Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) sought to expose the injustices that resulted from the pervasive racial prejudice found in the American South.  Set in Alabama during the Great Depression, the novel tells its story through the eyes of a child, Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout) who witnesses a court case of a kind-natured, good-hearted, gentle African-American man falsely accused of rape but convicted by a racist jury.  The accused, Tom Robinson, is defended in court by Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, who emerges as a hero and role model by taking on the unachievable task of attempting to deliver justice for his innocent client.

Written and published during the rise of the civil rights movement, the novel encapsulated the way that American liberals of that time liked to see themselves: as ethical, rational, educated, refined, fair-minded, tolerant of racial difference, and as being in tune with the liberal-democratic spirit of the American Constitution. 

Even though the novel features a court case that produced an injustice, the novelist seems to believe that the legal system and its courts offer the best potential for achieving equality and justice for all Americans, black and white.  Harper Lee made the hero of her novel a lawyer, Atticus Finch.  Through him, she expressed her belief that the law can act as a great leveller and that the courts could be arenas where justice is served. 

From the perspective of the liberal conscience, Atticus Finch represents the ideal human being. He is presented as a hero in the true sense but not in the typical sense.  He is an educated, middle-class professional who lives an unpretentious life.  He is modest but highly capable.  He can use firearms masterfully but chooses not to.  He is chartable and patient.  He lives a moral life caring for the feelings of others around him.  He will stick up for the disadvantaged, even at personal risk and when no one else is willing to do so.  Most importantly, he is free from racial prejudice and he raises his children to be the same.

His antithesis is his antagonist, Robert E. Lee Ewell, who represents evil.  Robert E. Lee Ewell is uneducated and ignorant.  He is a poor provider for his family and is guilty of domestic violence.  He is unkempt and he abuses alcohol.  He is willing to accuse an innocent African-American man of rape knowing that this will see him convicted and executed by a court system tainted by racism.  He is at the bottom of society but he seems to draw a sense of self-esteem from the belief that African-Americans are relegated to an even lower rung of the social order and he can have power over them by the mere fact of being white.  He is bitter, mean-spirited and vengeful, and he even attempts to kill one of Atticus’s children, Jem, in revenge for Atticus defending the black man he accused of rape.

The central moral message of the novel is constructed around the issue of how to treat Tom Robinson.  The novel invites its characters (and by implication its readers) to take sides.  The virtuous characters in the novel will want Tom Robinson to have justice, while the unsavoury characters in the novel will not.  Tom Robinson’s story is meant to be perceived as analogous to the situation of African-Americans in general.  They are innocent victims who do not deserve the injustices to which they are too often subjected.  Harper Lee’s message to her American audience is, if they are liberal, to be reassured of the virtue of their beliefs, and, if they are not liberal, to be encouraged to see the error of their ways and to change their attitudes accordingly.  

The novel also widens its messages of toleration to include those afflicted by mental disabilities.  The character Boo Radley is good-natured but his odd demeanour is scary to children.  He will turn out to be a hero who saves Atticus’ son Jem from the murderous Robert E. Lee Ewell. 

In addition, as a coming-of-age story, both Scout and Jem are shown to learn right from wrong and take on noble qualities like those of their father. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: To Kill a Mockingbird meaning, To Kill a Mockingbird themes, To Kill a Mockingbird analysis, To Kill a Mockingbird notes