To Kill a Mockingbird

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Written by: Harper Lee
Central Theme: Appearances are not always correct, no matter what everyone around you says.
Synopsis: The narrator's father defends a black man in an Alabama court against charges of raping a white woman. The narrator is too young to know why this is important.
First published: July 11, 1960
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"'...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 hear 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.'"

To Kill a Mockingbird is a 1960 novel by Harper Lee set in the Depression-era Deep South revolving around Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, her brother Jem and their lawyer father Atticus. During the course of the novel Atticus defends a black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of rape. Despite (or possibly because of) its near-universal acclaim and status as a classic, this was the only book Harper Lee ever published for a half-century. It was given a faithful adaptation as a film with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, probably his best-known role today.

The number one hero on the 100 heroes listing by the AFI was Atticus Finch, and the film was declared number one in AFI's top ten Court Room Dramas.

(Fun Fact: The movie adaption is Superman's favorite movie.)

In February 2015, Harper Lee announced that a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, entitled Go Set a Watchman, her first book since Mockingbird, would be published in July 2015. The new novel, which is about the grown Scout's return to Maycomb to see her father Atticus, was actually written before—and is directly responsible for the existence of -- Mockingbird, but the manuscript was lost for six decades.

Tropes used in To Kill a Mockingbird include:
  • Adaptation Distillation: The film removes a few sub-plots, but keeps the main plot like it was and is very faithful to the book. Harper Lee herself oversaw the beginning of filming, but after three weeks she "took off when she realized everything would be fine without her".
  • Amateur Cast: The children in the movie were played by local kids from near the shooting site, none of whom went on to have acting careers.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Dill, who was based on Harper Lee's childhood friend, the openly gay Truman Capote, and who makes a Childhood Marriage Promise with Scout and kisses her when he thinks her brother isn't looking, but who, as he grows up, is much more interested in spending time with her brother and at one point, explains why Jem doesn't have his pants by lying that he'd won them off him in a game of Strip Poker.
  • Amoral Attorney: Averted on both sides: although Atticus didn't want the case, after he was appointed to defend Tom Robinson, he saw it as his duty to defend his client to the best of his abilities, and was emotionally devastated by the outcome. Meanwhile, the prosecutor is just seen as doing his job, with Scout suspecting he deliberately held back on the cross-examination.
  • Animal Motifs: Tom Robinson. Also, the Finch family. Ewell is repeatedly compared to a rooster to complete the bird imagery - meaningfully, the only flightless bird of the bunch.
  • Are You Sure You Want to Do That?: Atticus uses it several times in Scout's earlier years before the story as a warning during checkers matches that she was about to make a mistake: Scout never took the warning and always got trounced when she ignored it. The second time uses it for drama in a climactic moment that displays Atticus's bravery as he faces down a lynch mob, and, after asking them what they are here for, asks the question.
  • Awesome McCoolname or Fail O'Suckyname: Atticus Finch. Dolphus Raymond.
  • Badass Bookworm: Atticus' surprised children learn he is the best shot in the county when he is asked to kill a rabid dog.
  • Badass Pacifist: Atticus.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Boo Radley saving the siblings!
    • Whilst not quite as awesome as the above example, Scout and Jem's neighbor Mr. Avery manages to get one when he tries to help when Miss Maudie's house catches fire.
  • Black Comedy: Lampshaded by Scout (as narrator) during the attempted lynching. Quote: "A sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation."
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: Dolphus Raymond is a white man who has children with a black woman - although he has to pretend to be the town drunk so that the town can deal with it. Note, a white man fathering children with a black woman was unremarkable, what the other white residents couldn't forgive him for was actually acknowledging his children and living with his family in the black part of town.
  • Bookworm: Atticus takes a lamp and a book and sits in front of the jail reading all the night when he wants to defuse the attemps to lynch Robinson.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Scout in the movie (her hair is not mentioned in the book).
  • Catch Phrase: "Catchphrase" is perhaps too flip a description of it, but Atticus often comforts Scout and Jem by telling them, "It's not time to worry yet."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Chekhov spends roughly 10 chapters boasting about the gun he keeps on his mantle.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Dill and Scout, most likely not meant to be taken seriously. Well, certainly not once you learn that Dill was based on Harper's childhood friend Truman Capote.
  • Cigar Chomper: According to Jem, this was Judge Taylor's "one interesting habit", as he was a pretty boring person otherwise.
  • Clear Their Name: The main plot and an iconic example in American literature.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dill.
  • Coming of Age Story
  • Common Nonsense Jury: An iconic example.
  • Cool Old Guy: Atticus.
  • Cool Old Lady: Miss Maudie.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: After learning how Bob Ewell died (killed by Boo Radley when he'd tried to kill Scout and Jem), Sheriff Tate tells Atticus that his official story will be that Bob fell and impaled himself on his own knife. Given the nature of Bob's actual killer, Atticus understands the Sheriff's decision, as does Scout.
  • Corrupt Hick: Bob Ewell has this trope down to a science, what with accusing Tom Robinson of rape, probably responsible for the rape and abuse of his daughter, attempting to kill Scout and Jem and being an all-around not-nice person. This is nicely averted by the town sheriff Heck Tate, however, who is quite a kind man. It should be noted that Bob Ewell and his brood were considered the lowest of the low, the townsfolk only took his word instead of Tom Robinson's because Bob is white.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Atticus, who works pro-bono some cases.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Scout narrates the story from the very beginning, but a few chapters later it becomes evident to everyone that Atticus is the protagonist.
  • Deep South
  • Dirty Coward: Bob Ewell. He can't go after the best shot in Maycomb County, so he'll go after his children when they're walking home in the dark instead.
  • Disappeared Dad: Alluded to in Dill's case, although at first he lies about it and claims his father is president of a railroad.
  • The Dreaded: Boo Radley. Subverted.
  • False Rape Accusation: All evidence seem to point to that direction. Not that it matters to the jury, anyway.
  • Fanfic: Most writers seem to have forgotten that Scout may be a tomboy but she is also a church-going small-towner from pre-1950s Alabama - many of the things that they have her do in fan fiction (especially High School AU) would give the real Scout a massive attack of the vapors.
  • The Film of the Book: Adaptation Distillation to the point that Gregory Peck simply is Atticus.
  • First Snow: Scout's reaction to seeing snow for the first time in Alabama is thinking it's the end of the world.
  • Follow the Leader: The book Wish You Well by David Baldacci seems just a little too similar to this one.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Played with; although it's pretty clear to the adults (and the reader with any awareness of life and racial relations in 1930s Alabama) how Tom Robinson's trial will end, the novel itself is being told from the perspective of innocent and naive children who don't realize this.
  • Good All Along: Boo Radley.
  • The Great Depression
  • Groin Attack: Scout accidentally kicks some guy in the nuts during the attempted lynching.
  • Heat Wave: Atticus Finch defends an innocent black man on a brutally hot day, accused of rape on a brutally hot day.
  • Heroic Albino: While perhaps not in the medical sense, Boo Radley is extremely pale from being kept in his house for many years.
  • Hey, You: For an unspecified reason, Scout and Jem call their father "Atticus", instead of "Dad".
    • Could have something to do with how Atticus seems to hold himself and his children to equal standards, thus they refer to him as an equal.
    • Could also be because Atticus' wife died when Jem and Scout were quite young: without a mother present to call Atticus 'dad', Jem and Scout would never hear anyone refer to their father but by his name, and they'd probably copy that behaviour. I know my parents always referred to each other by their names, and so my brother and I did as well.
  • Hidden Depths: Boo Radley and Atticus. Also several minor characters—Mrs. Dubose, Aunt Alexandra, Mr. Cunningham, Braxton Underwood, Dolphus Raymond.
  • Hikikomori: Boo Radley.
  • Hot Dad: The casting of Gregory Peck in the film elevated Atticus Finch to this for many women.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Deconstructed. One of the book's many points is to show that while some people are huge (no pun intended) bastards, there are also plenty who are kindhearted and altruistic, such as Atticus Finch. It also shows that people are capable of change, such as Mr. Cunningham, who was implied to be the only member of the jury to originally vote "innocent" before being swayed to the guilty side after several hours, and that some humans get a reputation of being bastards when they really are some of the noblest, such as Boo Radley.
  • I Die Free: Mrs. Dubose is determined to break her morphine addiction before she dies, despite adding withdrawal symptoms to her chronic pain.

"Did she die free?" asked Jem.
"As the mountain air," said Atticus. "...—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. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew."

  • In Medias Res: The novel starts with the sentence: "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." That happens at the end of the book. The effect seems to be that of an adult Scout mentioning it in a conversation, then explaining the background with the rest of the book. Which makes it How We Got Here as well.
  • Innocent Inaccurate
  • Insult Backfire: When Atticus is called a "nigger-lover".
  • Karma Houdini: Averted thanks to Boo Radley.
  • The Killer Was Left-Handed: Justified this time, since the accused could not use his left hand.
  • Kindly Housekeeper: Calpurnia.
  • Madman in the Attic: Boo Radley.
  • Menace Decay: Scout Finch is a tomboy, but by modern standards she's quite feminine.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Tom Robinson's fate.
  • Missing Mom: Scout, Mayella, and Boo all lost their mothers long before the story opens. Since Scout's mom died when she was two, she doesn't remember her, but Jem, who's a few years older, does.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: Boo Radley is a reclusive not-quite-albino, and reputed to be Ax Crazy. He ends up saving Scout's and Jem's lives.
  • Moral Dissonance: Tom Robinson implies that Mayella's father sexually abused her in less than a sentence—one left out of the film,[1] and it is never brought up again, even though Lee wrote the book in the 1960's. This is because it was considered scientific fact that parental incest was imaginary on the part of the child, up until about the 70's. Modern readers, especially high schoolers, are often shocked that this aspect wasn't given greater weight.
    • It was a common reality in the time and place of the story. Collin Wilcox Paxton stated in Fearful Symmetry that she deliberately played Mayella this way. She revealed that girls like Mayella were common in rural North Carolina where she grew up, and it was taken for granted that they were molested, usually by a father or uncle.
  • Nightmare Fuel: In-universe, Boo Radley to the children.
  • Nostalgic Narrator: The story is narrated by the adult Scout.
  • Not Evil, Just Misunderstood: Boo Radley.
  • One-Book Author: Lee was so afraid that following books wouldn't be as good that she never wrote again. She had a second novel in the works, The Long Goodbye, and a nonfiction book based on the Willie Jo Maxwell killings, but nothing ever came of it. She contributed substantially to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood; this is her only other work to see the light of publication.
    • Or perhaps she simply didn't want to write another book. As she once said: "I've said all I have to say. Why say more?"
  • One-Scene Wonder: Boo Radley, as played by Robert Duvall, in his first film appearance ever. He is onscreen for just a moment, and doesn't utter a single word the entire time, but manages to say everything he needed to only using his eyes.
    • Dolphus Raymond in the book.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: The book is full of these: Scout notes the only time she ever heard Atticus raise his voice (when he's defending his parenting style to Aunt Alexandra) and the only time she ever heard him call something a sin (to kill a mockingbird). Jem decides to follow Atticus the night the mob threatens him outside the jail because Atticus took his car instead of walking as usual. Scout and Jem are shocked at Tom Robinson's trial when Atticus takes off his jacket and loosens his tie, because they've never seen him do that during the day.
  • Papa Wolf
    • Atticus and his rifle.
    • Boo Radley
  • Pet the Dog: According to Tom, Mayella saved up a lot of money so her siblings could all go to town and get ice cream. Then again she also did it to get the house empty, so she could try to seduce Tom.
  • The Pig Pen: Burris Ewell. Really, all the Ewells but Mayella go here. Their home also contains the Trash of the Titans.
  • Playing a Tree: Scout is made to dress up as a leg of ham for a community pageant, but she falls asleep and fails to appear when she should. She's so ashamed, that she doesn't take off the costume while going home, and this probably saves her life.
  • Playing Drunk: Dolphus Raymond pretends to be a drunk so he doesn't suffer backlash from the fact he's in love with a black girl (and fathered a mulatto).
  • Pro Bono Barter: Atticus Finch accepts vegetables from Mr. Cunningham as payment for legal services.
  • Red Right Hand: Averted: Tom has a mangled arm from a childhood accident, but while he's treated as if he has one, he is a good guy. It is actually important evidence that he didn't commit the crime he was accused of.
  • Retired Badass: Again, Atticus.
  • Revenge by Proxy: After Atticus Finch defends a black man whom Bob Ewell's daughter accused of raping her, Ewell is infuriated, and attempts to punish Atticus by attempting to murder the latter's children.
  • Rousseau Was Right: At the end, when Scout is talking about a story read to her:

Scout: An' they chased him 'n' never could catch him 'cause they didn't know what he looked like, an' Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things... Atticus, he was real nice...
Atticus: Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.

  1. "She says what her pa do to her don't count."