The novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a reflection of life in the south of America during the Great Depression. Through the main protagonist, Scout, we see how certain events in her life changes and helps her mature, and how she eventually learns that the world is full of bigotry and hatred. She is a young girl who lives with her family, which consists of her father Atticus and her older brother Jem, along with her African-American maid Calpurnia, in a small Maycomb County. She learns that the world outside her home is not as loving and accepting as her family. There are many recurring themes and messages in the story, including racism, the conflict and juxtaposition between good and evil, and courage, which will be discussed in the following essay.
Racism is the most prominent theme in To Kill A Mockingbird, and the division between white people and black people in Maycomb is shown most notably through Tom Robinson, whose trial is the main incident involving racism throughout the whole text. His false conviction for the rape of Mayella Ewell, a white woman, showed that people would put their own racist beliefs and opinions over anything else, instead choosing to turn a blind eye to the truth. Another example of racism in Maycomb was the harassment that Atticus and his family received when it was revealed that he was defending a black man. Scout reveals that she has been bullied at school by other kids—in Chapter 9 she asks, innocently, “Do all lawyers defend n-Negroes, Atticus?” To which Atticus replies, “Of course they do, Scout.” The entire town suddenly turns against Atticus upon learning that he would defend a black man accused of the rape of a white woman, and the attacks even spread to Jem and Scout, demonstrating how deeply rooted racism was in Maycomb. The title of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as the scene in which the title is explained, foreshadows Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict. “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Additionally, the juxtaposition between good and evil is also heavily prevalent, emphasising the conflict between the two. With the exception of Bob Ewell, Lee does not portray “evil” in a simple way, and instead displays through Jem and Scout’s experiences that Maycomb is neither good nor evil, but a mixture of both. The first person narration helps readers understand how Scout in particular feels about the residents of Maycomb through mostly indirect characterisation. The main African American character Tom is “good”, the embodiment perhaps. Atticus is the moral voice of the story, and Boo Radley proves his “goodness” towards the end of the book. To contrast, other characters are “bad” and are either ignorant or plain evil. Bob Ewell is a good representation of the evil in the story; he beats his children and is racist. Mr. Cunningham is a good representation of ignorance. He was among the men at the jail the night Atticus blocks the doorway. He was not there for the same reasons as others; he was conforming to the mentality that negroes are evil and all negroes “are not to be trusted around our women.” This is an example of ignorance rather than plain evil.
Lastly, another major theme that pervades throughout the entire novel is the theme of courage. Atticus defines courage as “…when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” In the novel, courage is about contemplating what is wrong and right rather than relying on prejudice or “gut feeling”, and then doing what’s right regardless of whether you win or lose. Additionally, Lee uses flowers to symbolise courage in the novel. After destroying Mrs. Dubose’s flower bed in a blind fit of rage, Jem offers to clean up her garden bed and is instructed to read to her in addition. Jem’s caring for of the flowers symbolises his courage that he needs to have the ability to tolerate criticism about his family—he took care of the camellias just like he was forced to live with anger, disappointment and a burning hole about how adults functioned. Atticus remarks that he hadn’t expected Jem to “lose his head” and he has now been challenged with finding the strength to control his emotions. Additionally, Mrs. Dubose’s fight with her morphine addiction is also a display of courage. The “Snow-on-the-Mountain” that she had gifted Jem can be perceived as a symbol of courage: she developed her courage bit by bit, similar to when she created the camellia, and now it is Jem’s turn to make his own. A camellia made of wax cannot wither, just as true courage may be difficult to manifest and nurture, but once built, it is constant.
To conclude, there are many themes that Harper Lee has utilised in order to reflect the difficulties that Scout and her family, as well as the African American population in their County, faced during the 20s in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. These themes include racism, conflict between good and evil, and courage. Along with these themes presented in the text, Lee has expertly woven literary techniques, namely foreshadowing, first person narration, and symbolism. Racism, coupled with the foreshadowing of Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict as well as his untimely death in prison, is a main, prevalent theme in the novel. The juxtaposition and conflict between good and evil is shown through many different characters, and the first person narration helps readers understand how Scout feels about each of the characters. Lastly, courage is uniquely defined and expressed through the symbolism of camellias. These themes and techniques help the reader gain a deep and eloquent understanding of the workings of Maycomb County.