What is to Kill a Mockingbird?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

To Kill a Mockingbird is a 1960 novel written by Harper Lee, that when first published enjoyed near instant popularity. Readers soon hoped for a To Kill a Mockingbird film, and were lucky enough to get one in 1962, with Gregory Peck anchoring the role of Atticus Finch, and winning a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. Both the book and film explore, without glossing over, the effect of race relations in the South during the Depression, as viewed from the eyes of a little girl “Scout,” a semi-autobiographical version of Lee.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a classic novel.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a classic novel.

Narration of To Kill a Mockingbird deserves some exploration because the book is not always narrated from a child’s perspective. Instead the adult Scout often reflects on the events occurring in the novel, where at other times, the child Scout narrates the book. The two perspectives of adult and child provide a seamless blend of reflection and immediacy, and reflect the way in which Scout, as she ages, uncovers the many different worlds of thought on race relations, small town events, and world events, through the well-drawn characters Scout encounters.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" was made into a movie that featured an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" was made into a movie that featured an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck.

It’s difficult to give a short summary of To Kill a Mockingbird. Even though the novel is short, it is packed with plot and subplot, and so many fine details that most people can only get the full effect of the novel by reading it. In brief, the novel’s plot deals with Scout and her brother Jem, and especially their father Atticus, as the small town encounters a very difficult time. The major action of the book specifically dwells on a trial, where a poor white woman falsely accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of raping her. Atticus is assigned Robinson’s defense, and essentially given a case he cannot win because Robinson will have a white jury. In that climate, time and environment, no white jury could possibly preference the testimony of a black man over a white woman. All Atticus can do is provide the best defense possible in the hopes of getting a second trial.

Atticus’ intent to actually defend Robinson is admired by a few, but despised by most others. As he predicts, Robinson is convicted of rape, and then panics in prison and is shot while trying to escape. Atticus’ defense of Robinson creates particularly bad feelings in Bob Ewell, the father of the Mayella, the accuser in the trial. Ewell sets out to attempt to destroy Atticus by attacking Scout and Jem, and they are only saved by the intervention of the very reclusive neighbor Boo (Arthur) Radley.

Much of the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird prior to the trial deals with Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill’s obsession with Boo. He has stayed in house for years, after getting into trouble as a youth. The children canvass his life story, and they desperately want to make Boo come out.

In all, To Kill a Mockingbird deals with not only themes of racism, but defends the marginalized in the Southern society that expects all people to behave in certain predictable ways. Scout, Boo, and Tom Robinson are all societal exceptions; they don’t fit or belong in the world of Alabama. Only Scout is able to make the transition to fitting in, as she goes from tomboy to young lady, but she has her eyes completely opened to the considerable injustice her world contains.

Although, To Kill a Mockingbird is beloved, and is frequently assigned as reading in high school, many people have found the book offensive because of its use of racist epithets. In a way this is a shame, since the book clearly rises above racism, to promote a view of love and acceptance of all. It also, from a historical viewpoint, is accurate in dissecting the viewpoint of the white Southerner about black Southerners at that particular time. Many argue that the book is required reading for all, especially in its ultimate message of acceptance of all, and in its inherent frustration that the society of the time continued to discriminate. The book was released right before many of the Civil Rights demonstrations in the South and is thought to have mightily influenced many to evaluate the nature of racism and to support an end to it.

Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960.
Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@browncoat - It's a shame that Harper Lee never published anything else. I guess sometimes a life and philosophy gets summed up in a single book and the author has nothing else left to say.

I am glad that she received the recognition she deserved.


@Mor - I loved it as well, to the point where I was almost disappointed by the film when I saw it. It's a great film and I could recognize that, but I just don't think anything could come close to the emotional impact of the book. The scene where Scout is with her father in front of the prison and so innocently manages to stop the men from that evil crime touched me very deeply, particularly because it's from her point of view and she truly doesn't realize what's happening, even though the reader does. You just can't get that same effect in a film.

When you add the fact that the book was actually written in the 1960's it becomes even more of a miracle, because it is written with such a universal message of love and respect that it resonates just as strongly and clearly today, over fifty years later.


I never read this for years, because I had the idea that it was a classic and that it was going to be a very dry read. It seemed like one of those books that you read for school rather than for pleasure and I kept putting it off.

I finally finished it last year and I absolutely adored it. To Kill a Mockingbird is the kind of book you want to stay up reading all night. I cried in more than one place and several of the lines have stayed with me long after I closed the book.

If you've always suspected that it wouldn't be fun to read, then just do it anyway. It's a gorgeous book.

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