Many lawyers today would cite this 60-year-old story as an inspiration—Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is, at its core, the tale of one attorney’s quest against racial injustice in his Deep South home, and of his children coming of age in the shadow of their father.
The novel is narrated in two parts by his younger child, Scout, and along with her brother Jem and their friend Dill, she traces their upbringing as inspired by Atticus’ moral teachings of tolerance, courage and justice. The first part follows their childhood, and their interactions with characters such as Boo Radley, Walter Cunningham, Miss Caroline and Mrs Dubose, while the second part follows the Tom Robinson trial itself, testing the children on the moral lessons of their childhood and disillusioning them to the overwhelming racism of their community.
We’ll be going through the novel’s major themes, and also looking at it a bit more critically within the historical context of civil rights and racial justice struggles.
Before we dive into To Kill A Mockingbird, I'd highly recommend checking out LSG's Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Prejudice and Race in To Kill A Mockingbird
All throughout the novel resonate messages of tolerance over prejudice. However, before any question of race is introduced, the children must confront their prejudices about Boo Radley, a local recluse who was rumoured to have attacked his parents. While they (particularly Jem and Dill) lowkey harass Boo by playing around his yard, re-enacting dramaticised versions of his life, and sending notes into his house with a fishing pole, they undoubtedly get drawn into the rumours as well: he was “six-and-a-half feet tall”, he “dined on raw squirrels” and he had a head “like a skull”.
What is prejudice, after all? In this case, it doesn’t have to do with race necessarily—it’s more about how the children judge Boo, form a preconceived image of who he is, before they really know him.
And this happens to other white characters too—notably Walter Cunningham, a boy from a poor family who Aunt Alexandra straight up derides as “trash”. Even when invited to dinner by the Finches, he is dismissed by Scout as “just a Cunningham”, and this is where Calpurnia steps in as the moral voice, chastising her for acting “high and mighty” over this boy who she hardly knows.
The racial dimension of prejudice is impossible to ignore though—as Atticus says, “people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box”. The word ‘resentment’ has special significance here in the context of the Great Depression (in which the novel was set—more on this in a later section) but the general idea is clear: Black Americans like Tom Robinson were guilty, and therefore doomed, the minute they stepped into a court because the white jury inevitably bore prejudices against them.
At the end of the day, the panacea Lee presents for prejudice is empathy, the idea that only by truly understanding someone, “climb[ing] into [their] skin and walk[ing] around in it”, can we overcome our own prejudices—something that the jury isn’t quite able to do by the end of the novel.
Justice in To Kill A Mockingbird
In the second part of the novel, these moral questions around prejudice and empathy find an arena in the courtroom, where Tom has been unfairly charged with rape and is being defended by Atticus. The court of law is supposed to be this colour-blind, impartial site of dispute resolution, where anybody “ought to get a square deal”, but the reality we see in the novel falls dramatically short; Tom is indeed ultimately found guilty despite the evidence to the contrary.
The intersection of these themes—race, prejudice and justice—forces us to confront the reality that our legal institutions may not be as colour-blind and impartial as we thought. As Atticus says in his closing statement, “a court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.” However, what we see is that the people who make up a jury are not necessarily as sound as he/we would hope—Scout later recognises that the true trial occurs in the “secret courts of men's hearts”, and that racist biases were always going to get in the way of a fair verdict.
Heroism and Courage in To Kill A Mockingbird
All of that sounds pretty dire, so is the novel then purely pessimistic? We’re going to complicate this a little here, and then (spoiler) a little more in the “Past the Basics (II)” section, but let’s say for now that even though the outcome may be cause for pessimism, the novel is not so pessimistic on the whole.
This is because of one central moral that stands out from all of Atticus’ other teachings, and that strings the entire story together, namely the idea that courage doesn’t have any one single shape or form, that anybody can be courageous.
In Part One, we find an unlikely hero in Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, who the children describe as “plain hell”—when Jem takes out her flowers, Atticus makes him read to her as punishment. Only when she dies is it revealed that she was a morphine addict who had been trying to cut the habit in her last days, which Atticus sees as extremely brave: “[Real courage is] when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” For all we know, this could’ve been about himself…
Another example of Atticus switching up what it means to be heroic is in the way he puts down Tim Johnson. Don’t stress if you forgot who that is—Tim is the rabid dog. Jem is blown away by his father’s marksmanship, which he had never actually witnessed. Atticus transforms this into yet another lesson about courage: "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand."
What we see here is Lee trying to broaden the reader’s imagination of what a hero could be, or what courage could look like, and all of this momentum eventually builds to the trial in Part Two. Even Tim Johnson’s name calls to mind parallels with Tom Robinson’s legal battle, in which Atticus heroically takes up the huge responsibility of protecting the innocent, and in spite of his best efforts, both times he fails.
Yet maybe both times he knew it would be inevitable—courage is “know[ing] you’re licked before you begin”, right?
Fatherhood vs Adolescence in To Kill A Mockingbird
This knowledge seems to be one of those unfortunate things that comes with age and life experience. While Atticus already understands this, it doesn’t quite click for his children until the end of the novel. Jem is particularly shaken by the guilty verdict: “It ain’t right”, he cries.
The novel is sometimes referred to as a bildungsroman for this reason: at its core, it’s a coming-of-age story. Jem may have been really idealistic about law and justice and the court system, but this is the first time in his life that he has had to grapple with the reality that all these institutions might be flawed, and that his dad is a hero not because he always wins, but because he’s willing to get into the fight even when he knows he might lose. Even though these messages came through all across the novel, Jem’s personal investment in the Robinson trial brings it all together for him.
Thus, on the one hand, you have this disillusionment and loss on innocence, but on the other, you also have this shift in worldview that may well be valuable in the long run.
It’s also worth noting that Jem isn’t the only character who experiences this though—and also that heroism isn’t the only theme that is affected. Scout experiences similar disappointments, and they both grapple with other questions of conscience, tolerance and conformity throughout the novel.
Past the basics: Narrative Structure
I’ve hinted to this briefly throughout the themes, but the two-part structure of the novel plays a key role in delivering the key moral messages. While Part One isn’t necessarily the story you’d expect (given that it’s very long and almost completely not about the trial itself), many of the characters and their interactions with Jem, Scout and Dill are incredibly meaningful. (Walter Cunningham and Mrs. Dubose are covered above, but try to form some of these connections yourself).
Boo Radley is the key character who connects the two parts of the story. He spends much of the first part in hiding, occasionally leaving gifts for the kids in a tree (chapter 7), or giving them a blanket during a fire (chapter 8). However, he’s also victim to their prejudice and their gossip—they don’t see him as a person, but rather as an enigma whom they can harass and talk about at will. In the second part however, he emerges to save Jem from Bob Ewell and is actually a rather unassuming man. Here, Scout and Jem must reckon with the moral lessons they’ve been taught about prejudice, but also about innocence and courage. It’s through these interactions as well that they come closer to understanding Atticus, and his brave quest to defend the innocent. In many ways, the first part of the novel sets up and drives these ideas home.
Past the basics: Critical Racial Analysis
As foreshadowed, we’re going to complicate the heroism element of the novel here, and I’ll start with a quote from a New York Times review: “I don’t need to read about a young white girl understanding the perniciousness of racism to actually understand the perniciousness of racism. I have ample firsthand experience.”
So is there an issue when a story of Black injustice only elevates white people as heroes? Not to say that Atticus can’t be heroic, but what does it say that he’s the brave, stoic hero in a story about a Black man’s unjust suffering?
I think to best understand these complexities, it’s worth situating the story in its historical context.
- 1930s: Great Depression; when the novel is set. Economy had collapsed and masses were unemployed; with slavery abolished, Black people were competing with white people for labour, fuelling resentment. Harper Lee grew up in this time, so there are autobiographical elements to the novel.
- 1960s: Civil Rights Movement; when the novel is published. For the first time in history, Black heroes were capturing national white attention and shifting the needle drastically towards racial justice. It was in this watershed wave of activism and social change that people read this book for the first time, and it was received as a deeply authentic voice within this movement.
- 2010s: Present day; when the novel is currently being read. We’re closer towards achieving racial justice now, but we’re also in a world where more and more young people are cognisant of these issues. While the novel’s image on the surface (of white kids being blown away by the existence of racism) is fading in relevance, there are underlying messages that are still relevant: racism and prejudice is inevitable, and can occur across and within racial lines; courage and heroism can take many forms (consider how Black characters—such as Calpurnia—also act in heroic ways); and the experiences of young people, whether experiencing racism firsthand or witnessing its divisive impact, undoubtedly shape their values and morals as they enter the adult world.
If the same story was published today, it probably wouldn’t have the same impact, but think about what kinds of messages endure anyway, beneath the surface story.
Essay Prompt Breakdown
To Kill a Mockingbird argues that empathy is courageous. Discuss.
Which brings us to a topic that is a bit knottier than it might first seem. Although empathy is shown to be courageous, particularly in the context of its setting, part of the novel’s message is also that courage can be fluid. This means that you might agree for a paragraph or two, emphasising the importance of context, before expanding on this idea of courage in the third.
- Paragraph One: empathy can be a courageous trait in divisive times. Atticus says from early on that it’s important to “climb in [someone’s] skin and walk around in it” in order to better understand them. He initially says this about Walter Cunningham, but it’s a message that finds relevance all throughout—which occurs in parallel, of course, with his other lessons about courage, and how it can take different forms (as in Mrs. Dubose). Understood together, Lee suggests that empathy can in itself be a form of courage.
- Paragraph Two: we’ve blended two themes together in the previous paragraph, but let’s bring in some context here. Empathy only stands out as being particularly courageous because of the historical milieu, in which people were not only racist, but allowed racist resentments to surface in the economic struggle of the Depression. In fact, these “resentments [were carried] right into a jury box” where people failed to display the very courage that Atticus consistently espouses.
- Paragraph Three: that said, even if empathy is courageous, courage can take on many forms beyond just empathy. Consider Scout backing away from a fight with Cecil Jacobs (“I felt extremely noble”—and rightfully so) or the resilience of the First Purchase congregation in using their service to raise money “to help [Helen Robinson] out at home”. That these characters, Black and white, can hold their heads high and do the right thing in difficult times is also courageous.
Have a go
In your opinion, what is the most central and relevant message from To Kill a Mockingbird?
What is the role of innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird?
Lee argues that legal institutions are fraught with human bias—is this true?
In To Kill a Mockingbird, who pays the price for racism, and what do they lose?
Challenge: In To Kill a Mockingbird, how are isolation and loneliness different, and what is Lee suggesting about society in this regard?
To Kill A Mockingbird Essay Prompt Breakdown Video
Something that I want you to take away from this video is being able to develop a contention statement that is a complete, solid foundation for your essay. A lot of the time when I ask students what they’re trying to say in a specific section of their essay, they can’t really explain it, they’re just trying to put relevant evidence down. Ideally, it’s worth bearing in mind when you plan that you should be able to follow your logic back to the contention at any given point, even if you’re not that confident with the topic, and even if it wasn’t the topic you’re quite prepared for.
The topic we’ll be looking at is:
To Kill A Mockingbird is a story of courage. Discuss.
So ‘courage’ is the key word here, and the way we define it will shape our entire discussion. It generally means bravery and fearlessness, but what kinds of courage are explored in the novel? It could be anything from courage to do the ‘right’ thing, or courage to tell the truth, or courage to treat people with dignity even when you don’t know if they’ll treat you the same way.
Immediately, we can see that this is a theme-based prompt. To learn more about LSG's incredible Five Types Technique and how it can revolutionise how you approach VCE Text Response essays, have a read of this blog post.
For a prompt like this, you start building your contention based on these definitions, and this is handy if you’re better prepared for another theme. Let’s say you’re better prepped to write an essay on discrimination...
You could contend that the novel is indeed about courage, as Atticus not only teaches it to his children but also applies it to his defence of Tom Robinson in the face of structural racism. However, courage is also linked more broadly to empathy, which is explored as a panacea for discrimination. A complete contention like this breaks up your points neatly, but also grounds everything you have to say in an essay that still addresses the question and the idea of courage.
For example, paragraph one would start by looking at the forms of courage he teaches to his children. Part One, the more moralistic and didactic section of the novel ends with the idea that “real courage” isn’t “a man with a gun” but rather “when you know you're licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” The section is characterised by these lessons of “real courage”—while Atticus “One-Shot” Finch downplays his marksmanship, he focuses the children’s moral instruction on characters such as Mrs Dubose, who he admires as courageous for fighting her morphine addiction.
The next paragraph would look at Atticus’ actions and also the trial in a bit more detail, as he embodies this idea that real courage exists outside of physical daring. In the racist milieu of the Deep South at the time, juries rarely “decide in favour of a coloured man over a white man.” Yet, Atticus is determined to defend Tom even at the steep cost of his own personal honour or reputation. Not only does he teach his children about the importance of courage, but he goes on to exemplify those very lessons himself. Courage in this case reflects his commitment to the truth and to defending the innocent—“this boy’s not going till the truth is told.”
However, in the final paragraph we might take a bit of a turn. Atticus, in having the courage to see Tom as an equal, is probably reflecting another very important value in the novel—namely, empathy. Though he admires Mrs. Dubose for her “real courage”, the white camellia he gives to Jem represents the goodness he sees within her despite her discriminatory attitudes. Though Jem struggles to empathise with the “old devil”, Atticus posits that it takes a degree of courage to be the bigger person and see the best in others, rather than repeating cycles of discrimination and prejudice. The idea of empathy as a form of courage is also reflected in what he teaches them about Boo Radley. When Scout is terrified by the idea that he had given her a blanket without her realising, she “nearly threw up”—yet Atticus maintains the importance of empathising with people, “climb[ing] into another man’s shoes and walk[ing] around in it” rather than ostracising them. In other words, he sees empathy as a form of courage in being the first to break social stigmas and overcome the various forms of discrimination that separate us.
Now to touch base again with the take away message. We contended that the novel is about courage because Atticus teaches it to Scout and Jem while also representing it in the trial. We also contended that courage is linked to empathy, another key value that he imparts as it helps to overcome social barriers like discrimination. The aim was to build an essay on a contention that clearly props up the body of the essay itself, even when we were more confident with some other themes, and I think this plan does a pretty good job of covering that.