In the 33 years since its publication, [To Kill a Mockingbird] has never been the focus of a dissertation, and it has been the subject of only six literary studies, several of them no more than a couple of pages long.—Claudia Johnson in To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries, 1994
Despite the novel's immense popularity upon publication, it has not received the close critical attention paid to other modern American classics. Don Noble, editor of a book of essays about the novel, estimates that the ratio of sales to analytical essays may be a million to one. Christopher Metress writes that the book is "an icon whose emotive sway remains strangely powerful because it also remains unexamined". Noble suggests it does not receive academic attention because of its consistent status as a best-seller ("If that many people like it, it can't be any good.") and that general readers seem to feel they do not require analytical interpretation.
Harper Lee has remained famously detached from interpreting the novel since the mid-1960s. However, she gave some insight into her themes when, in a rare letter to the editor, she wrote in response to the passionate reaction her book caused: "Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners."
Southern life and racial injustice
When the book was released, reviewers noted that it was divided into two parts, and opinion was mixed about Lee's ability to connect them. The first part of the novel concerns the children's fascination with Boo Radley and their feelings of safety and comfort in the neighborhood. Reviewers were generally charmed by Scout and Jem's observations of their quirky neighbors. One writer was so impressed by Lee's detailed explanations of the people of Maycomb that he categorized the book as Southern romantic regionalism. This sentimentalism can be seen in Lee's representation of the Southern caste system to explain almost every character's behavior in the novel. Scout's Aunt Alexandra attributes Maycomb's inhabitants' faults and advantages to genealogy (families that have gambling streaks and drinking streaks), and the narrator sets the action and characters amid a finely detailed background of the Finch family history and the history of Maycomb. This regionalist theme is further reflected in Mayella Ewell's apparent powerlessness to admit her advances toward Tom Robinson, and Scout's definition of "fine folks" being people with good sense who do the best they can with what they have. The South itself, with its traditions and taboos, seems to drive the plot more than the characters.
The second part of the novel deals with what book reviewer Harding LeMay termed "the spirit-corroding shame of the civilized white Southerner in the treatment of the Negro". In the years following its release, many reviewers considered To Kill a Mockingbird a novel primarily concerned with race relations. Claudia Durst Johnson considers it "reasonable to believe" that the novel was shaped by two events involving racial issues in Alabama: Rosa Parks' refusal to yield her seat on a city bus to a white person, which sparked the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the 1956 riots at the University of Alabama after Autherine Lucy and Polly Myers were admitted (Myers eventually withdrew her application and Lucy was expelled, but reinstated in 1980). In writing about the historical context of the novel's construction, two other literary scholars remark: "To Kill a Mockingbird was written and published amidst the most significant and conflict-ridden social change in the South since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Inevitably, despite its mid-1930s setting, the story told from the perspective of the 1950s voices the conflicts, tensions, and fears induced by this transition."
Scholar Patrick Chura, who suggests Emmett Till was a model for Tom Robinson, enumerates the injustices endured by the fictional Tom that Till also faced. Chura notes the icon of the black rapist causing harm to the representation of the "mythologized vulnerable and sacred Southern womanhood". Any transgressions by black males that merely hinted at sexual contact with white females during the time the novel was set often resulted in a punishment of death for the accused. Tom Robinson's trial was juried by poor white farmers who convicted him despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, as more educated and moderate white townspeople supported the jury's decision. Furthermore, the victim of racial injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird was physically impaired, which made him unable to commit the act he was accused of, but also crippled him in other ways. Roslyn Siegel includes Tom Robinson as an example of the recurring motif among white Southern writers of the black man as "stupid, pathetic, defenseless, and dependent upon the fair dealing of the whites, rather than his own intelligence to save him". Although Tom is spared from being lynched, he is killed with excessive violence during an attempted escape from prison, shot seventeen times.
The theme of racial injustice appears symbolically in the novel as well. For example, Atticus must shoot a rabid dog, even though it is not his job to do so. Carolyn Jones argues that the dog represents prejudice within the town of Maycomb, and Atticus, who waits on a deserted street to shoot the dog, must fight against the town's racism without help from other white citizens. He is also alone when he faces a group intending to lynch Tom Robinson and once more in the courthouse during Tom's trial. Lee even uses dreamlike imagery from the mad dog incident to describe some of the courtroom scenes. Jones writes, "[t]he real mad dog in Maycomb is the racism that denies the humanity of Tom Robinson .... When Atticus makes his summation to the jury, he literally bares himself to the jury's and the town's anger."
One of the amazing things about the writing in To Kill a Mockingbird is the economy with which Harper Lee delineates not only race—white and black within a small community—but class. I mean different kinds of black people and white people both, from poor white trash to the upper crust—the whole social fabric.—Lee Smith
In a 1964 interview, Lee remarked that her aspiration was "to be ... the Jane Austen of South Alabama." Both Austen and Lee challenged the social status quo and valued individual worth over social standing. When Scout embarrasses her poorer classmate, Walter Cunningham, at the Finch home one day, Calpurnia, their black cook, chastises and punishes her for doing so. Atticus respects Calpurnia's judgment, and later in the book even stands up to his sister, the formidable Aunt Alexandra, when she strongly suggests they fire Calpurnia. One writer notes that Scout, "in Austenian fashion", satirizes women with whom she does not wish to identify. Literary critic Jean Blackall lists the priorities shared by the two authors: "affirmation of order in society, obedience, courtesy, and respect for the individual without regard for status".
Scholars argue that Lee's approach to class and race was more complex "than ascribing racial prejudice primarily to 'poor white trash' ... Lee demonstrates how issues of gender and class intensify prejudice, silence the voices that might challenge the existing order, and greatly complicate many Americans' conception of the causes of racism and segregation." Lee's use of the middle-class narrative voice is a literary device that allows an intimacy with the reader, regardless of class or cultural background, and fosters a sense of nostalgia. Sharing Scout and Jem's perspective, the reader is allowed to engage in relationships with the conservative antebellum Mrs. Dubose; the lower-class Ewells, and the Cunninghams who are equally poor but behave in vastly different ways; the wealthy but ostracized Mr. Dolphus Raymond; and Calpurnia and other members of the black community. The children internalize Atticus' admonition not to judge someone until they have walked around in that person's skin, gaining a greater understanding of people's motives and behavior.
Courage and compassion
The novel has been noted for its poignant exploration of different forms of courage. Scout's impulsive inclination to fight students who insult Atticus reflects her attempt to stand up for him and defend him. Atticus is the moral center of the novel, however, and he teaches Jem one of the most significant lessons of courage. In a statement that foreshadows Atticus' motivation for defending Tom Robinson and describes Mrs. Dubose, who is determined to break herself of a morphine addiction, Atticus tells Jem that courage is "when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what".
Charles Shields, who has written the only book-length biography of Harper Lee to date, offers the reason for the novel's enduring popularity and impact is that "its lessons of human dignity and respect for others remain fundamental and universal". Atticus' lesson to Scout that "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb around in his skin and walk around in it" exemplifies his compassion. She ponders the comment when listening to Mayella Ewell's testimony. When Mayella reacts with confusion to Atticus' question if she has any friends, Scout offers that she must be lonelier than Boo Radley. Having walked Boo home after he saves their lives, Scout stands on the Radley porch and considers the events of the previous three years from Boo's perspective. One writer remarks, "... [w]hile the novel concerns tragedy and injustice, heartache and loss, it also carries with it a strong sense [of] courage, compassion, and an awareness of history to be better human beings."
Just as Lee explores Jem's development in coming to grips with a racist and unjust society, Scout realizes what being female means, and several female characters influence her development. Scout's primary identification with her father and older brother allows her to describe the variety and depth of female characters in the novel both as one of them and as an outsider. Scout's primary female models are Calpurnia and her neighbor Miss Maudie, both of whom are strong willed, independent, and protective. Mayella Ewell also has an influence; Scout watches her destroy an innocent man in order to hide her desire for him. The female characters who comment the most on Scout's lack of willingness to adhere to a more feminine role are also those who promote the most racist and classist points of view. For example, Mrs. Dubose chastises Scout for not wearing a dress and camisole, and indicates she is ruining the family name by not doing so, in addition to insulting Atticus' intentions to defend Tom Robinson. By balancing the masculine influences of Atticus and Jem with the feminine influences of Calpurnia and Miss Maudie, one scholar writes, "Lee gradually demonstrates that Scout is becoming a feminist in the South, for with the use of first-person narration, she indicates that Scout/ Jean Louise still maintains the ambivalence about being a Southern lady she possessed as a child."
Absent mothers and abusive fathers are another theme in the novel. Scout and Jem's mother died before Scout could remember her, Mayella's mother is dead, and Mrs. Radley is silent about Boo's confinement to the house. Apart from Atticus, the fathers described are abusers. Bob Ewell, it is hinted, molested his daughter, and Mr. Radley imprisons his son in his house until Boo is remembered only as a phantom. Bob Ewell and Mr. Radley represent a form of masculinity that Atticus does not, and the novel suggests that such men as well as the traditionally feminine hypocrites at the Missionary Society can lead society astray. Atticus stands apart as a unique model of masculinity; as one scholar explains: "It is the job of real men who embody the traditional masculine qualities of heroic individualism, bravery, and an unshrinking knowledge of and dedication to social justice and morality, to set the society straight."
Laws, written and unwritten
Allusions to legal issues in To Kill a Mockingbird, particularly in scenes outside of the courtroom, has drawn the attention from legal scholars. Claudia Durst Johnson writes that "a greater volume of critical readings has been amassed by two legal scholars in law journals than by all the literary scholars in literary journals". The opening quote by the 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb reads: "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once." Johnson notes that even in Scout and Jem's childhood world, compromises and treaties are struck with each other by spitting on one's palm and laws are discussed by Atticus and his children: is it right that Bob Ewell hunts and traps out of season? Many social codes are broken by people in symbolic courtrooms: Mr. Dolphus Raymond has been exiled by society for taking a black woman as his common-law wife and having interracial children; Mayella Ewell is beaten by her father in punishment for kissing Tom Robinson; by being turned into a non-person, Boo Radley receives a punishment far greater than any court could have given him. Scout repeatedly breaks codes and laws and reacts to her punishment for them. For example, she refuses to wear frilly clothes, saying that Aunt Alexandra's "fanatical" attempts to place her in them made her feel "a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on [her]". Johnson states, "[t]he novel is a study of how Jem and Scout begin to perceive the complexity of social codes and how the configuration of relationships dictated by or set off by those codes fails or nurtures the inhabitants of (their) small worlds."
Loss of innocence
Songbirds and their associated symbolism appear throughout the novel. The family's last name of Finch also shares Lee's mother's maiden name. The titular mockingbird is a key motif of this theme, which first appears when Atticus, having given his children air-rifles for Christmas, allows their Uncle Jack to teach them to shoot. Atticus warns them that, although they can "shoot all the bluejays they want", they must remember that "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird". Confused, Scout approaches her neighbor Miss Maudie, who explains that mockingbirds never harm other living creatures. She points out that mockingbirds simply provide pleasure with their songs, saying, "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." Writer Edwin Bruell summarized the symbolism when he wrote in 1964, "'To kill a mockingbird' is to kill that which is innocent and harmless—like Tom Robinson." Scholars have noted that Lee often returns to the mockingbird theme when trying to make a moral point.
Tom Robinson is the chief example among several innocents destroyed carelessly or deliberately throughout the novel. However, scholar Christopher Metress connects the mockingbird to Boo Radley: "Instead of wanting to exploit Boo for her own fun (as she does in the beginning of the novel by putting on gothic plays about his history), Scout comes to see him as a 'mockingbird'—that is, as someone with an inner goodness that must be cherished." The last pages of the book illustrate this as Scout relates the moral of a story Atticus has been reading to her, and in allusions to both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson states about a character who was misunderstood, "when they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things ... Atticus, he was real nice," to which he responds, "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."
The novel exposes the loss of innocence so frequently that reviewer R. A. Dave claims that because every character has to face, or even suffer defeat, the book takes on elements of a classical tragedy. In exploring how each character deals with his or her own personal defeat, Lee builds a framework to judge whether the characters are heroes or fools. She guides the reader in such judgments, alternating between unabashed adoration and biting irony. Scout's experience with the Missionary Society is an ironic juxtaposition of women who mock her, gossip, and "reflect a smug, colonialist attitude toward other races" while giving the "appearance of gentility, piety, and morality". Conversely, when Atticus loses Tom's case, he is last to leave the courtroom, except for his children and the black spectators in the colored balcony, who rise silently as he walks underneath them, to honor his efforts.