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Themes

Professor Bradley Greenburg from Northeastern Illinois University explains themes in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird | Themes

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Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird Lee weaves numerous themes reflecting Scout's innocent view of topics that deeply influence the lives of those around her. The moral web woven by these themes binds the novel into a timeless story, as relevant today as when it was written.

Race

Issues of race and prejudice pervade To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson's trial reveals racial tensions that are deeply ingrained in the day-to-day life of the community and its people, even among those who are not immediately involved in the legal proceedings. Jem and Scout accompany Calpurnia to church, where all members of the congregation are African American. There they experience incidents of racism from some of the church-goers. The town's newspaper publisher shows signs of racism even as he exposes it in the community. Aunt Alexandra also shows racist tendencies, as when she advises Atticus: "Don't talk like that in front of them [African Americans]. ... It encourages them."

During the trial the children—and particularly the deep-thinking Jem—are shaken by this sudden exposure to the town's prejudice. Their reactions in particular make the racist behavior of the adults around them look petty, illogical, and unethical.

Class

Harper Lee's exploration of class often has to do with money and power. In the novel Aunt Alexandra is loyal to Maycomb's existing class distinctions. People know their place, and to keep one's place is a tedious but necessary job. She makes it clear that Scout cannot invite impoverished classmate Walter Cunningham to their home because "he—is—trash. ... I'll not have you ... picking up his habits." Aunt Alexandra would also consider the Ewell family to be in a lower social class than the Finches.

Throughout the novel, especially after Aunt Alexandra moves in, Jem and Scout wrangle with the idea of class. They often talk about it as "background" or "family," but what they are trying to figure out is how to navigate the tricky waters of Maycomb's various social classes while remaining true to their beliefs.

Equality versus Inequality

In To Kill a Mockingbird Lee examines issues of equality and inequality. For example, the solicitor, Mr. Gilmer, seems a decent enough person in his general interactions, but the way he addresses Bob Ewell, a white man, is very different from the way he addresses Tom Robinson, a black man, and reveals how deep racial inequality is ingrained in Maycomb.

Inequality can be viewed through many lenses in the story. In addition to a general inequality between whites and blacks in Maycomb, the theme also reveals divisions between the wealthy and the poor. Inequality shows up in discussions about families whose community roots run deep, as opposed to those people who are newcomers.

There is also a sense of inequality between the sexes. Women are not permitted to serve on the jury. Jem occasionally jibes Scout about her gender: "You're gettin' more like a girl every day!"

Morality

Morality occupies a central place in To Kill a Mockingbird and can be linked to racial issues and inequality. How moral or ethical individuals are directly relates to how racist they are. Much of the tension in the novel comes about when the moral compass and ethical standards of Jem and Scout—instilled in them by their father's teaching and example—come into direct conflict with the world of Maycomb. Atticus seems to have faith in an innate goodness in people—one that would allow them to choose the best path, treat people with dignity, and show respect for others, no matter what station in life they occupy. But for Jem and Scout life exposes a cruel and vicious world. Their concept of morality as being innate is shattered during the trial when Tom is convicted, despite the flimsy evidence presented against him.

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