Top 10 most important facts about “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern American classic novel set in the Deep South. It is loosely based on Harper Lee’s own childhood in the south and the events in the book parallel events in her own life. The novel has a number of themes including childhood, loss of innocence, rape, courage and racial issues. The novel does not stop there, however, as it also comments on class and gender roles, particularly the expectations society at the time heaped on women and girls.
To Kill a Mockingbird is widely used as a taught text in American (and other) classrooms although it has generated controversy. Much loved in and outside of the US it has managed to gain this status without any significant analysis of its literary qualities. In a 50 year celebratory review of the book Mary McDonagh Murphy referred to To Kill a Mockingbird as an ‘astonishing phenomenon’ noting that it sold hundreds of thousands more copies than similarly loved American Classics of the same era. More than 30 Million copies and rising. It is the most widely read book in grades 9-12.
So here is our list of the top 10 most interesting and important facts about this phenomenally successful book
- To Kill a Mockingbird was voted the number one book to read before you die
To Kill a Mockingbird is popular around the world and it appears on many ‘top’ lists. In 2006 British librarians voted it the number one book every person should read before they die. The Bible was voted in at number two. The readers of the Library Journal called it the ‘Best Novel Of The20th Century’ and in 2008 it was voted the ‘Greatest Novel of All Time’ on Play.com. It has been described as America’s national novel and outsells copies of The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye other staple, popular American classics from the same era.
- To Kill A Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only novel
Harper Lee wrote short stories during her time at college, many with a theme of racial tensions and problems. After she left college she moved to New York and began writing about characters from her home town. She was childhood friends with the famous novelist Truman Capote and he introduced her to his agent. Following advice from her editor and with the financial support of friends (they clubbed together to give her a year’s worth of money as a Christmas present) she gave up work to concentrate on her writing.
The novel was published in 1960. While her editors were impressed with the manuscript they did not expect it to sell well. Harper Lee herself expected a ‘quick merciful death’ from the critics and a small amount of public encouragement. When the sales of the book took off (in many ways due to the Reader’s Digest including it in their Condensed Books 1960) Harper Lee found this almost as frightening as the idea of her book not taking off.
Harper Lee promoted the book in the years following publication and accepted a number of awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the Brotherhood Award, the Alabama Library Association Award and the Paperback of the Year Award. Shortly afterwards, however, Harper Lee started to worry that she was being treated as a celebrity and stopped taking interviews. The turn of the century has seen Harper Lee honored once again with the Presidential Medal of Freedom , the National Medal of Arts and a doctorate from Notre Dame. In a stunning burst of acclaim all graduates attended the ceremony with a copy of the book and held it in the air during a standing ovation as she was awarded her degree. She made several attempts to write again but was not satisfied with the results and has not published any other significant work.
There were rumors that Truman Capote was the real author of the book. He was good friends with Harper Lee and provided her with an introduction to his publishers. She worked closely with him on the publication of his novel In Cold Blood on the real life murder of the Clutter family. He wrote an extensive quote on the first edition, praising the character of the author which is often taken to mean that he was referring to himself. He did not make significant attempts to counter these suggestions and his father was even quoted as saying that he authored a significant amount of the book, a stance that was hotly disputed by Harper Lee’s family. However Capote’s own correspondence and editorial notes suggest that these rumors are unfounded.
- The Book is Written From the Perspective of Scout, a Young Girl
We see the events in the novel through Scout’s eyes. While she is narrating it sometime in the future she speaks with her childhood perspective for most of the time. This has led to criticism as the style is seen to be too advanced for a young girl. However Harper Lee uses this as a literary device, switching between the innocent (and often very funny) observations of child Scout and adult Scout’s more mature interpretation of what her childhood self understood was happening. Scout’s voice is able to question social conventions and prejudices in a way that an adult is not.
- Atticus Finch is the Lawyer’s Lawyer
Atticus may be fictional but he is seen by many in the legal profession as the epitome of the legal profession. Many leading lawyers have cited him as the reason why they chose their careers and he has been the subject of articles in law reviews. Atticus Finch has a monument in Monroeville (Harper Lee’s hometown) and Harper Lee herself is an honorary member of the Alabama Bar on the basis that, in creating Atticus, she created an exemplary lawyer.
Atticus goes beyond merely being a good lawyer. In a book where the majority of fathers abuse their children Atticus is an example of what men should be.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is Significantly Autobiographical
Harper Lee has, herself, said that the book is not in any way an autobiography although her good friend Truman Capote confirmed that it was all true. There are significant similarities between her early life and the subject matter portrayed in the book. Harper Lee’s father was a lawyer, he did defend some black men who were accused of a murder, he did not succeed and after they died he retired from the practice of criminal law. Harper Lee’s mother did not die in her infancy but was unwell and was therefore not a substantial influence in her life. Her brother was, like Jem, four years older than her.
Going beyond her own family there was a boarded up house in town where a disgraced son was hidden by his father, this formed the inspiration for Boo Radley (also used as an inspiration for Truman Capote in Other Voices, Other Rooms. During Harper Lee’s childhood there were a number of trials of black men for the rape of white women which served as the basis for Tom Robinson.
- The Book Questions Gender and Class Roles in Southern Life
To Kill a Mockingbird has several themes that run very deep. Some of the themes that get relatively little consideration are the book’s treatment of social class and gender roles. Scout (the narrator) and her brother Jem are middle class white children living a comfortable existence within a complex web of relationships. Lee’s writing, in particular the use of a child’s perspective and voice allows us to see that just as not all white people are middle class, the black characters within the book come from different backgrounds and have different motivations.
Just as important as the questions about class is the book’s commentary on gender roles in the South. Scout is a young girl who as gown up with predominately male influences in her life. For this reason she can look on the women in the book with a dispassionate gaze and assess their motivations while simultaneously sharing some of their character traits.
Harper Lee identified herself with Jane Austen and, like Austen, she wanted to challenge social norms and customs. Harper Lee combines her commentary on gender, race and class with satire – those who hold an extreme view on one of these aspects will hold it on all. For example she satirizes the women of the Missionary society with Austenesque irony as Scout watches them behave in a smug, mocking manner while pretending to be moral.
- To Kill a Mockingbird Famously Comments on Racial Injustice and Prejudice in the Deep South
While the novel comments on many themes most readers will take from it that the most important theme is one of racial prejudice. It is not surprising that this pervades the book as it was written during the difficult period of the civil rights movement. Although it is set in the 1930’s it is redolent with the struggle of the 1950s.
Many commentators have complained that the treatment of the black characters in the novel is one-dimensional (Calpurnia is the contented slave; Tom Robinson had to rely on the benevolent white man to save him). The book is viewed through the lens of the experiences of the white characters and how they impact on the black people they come into contact with. For these reasons it is often said that although white readers have a positive view of the book and its commentary on racism, black readers react very differently (there is a significant use of racist epithets) and feel that it does not go far enough. Nevertheless is a book of its time, the racial slurs are in context and the book is, in many people’s minds inexorably intertwined with the civil rights movement.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is a Treatise on Courage
Throughout the book Harper Lee comments on and explores the different forms of courage that people can exhibit when called to. Scout and Jem are insulted and ostracized when their father takes on the defense of Tom Robinson. When their father is facing the lynch mob Jem refuses to listen to his father and is willing to stand up to protect him and Scout talks to the mob, at potential risk to her own life.
Atticus defines courage in the book, he stands alone to protect his town against the predations of a rabid dog. When asked to represent Tom Robinson he does not decline even though his specialty is not criminal law, even though he knows he will loose and even though he knows his family will pay the price for it.
It is not just the book’s heroes who exhibit courage. Harper Lee’s book is nuanced enough to accept that even unlikable people can be brave. Mrs. Dubose, hated by the children and a cruel racist nevertheless exhibits extraordinary courage in overcoming her morphine addiction. As Atticus says ‘courage is when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what’. A powerful lesson for all readers.
- Through the Course of the Novel the Children Learn the Importance of Protecting ‘Mockingbirds’
Harper Lee had, originally intended to call the book Atticus but decided to rename it because the themes went beyond a mere portrait of the man. The concept of a mockingbird is introduced by Atticus when he tells his children that it is a ‘sin to shoot a mockingbird’. This is the only time the children have ever heard their father refer to something as a sin and, confused, they ask their neighbor what he means. She tells them that Mockingbirds cause no one any harm – providing only pleasure. As such they represent all that is good and innocent and all that it is a sin to destroy.
There are several human ‘mockingbirds’ in the book the key two being Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Tom Robinson, a black man accused of a rape he did not (could not) commit by a girl who made advances and subsequently blamed him to protect her reputation is protected by Atticus to the very best of his ability but is hounded by a lynch mob and subsequently killed very violently while trying to escape prison. Mr. Robinson says this killing is no different to the ‘slaughter of songbirds’.
Boo Radley is a recluse, kept away from society and turned into a bogeyman by the children. He watches over them, silently, for many years. He comes out of his house to save them and kills Bob Ewell in the process. When Atticus and the Sherriff discuss the death the Sherriff protects Boo Radley from exposure saying Bob Ewell fell on his own knife – the Sherriff knows that exposing Boo Radley to publicity would damage him, he protects the mockingbird.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is, Fundamentally, a Story About the Loss of Innocence
The first part of the book is very distinct from the second half, a commentary on life in a small town and the personalities the children encounter. The reader understands that the town is racist but the children have place in it. The second half of the book focusses on the trial and the town’s reactions to it. The children learn to accept the consequences of standing by their beliefs as they see their father face being ostracized for doing what he believes is the right thing. After the trial the children struggle with coming to terms with their new view of their neighbors – Jem describes it as being like ‘a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon… I always thought Maycomb folks were the best in the world’.
The children play near the Boo Radley house. In the first half of the book he is the bogeyman – they are scared of him but dare each other to get close. When things come to an end at the climax of the book it is their childhood bogeyman, Boo Radley, who saves them from the real life danger of Bob Ewell. The children realize that Boo Radley has been watching them play, leaving gifts for them and, in the end, taking care of them. Their loss of innocence is complete as they learn that the fictional monsters of childhood pale into insignificance when compared to the real evil in the world. Scout walks Boo Radley home at the end of the novel and, seeing him for the last time, realizes that she can see the world from his perspective – she finally learns the lesson that Atticus has been trying to teach her – you never know a man until you walk in his shoes.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a rich book of complex themes told through a child’s innocent eyes. It can be read on a number of levels – as a coming of age story, as a commentary on racist attitudes in the Southern States, as court room drama. It is all these things and more, it shows us the inevitability of loss of innocence and the importance of courage despite overwhelming odds. It is for these reasons that this much loved book has never been out of print.