In literary dictionaries and encyclopedias, you’ll find Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” right next to the entry for “one-hit wonder.” But, you’ll also find it under “bildungsroman,” inspirational,” “touching,” “controversial,” “classic.”
And under getnugget’s “must-read books.”
Who Should Read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And Why?
Two of the easiest questions we’ve ever been asked.
Let us answer them with a survey!
In 2006, British librarians ranked “To Kill a Mockingbird” above “The Bible” as “the one book everyone should read.”
The one book! And everyone!
Because it “has all the factors of a great read. It is touching and funny but has a serious message about prejudice, fighting for justice and coming of age.”
Harper Lee Biography
Harper Lee was an American novelist.
Born in 1926, she was only 34 when she published her (as many still like to believe) only book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” An instant success, the novel won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie in 1962.
In 2007, based on that book alone, Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to literature.
Eight years later, “Go Set a Watchman” was published and advertised as a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It was later found out that the book is merely the first draft of Harper Lee’s only novel, leading to accusations that she was tricked into publishing the novel.
She the following year, on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89.
Maycomb, Alabama, the years of the Great Depression.
Wait – where exactly?
Having a problem to locate that town on the map?
Oh, don’t bother – it doesn’t exist. Just like Gatsby’s West Egg and East Egg don’t. That’s why it’s called fiction!
We’re not saying that fiction has to happen in fictional places. But we’re saying that even when they’re real, they are, by definition, part of fictional worlds.
So, why burden your reader with memories of towns that do exist and he/she knows something about?
Inventing one is a much, much better solution. Because it can be a synecdoche for something much bigger. Like, say, all similar towns.
Or a country itself.
That strange-sounding word we used above is a literary device. You can read more about it here, but we kind of already explained to you what it stands for.
In a nutshell, it’s that the things which happen in Maycomb don’t stay in Maycomb – but are happening in the whole country as well.
And since the book’s events take place during the 1930s – and the book itself was published in 1960 – you may already have some idea what kind of a story we’re about to tell you.
And that Harper Lee wants to have a word with you about injustice.
Though, it doesn’t seem that way in the beginning.
Because, on the surface, Maycomb is not much more than a “tired old town.” Which is a euphemistic way of saying that it’s pretty boring.
Consequently, the narrator of the story, the six-year-old girl Jean Louise Finch (called Scout), and her older brother Jeremy (called Jem), do nothing more but talk about one of their neighbors, Arthur “Boo” Radley.
What’s so fascinating about him?
Well, it’s children we’re talking about here!
Boo Radley doesn’t even have to exist, and he may be fascinating. Children do these kinds of things: they invent stories.
And the reason why Boo captures the children’s imagination is that he’s basically just a little short of being a fictional figure – even in the fictional universe of “To Kill a Mockingbird”!
Having learned the values of being alone, Boo is a sort of loner who never leaves his house. And the fact that there are rumors about him going through some trial as a teenager doesn’t help a bit.
To Scout and Jem – and their friend Dill – Boo is a horrible, horrible person, nothing short of a monster:
Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo: Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long-jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.
Now, that’s not that nice, Scout and Jem, is it?
Especially if you take into consideration the fact that this Boo is probably leaving the children some gifts in a hole in a tree near his place.
Which, among gums and some other stuff, include carved soap sculptures of Scout and Jem themselves!
OK – now we get how that may seem a bit creepy!
Anyway, things are about to get a lot creepier.
You see, Scout and Jem’s father is called Atticus Finch, and he’s a lawyer, appointed by Judge Taylor to defend a certain Tom Robinson.
Nothing extraordinary, you may think, until you find out that Tom Robinson is a black guy accused of having raped a young white girl, Mayella Ewell.
Back in the days of Harper Lee, you could get beat up in the U.S. for changing the tire for a white woman, let alone raping one!
And, as Scout and Jem soon find out, you can also become the butt of many of your schoolmates’ jokes if your father agrees to defend a black man in court.
And when we say “jokes” we do mean “offensive remarks.” Because when your grandfather was a child, calling someone “nigger-lover” got you a bunch of points with the cool kids.
God forbid you leave such a group of children on a desert island!
Anyway, the day of Tom Robinson’s trial comes, and the main floor of the court is tightly packed.
Atticus doesn’t want Jem and Scout to be present at the trial at all, but, alongside Dill, they get an invitation from Reverend Sykes – the pastor of Tom Robinson’s African Church –to watch it from the colored balcony.
(By Lord – that existed!)
Soon we realize something most of Maycomb’s citizens can’t: that Mayella and her father are lying.
And it’s so obvious to the reader that one has to wonder how it is not to the Maycomb folks.
First of all, Mayella Ewell, a friendless 19-year-old girl, the oldest of the eight Ewell children living in desperate conditions, is badly hurt on the right side of her face. And Tom’s left hand is crippled, courtesy of a cotton gin accident, rendering it basically useless.
And secondly – as Atticus points out to the horror of everybody – Mayella’s father is a right-handed alcoholic.
See where we’re going?
This is what the two most important people in the story are saying:
Mayella: I, a helpless white teenager, was raped by a black man for no reason whatsoever, other than him being an animal and me being alone. And yes – he hit me repeatedly with his good-for-nothing left hand.
Tom: I pitied the poor girl. I was always merely trying to help her. She was the one who attempted to seduce me.
But this is what the all-white all-male jury hears between these lines.
Mayella: I am white; he is black; we are, by definition, better. We never lie.
Tom: I am black, and she is white. We are, by definition, worse. Given the chance, we’ll rape anything with two feet and even trick a baby out of a candy.
Yes, you’re right:
Tom Robinson wouldn’t have stood a chance even if he was in another town at the time of the accident. His words would have never counted.
The jury convicts him. Jem is shaken to the core of his bones. And Atticus Finch summarizes the moral of this story which links the time of the book’s events and the time the book was published:
As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash… There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.
But before that, as Atticus leaves the courtroom, the crowd on the colored balcony begins to stand up. He may have lost the unfair fight, but he won something bigger: the respect of the innocent and marginalized.
Which brings us to the original “Dead Poets Society” scene.
You see, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was adapted into a movie soon after it was published. And the movie is one of the best you’ll ever see – the 25th best of all time if you ask the American Film Institute!
The scene we’re talking about is even more touching on the screen. Because amidst the silent display of admiration and respect, Reverend Sykes turns to Scout and says to her: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
Cue the waterworks.
To Kill a Mockingbird Epilogue
We’re not done just yet, though.
You see, Atticus still has some hope: he sincerely believes that the appeal will give Tom Robinson a second, even better, chance than the trial.
However, that doesn’t happen, since, in the meantime, Tom tries to escape from prison and is shot and killed by the guards.
And to make matters even worse, Bob Ewell vows revenge.
Because, even though the trial ended with Tom Robinson’s conviction and, eventually, death, everyone heard another side of the story. And, let’s just say that this one wasn’t a flattering one when it comes to Bob.
So, Bob goes on a little spree, first spitting into Atticus’ face, then attacking the judge’s house and, finally, threatening Tom Robinson’s widow.
“Finally” was the wrong word to use there: because it gets even worse after the school’s Halloween pageant.
Namely, Bob Ewell attacks Scout and Jem as well.
There’s some confusion and a melee – remember: it’s Scout who’s telling the story – and the fight ends with Bob Ewell dead and a broken-armed Jam being carried home by a mysterious person.
And this is where the beginning of the story starts making sense!
You see, that mysterious person is Boo Radley!
It wouldn’t be fair for him to rot in jail for killing the town’s chief problem, now would it?
The sheriff and Atticus agree so, concluding that Bob probably fell on his knife by accident.
And that’s your happy ending, right there.
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app, for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“To Kill a Mockingbird PDF Quotes”You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Click To Tweet Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. Click To Tweet 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 see it through no matter what. Click To Tweet Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts. Click To Tweet Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“In the twentieth century,” a critic wrote two decades ago, “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.”
So enduring, in fact, that its movie version, played by Gregory Peck, was voted the greatest movie hero of the 20th century by the American Film Institute in 2003, forty years after the movie was made. Yes, that’s above Rocky and Schindler, James Bond and Indiana Jones.
Dow e really need to tell you what we think about this book?
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.