth, refers to him as “boy”, and leverages the white jury’s racism against him. Dill’s appalled by Gilmer’s treatment of Tom, and he runs out of the courtroom in tears. Scout follows and tries to settle him down. That’s when they run into Mr. Dolphus Raymond.
TKAM Quotes (Continued)
Mr. Raymond comes from a rich white family, but, to the consternation of most of Maycomb’s respectable white denizens, he has Black friends, Black children, and spends most of his days drinking out of paper-bag-wrapped bottle (which may just be soda after all). Here, Mr. Raymond articulates another of the book’s themes: that innocence is corrupted by the pernicious pressures of society. Dill is still a child, and he therefore sees the injustice clearly. When he’s older, and society has had a little more time to impress its norms upon him, he’ll be better adjusted to the world’s iniquities. Mr. Raymond’s assessment is unsparing and accurate: the average Maycomb adult—the average American adult—is incapable of realizing that Black people are people, too.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #9
“I got something’ to say an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more. That n***** yonder took advantage of me an’ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin’ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you.”
These words are Mayella Ewell’s. She’s on the stand in the courtroom, and Atticus has systematically destroyed her story’s credibility. So Mayella, desperate and indignant, says the quiet part out loud. And what she says, essentially, is that her word should be taken at face value simply because she’s white. Her words alone should be enough to condemn Tom. Rationality and truth are irrelevant in Mayella’s worldview. She’s white, Tom’s Black; that should be enough for the jury to sentence Tom to death.
TKAM Quotes #10
As Tom Robinson gave his testimony, it came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world. She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty-five years. When Atticus asked had she any friends, she seemed not to know what he meant, then she thought he was making fun of her. She was as sad, I thought, as what Jem called a mixed child: white people wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she lived among pigs; Negroes wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she was white…Nobody said, “That’s just their way,” about the Ewells.
Maycomb gave them Christmas baskets, welfare money, and the back of its hand. 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.
Here, Scout very nearly embodies the ideal Atticus articulates towards the beginning of the book—that to understand someone, you have to climb into their skin and walk around in it. Scout has sympathy for Mayella, who in many ways is a reprehensible figure. She’s egregiously racist, a liar, and has just used an abhorrent racial epithet to refer to Tom. But Scout resists seeing her as a pure villain. Mayella, Scout recognizes, is human. She’s lonely, and is a victim of abuse and neglect—both personal and societal. In Scout’s description of her, Mayella actually seems to be on the verge of realizing that she and Tom are more alike than they are different. But the last sentence sweeps that hope away—Mayella’s racism prevails.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #11
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
Atticus’s morality is stubborn. So it’s easy to read him as a bit of an idealist. Here, though, he comes across as a down-to-earth realist. The criminal justice system doesn’t exist outside the realm of human biases and prejudices. Rather, Atticus acknowledges, it’s a reflection of those biases and prejudices. “I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality,” Atticus tells the members of the jury during his closing statement.
In this To Kill a Mockingbird quote, Atticus is doing his part to school Scout on the realities of American society. Racism is ubiquitous, Atticus says. And those most deserving of our moral approbation are those who use the power of white supremacy to exploit Black people.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #12
A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson. The foreman handed a piece of paper to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge.
I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty…guilty…guilty…guilty…” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them.
Tom Robinson’s trial ends, and the inevitable verdict is delivered. The first part of this quote is intriguing—“A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted.” Whose observation is this? Is this something that the 8-year-old Scout overheard her father say? Is it the older narrator reflecting on her memories of that day? Or is the 8-year-old Scout discerning enough to make such an emotionally mature observation? I like to think that it’s the latter, that Scout as an 8-year-old picks up on the shame and cowardice of the jurors.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #13
“I didn’t think it wise in the first place to let them—”
“This is their home, sister,” said Atticus. “We’ve made it this way for them, they might as well learn to cope with it.”
“But they don’t have to go to the courthouse and wallow in it—”
“It’s just as much Maycomb County as missionary teas.”
The trial is over, and the Finches are back home. Scout and Jem are disturbed by the verdict, and Jem, especially, seems to have had his faith in humanity shaken. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, is trying to scold Calpurnia and Atticus for having allowed them to watch the proceedings. Her impulse is to shelter the children from the realities of Maycomb. I read Aunt Alexandra as a symbol of respectability politics—in fact, she’s living with the Finches to be a “feminizing” presence.
Her role is to reinforce the town’s customs and mores. So it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to be totally forthcoming about the town’s ugly racism. It’s almost as if she’s trying to compartmentalize that racism—it’s just something unfortunate that happened down at the courthouse, but it’s not inherent to Maycomb’s identity. Atticus dismisses this. What happened at the courthouse, what happened to Tom, is baked into Maycomb County. It’s as much Maycomb County as its missionary teas.
TKAM Quotes #14
“Jack! When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.”
In this quote, Atticus puts it starkly: it’s a mistake to assume that children aren’t as morally discerning as adults. In fact, children are even more adept at picking up on dishonesty and injustice. Atticus insists that children are morally pure, innocent, while adults are not. The following To Kill a Mockingbird quote demonstrates this point even further.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #15
“Atticus—” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep. Good night.”
Atticus is saying goodnight to Jem on the night of the verdict. Here, we’re getting a reiteration of some of the book’s central themes: the innocence of youth, the destruction of that innocence by societal forces, and Atticus’s moral clarity. In the moral landscape of the book, there is a clear distinction between children and adults. And the boundary is not necessarily defined by age. It’s defined by the expression of moral outrage. Children weep at injustice; adults get on with their lives.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #16
“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!”
This passage comes towards the beginning of the book. Walter Cunningham, who is not as well off as Scout, is over to eat at the Finches. Scout is a little annoyed that Walter has “drowned his dinner in syrup,” and unknowingly insults Walter in a classist way—“He ain’t company, Cal, he’s just a Cunningham.”
Cal admonishes her. People, Cal seems to be saying, are not defined by their circumstances, but rather by how they treat others. The Finches might be better off than the Cunninghams, but that’s meaningless, a result of happenstance and luck. What matters is how Scout treats Walter—“Yo folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ‘em.”
TKAM Quotes #17
“No, everybody’s gotta learn, nobody’s born knowin’. That Walter’s as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy. Nothin’s wrong with him. Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
There’s a nice contrast between this quote and the previous one. In the beginning of the book, Calpurnia scolds Scout for disrespecting Walter Cunningham on the basis of his social class. Here, we can see Scout’s development. She’s correcting Jem, who theorized that there are essentially “four kinds of folks in the world.” Those four categories, Jem says, can be broken down along class and race lines. Scout doesn’t buy it. But Jem insists there’s some fundamental difference between them—people like the Finches—and people like the Cunninghams. That’s when Scout articulates her new understanding of the world they live in. There’s nothing inherently different about Walter. Social class is real, but it’s a human construct. In the end there’s just one kind of folks.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #18
“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was—she was goin’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her—she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ‘em a lesson, they were getting’ way above themselves, an’ the next think they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home—”
This is another To Kill a Mockingbird quote that demonstrates Scout’s transformation, largely as a result of Tom’s unfair conviction and subsequent murder. Miss Gates, Scout’s teacher, gives the class a lesson on the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Hitler is evil, Miss Gates says, because his regime violates the principle of equality. Everyone, regardless of religion, deserves the same rights. But Scout, in the wake of the trial, can’t see past the contradiction. It seems like Scout is gesturing towards Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil—that otherwise normal people can engage in monstrous acts simply because they’re disconnected from those acts and unable to inhabit someone else’s point of view. That’d explain why Miss Gates can squarely condemn the Nazis in one breath and spew racist vitriol in the other.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #19
A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention. It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. . . . Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces.
They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
This reflection of Scout’s comes in the book’s final pages. Boo Radley has just saved her and Jem from Bob Ewell, and Scout walks Boo back home. Here, she lives the ideal of “jumping into someone’s skin” that Atticus lays out in the beginning of the book. Standing on Boo’s porch, she sees the world through his eyes. She recollects her own experiences of the past few years, but sees them as Boo must have seen them—playing with Jem and Dill, finding gifts left in the oak tree, Atticus shooting a rabid dog. In so doing, Scout becomes aware of the compassion Boo has shown them over the years. This realization is the culmination of Scout’s moral development.
To Kill a Mockingbird quotes #20
“When they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
These are the last lines of the novel. Scout is telling Atticus about a story they just read together before bed, “The Gray Ghost.” One of the story’s characters is accused of vandalizing a clubhouse, but when he’s finally caught, it’s revealed that he’s innocent. “When they finally saw him,” they realized he was “real nice.” This retelling echoes the transformation of Boo Radley in Scout’s eyes. And Atticus, despite his realism about people’s capacity for evil, maintains his faith in humanity. Thus, the book ends on a hopeful note: if we can jump into other people’s skin and see the world through their eyes, we can transcend our biases, prejudices, and differences.
To Kill a Mockingbird Quotes – Additional Resources
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