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To Kill a Mockingbird | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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What is the significance of the title To Kill a Mockingbird according to Atticus's reasoning in Chapter 10?

In Chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus discusses the air guns that Jem and Scout received for Christmas. Telling them that he'd prefer they shoot only at tin cans, he acknowledges that they will probably also target birds. Atticus says he thinks that if they are good enough shots it is okay to shoot blue jays, "but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." Atticus has a strong code of morality in all its expressions: he has a refined sense of right and wrong, believes in equality, and adheres steadfastly to the idea of justice. It's a sin to shoot a mockingbird because the mockingbird's sole purpose is to make music. Even Miss Maudie says the bird doesn't eat people's garden plants, nor does it nest where it shouldn't. Making music is all it does. By that description shooting a bird that does no harm but instead brings joy would be against a hunter's code; he would be preying on a defenseless, nonthreatening creature. The idea of innocence and vulnerability—and how wrong it is to take advantage of that—comes up in various ways throughout To Kill a Mockingbird: a white man (Bob Ewell) taking advantage of a black man (Tom Robinson); Bob Ewell harassing Helen Robinson or attacking children (including his own); and Boo Radley being subjected to people's rumors. Atticus's statement echoes throughout the book.

In Chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird how does Mrs. Dubose's doomed fight against her addiction compare to the fight Atticus will have on behalf of Tom Robinson?

Both Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose and Atticus Finch are fighting fights they are fairly certain that they will lose. Mrs. Dubose's fight—a fight to break her addiction to painkillers—is a personal one; she takes it on even though, in winning, she will die sooner and with much pain. Atticus's fight is both personal and public; the challenge he takes on will bring pain to him and his family, and he believes he will lose the battle for Tom Robinson's innocence. However, it is a fight he believes needs to be fought because doing so is right.

In Chapter 12 of To Kill a Mockingbird what is the significance of Aunt Alexandra's arrival at the Finch house?

When Aunt Alexandra shows up on the front steps of the Finch house in Maycomb, Alabama, Tom Robinson's trial is just about to start. When asked about the reason for her trip, Aunt Alexandra tells Jem and Scout that she and Atticus think that because they are growing up so fast, they could use some feminine influence, especially Scout. There is a deeper reason, however. Both Atticus and Alexandra believe that having her there to help them weather the trial will be a good thing. As the novel commences readers sense that Alexandra's being with the Finch family is as good for her as her presence is for them.

In Chapter 13 of To Kill a Mockingbird what does Scout mean when she says Aunt Alexandra fits into the world of Maycomb but never her and Jem's world?

Scout refers to Aunt Alexandra's fixed views of the correct way to behave and how that aligns with the rigidness of Maycomb society and the insidiousness of its prejudices. By virtue of the children's beliefs—instilled in them by Atticus and fostered by their own sense of right and wrong—Jem and Scout are not like her, and she is not like them. She is more like their hometown, Maycomb, than they are.

After Scout and Jem attend Calpurnia's church in Chapter 14 of To Kill a Mockingbird, what do Alexandra's and Atticus's responses say about societal norms and family?

Alexandra is upset that Calpurnia has taken the children to her African American church because it goes against the norms of Maycomb. She suggests to Atticus that they fire Calpurnia because the family has no need for her with Alexandra there. Down deep, however, the reader feels that her motivation is more an issue of prejudice. Atticus refuses to let Calpurnia go then or ever—just as he had told Scout a year or so earlier. Calpurnia, he says in both instances, is family. The scene reminds us again of Alexandra's commitment to Maycomb's strict rules of behavior, but it communicates more loudly about the essence of family—and the many people who make up one's family—in the truest sense of the word.

In Chapter 15 of To Kill a Mockingbird how does the jailhouse scene capture the strength of Atticus, Jem, Scout, and Dill in contrast to the mob of men?

The jailhouse scene does an excellent job of capturing the idea of the individual versus the mob. Mob members have gathered in front of the jailhouse that night because they want to kill Tom Robinson. In Jem and Scout readers see the siblings' loyalty to each other, along with their belief in and loyalty to their father and—at least for Jem—the expansion of his own set of beliefs. The children's ability to think, and to think as individuals, is clear. This stands in contrast to the mob, which exhibits a virulently racist group mentality. Their emotionally unhinged racism also recalls Lee's symbol of racism: Tim Johnson, the vicious rabid dog. The men are initially indistinguishable, suggesting a lack of individuality and a sense of mob rule. When Scout recognizes Walter Cunningham Sr. and asks about his son Walter, it becomes a lightbulb moment—for the men and for readers. Scout naïvely breaks the mob mentality simply by seeing at least one of them as an individual; the men, with "their cover" broken, feel vulnerable, and perhaps some of them have awakened to the moral implications of what they were about to do.

In Chapter 16 of To Kill a Mockingbird what does Aunt Alexandra's contradiction of Dill's account of the previous night's jailhouse incident suggest?

Conversations involving Aunt Alexandra continue to remind readers that the struggle in which the family is mired is about more than racism. When she contradicts Dill about the size of the crowd at the jailhouse she goes on to say: "It was just a nest of those Cunninghams, drunk and disorderly." This strengthens the theme of class; Aunt Alexandra believes strongly in the class system of Maycomb society. For her the Finch family is in the higher ranks of society, while the Cunningham family is many rungs lower. To Alexandra, the idea that a jailhouse mob would be made up primarily of Cunninghams is logical, and that they would be drunk and disorderly also makes sense. If readers forget that Maycomb is a complex web of prejudices and not just a simple hierarchy of stations, Alexandra—or Nathan Radley, or Bob Ewell, or even Scout's teacher Miss Gates—will provide a reminder. They each have their own set of prejudices that they believe should govern society.

In Chapter 17 of To Kill a Mockingbird how does Harper Lee handle the narration and action to make this and the other courthouse scenes so poignant?

It is an intriguing point about this chapter (as well as the other courthouse scenes) that even though there is a simplicity to the narration and plot, Lee can so ignite the reader. The holes in Bob Ewell's story are gaping; the inequity in the way Tom Robinson is treated versus the way the Ewells are treated is maddening. But the controlled way that Harper Lee marches forward, allowing Atticus to lay out his case, is excruciating in that we as readers understand that regardless of how obvious Ewell's lies are or how clever Atticus is in casting doubt on the crime, the case boils down to the word of a black man against a white woman and man.

In Chapter 18 of To Kill a Mockingbird what magnifies tension when Mayella Ewell presents a contrived account of her interaction with Tom Robinson and his supposed crime?

Harper Lee's deft handling of Atticus's cross-examination of Mayella sets up a situation that makes it hard to imagine that the jury could convict Tom Robinson. But readers, like Scout and, particularly, Jem, must take into account all of the other layers as well as what is going on in the legal proceedings. By looking at the story's other considerations—such as racism—readers can see, as Atticus sees, that winning the case is unlikely. But looking at the same situation through Jem and Scout's childlike sense of equality readers hope against hope that truth might win out.

In Chapter 19 of To Kill a Mockingbird when Tom Robinson takes the stand, what innocent remark in regard to Mayella Ewell condemns him in the eyes of whites?

Cross-examining Tom Robinson's testimony, Mr. Gilmer asks Tom why he did so many favors for Mayella even though he was not being paid a cent for any of his efforts. A crucial moment in Tom's time on the stand comes when he responds that he felt sorry for Mayella. It is crucial not so much in the facts that it communicates but, rather, because that admission would be so offensive to many people in Maycomb. Given the town's hierarchy and the social status accorded whites and blacks, that a black man would feel sorry for a white woman would certainly be offensive to whites—and as Lee notes, Tom "realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair."

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