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Thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46

Harper Lee’s noted –and only- work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a classic piece of literature and a staple of American culture and southern history.  The narrator and protagonist, Scout Finch, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, begin the story as lighthearted, inquisitive and playful children who are fascinated by a mysterious neighbor named Arthur “Boo” Radley.  As the story progresses, they have a series of encounters with Boo, but they do not know it (until all comes to a head in the tragic and life-altering conclusion).  Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus, is the town (and county’s) best lawyer, and also a representative to the state legislature.  He is tasked with defending a black man against the charge of rape, and the task will change his children forever.

Although the book directly wrestles with issues of racism, violence, bigotry, caste, and education, its primary concern is coming of age and loss of innocence.  Scout’s innocence, in particular, but also Jem and Dill’s, is threatened by successive incidents that reveal to these generally kind, somewhat simple kids the presence and nature of human evils.  This is especially made clear with the conviction of Tom Robinson, a black man who, from the start, was bound to be found guilty, despite Atticus Finch’s brilliant defense and the clear evidence support Robinson’s innocence.  This conviction shatters Jem’s world and forces him into manhood, meanwhile causing Dill, a gentle and artistic soul, to face the harsh realities of a world he tries so hard to avoid.

The trial is only the first of two major incidents which will change the kids’ worlds.  The second happens at the end of the book, when the man whom accused Robinson of rape (and whom Atticus clearly implicates instead), attempts to make good on his promise to ruin Atticus Finch.  Although neither he nor anyone in his family was punished for their perjury and false accusations, and although Robinson was ultimately convicted and suffered the harshest fate, Bob Ewell still feels it necessary to seek his own justice for the “damage of character” done to him at the trial.  This particularly subplot is particularly telling of how class, within white society, is just as important and just as divided as the world of blacks and whites.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human nature and each individual’s capacity for both good and evil.  It is a commentary on the importance of moral education – much more so than academic education, and a discussion on social class and the true meaning of justice (and who is entitled to it).  Harper Lee utilizes interesting Gothic techniques, reminiscent of the great southern Gothics such as Flannery O’Connor, to build tension and anticipation, and to foreshadow the story’s more important events.

Allowing the story to be told from Scout’s point of view, in retrospect, adds both honesty and evidence to the story, but also some room for doubt.  She narrates the entire story in the first person, as through her childhood self’s eyes, but then adds analysis and supplementary thoughts to the narration, as an experienced adult revisiting these events after many years.  The inclusion of these comments makes the narrator more trustworthy, as it reveals to us that she is aware (and admitting) that she is somewhat distanced from the time and place of the story and, therefore, could possibly be over or under-exaggerating certain things.  The tone of her narration, like the tone of the story, begins in childhood innocence but becomes increasingly foreboding and self-conscious as the tale unwinds.

To be sure, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a beloved place in the hearts of many readers and also a coveted spot in the canon as a “classic” of American literature.  When I first read this book, many years ago, I was not as much of a fan as I thought I would be, but this re-read has proved me wrong.  The book is well-written and masterfully constructed (where and how Lee begins the story, for instance, really struck me as perfection, this time around).  The characters, good, bad, and indifferent, are believable, interesting, and important to the plot and scenery.  This is a book I will be revisiting again and again.

I read this book as part of a read-along, with additional thoughts posted Here.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: Social Justice, Racism, American South, Courtroom Drama, Coming of Age, Southern Gothic.

Notable Quotes:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies” (9).

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12).

“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind” (19).

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults” (99).

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103).

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that just doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (120).

“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 you see it through no matter what” 128).

“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (163).

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (259).

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men’s hearts Atticus had no case” (276).

“I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar. I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to” (279).

“As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (321).

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TKAM Read-Along: Part 2 (Ch. 12-21) (#MockingbirdReads)

pp-mockingbird3Hello, Readers!

This is the second check-in post for our read-along of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, we cover chapters 12-21.

Check-in #1 covered chapters 11-11 and went live on Friday., July 19th.

Check-in #3 (or final review) will cover chapters 22-31 and will go live on Weds., July 31st.

If you want to link-up your own thoughts, your answers to my questions (below), or, eventually, a review of the book, you can do so at This Post

Participation is totally voluntary, of course. Linking-up to your check-in posts and “registering” is just a way for those of us who are reading the book to visit one another, see what we all think, and engage in some fun conversations about this piece of classic American literature.  I’m sure we’ll all have different experiences with this one, and I look forward to reading your thoughts!

Summary of Section Two (Ch. 12-21):

Jem is now twelve years old and Scout is about 8 years old, which means two years have passed since the start of the book.  Jem is feeling much more “grown up” and has stopped spending as much time with Scout, which is difficult for her.  She spends the next summer pining for her friend Dill, but Dill never comes.  In addition, her father is called to the state capital on a regular basis, when the legislature goes into session.  At the beginning of this section, Calpurnia takes the kids to her church (an African-American church on the edge of town).  We learn that it is called “First Purchase” because it was bought with the very first wages of freed slaves. A collection is taken up for the wife of Tom Robinson, who we learned at the end of Part One has been charged with raping a white woman.

Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, comes to stay with the family for a while, as Atticus will be very busy with the trial and as Alexandra believe the kids need a “woman’s influence” in the house.  Also, there is fear of the difficult time ahead for Jem, Scout, and Atticus, because of Atticus’s decision (which we later learn was not entirely of his own choice) to defend Tom Robinson.  Alexandra tries to teach Jem and Scout about their family history, which is a long one – the Finches have great standing in Maycomb, and she wants to impress upon them the importance of carrying on the respectability of their name.  Alexandra also tries to get rid of Calpurnia (after the church incident, which Alexandra does not agree with), but Atticus refuses.

As Tom Robinson’s trial approaches, he is moved from one jail into Maycomb’s jail.  Atticus realizes there could be trouble from certain people, and decides to spend the night outside of the jailhouse, guarding Robinson.  Sure enough, a small mob does attempt to get at Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands his ground, with help from Jem, Scout, and Dill (who ran away from home to be with Scout and Jem, when he feels neglected by his mother and her new husband).  The kids had shown up unexpectedly, and it is Scout’s innocence and bold friendliness (in addition to her having verbally recognized one of the men and said his name aloud, somewhat shaming him) which causes the men to reconsider and go home.  We also learn that Mr. Underwood, a notorious racist, was also “covering” Atticus the entire time, from his window next door.  Why – we’re not sure. Possibly out of respect for Atticus and for the law.

The trial begins the very next day and the courtroom is packed with men, women, and children, white and black alike (although the white folks get the best seats).  Atticus makes an extraordinarily sound argument for Tom Robinson’s innocence (and for Mr. Ewell’s guilt), while the prosecutor aims to discredit Robinson with the race factor, calling him “boy” and making him look “disrespectful” and dangerous.  The questioning is shocking and disturbing, especially to Dill, who becomes so emotional that he begins to cry, which causes Scout to guide him outside.  There, they meet Mr. Dolphus Raymond, a local drunk who “had relations” with a black woman which resulted in many mixed-race kids.  The kids learn, though, that Mr. Raymond only pretends to be drunk because it is easier for the townsfolk to accept his “eccentricities” if they believe him to be out of his wits.  Indeed, he is sober and kind, and he loves his family.  

At the end of this section, the jury returns with its verdict, which is simultaneously shocking and expected.  Jem, for one, is convinced of a certain outcome, but he was wrong.  He still has much to learn about the world. 

My Thoughts:

I think it is safe to say that I am enjoying and appreciating this book much more than I did the first time around.  I am so glad to be reading this again, and much more closely.  Either I was not in the right place, previously, or I attempted to read it too quickly and without analysis or introspection, which, I believe, this book absolutely requires.

I thought Dill’s absence at the start of this section (which is physically separated from “Part One” of the story) further solidifies the theme of innocence-lost.  Previously, Dill’s arrival each summer heralded games, laughter, mischievousness  and all things childhood.  His absence is felt deeply by Scout, who is not ready to stop being a kid, and much less so by Jem, who is ready to move on.   Another interesting character study is the introduction of the black community, which happens at a necessary and opportune moment (just before Tom Robinson’s trial).  Allowing Scout and Jem to attend Calpurnia’s church and to interact with this close, caring community helps stoke feelings of empathy for Robinson and his family, and causes them (especially Jem) to start thinking about justice in a deeper way.  

Aunt Alexandra is not my favorite character, but I can understand her position and her concerns about the Finch family. I also appreciated the history she brings to the readers (and to Scout & Jem).  Her presence is clearly another opportunity for Scout and Jem to grow-up, and it is paralleled with the reappearance of Dill.  When he comes back, we see that the differences between his approach to life (childish, fantasy-like) and Jem’s (logical, cautionary) are becoming even more apparent.  Scout, too, becomes a caretaker of sorts for Dill, who is one year older than she.  

I have read many criticisms of the scene where Scout “scares off” the mob outside of the jailhouse, but I have to disagree with their assessment that the scene is unbelievable, contrived, or pat.  Going into the scene, I knew what to expect (both because one can sense it coming and also because I remember small parts of it from my previous reading); however, I believe these critics misread this scene as one of “grown men afraid of a little girl.”  That’s just not the case.  They also claim that it’s impossible for Scout to be so unaware of what is really going on here but, again, they’re missing something.  First, a “friendly mob” showed up earlier that day to talk to Atticus at home, to warn him.  Scout had been scared at that time, but Atticus informed her that those were good men.  When she arrived at the jail, it was dark and she could not see the men clearly – she mistook them for the same people, so why wouldn’t she assume they still had good intentions, since Atticus had said as much before?  It is only when she sees a face she recognizes that she understands this is a different group, and midway through her attempt at speaking with the men, she does start to sense that something is wrong.  I found the scene totally believable and heartbreaking.  I think the men’s reaction, too, after having been simultaneously exposed by name and also somewhat shamed by Scout, is understandable (not to mention the fact that they likely did respect Atticus, didn’t expect him to be there, and certainly wouldn’t have pre-planned harming him in front of his own children).  

Finally, I found the trial to be truly gripping, especially in the wake of all that has happened recently with the Trayvon Martin trial here in the U.S.  One man laying out a claim for “humanness” and “truth,” while another played to racial stereotypes and bigoted fears.  It was traumatic in many ways, especially when one considers how long ago this book was written, and how very little progress has been made.  Jem’s full-hearted trust in his father’s ability (which is wonderful to behold, I will admit) and in the goodness and common sense of his neighbors is sweet and respectable, but ultimately misguided.  The end of Chapter 21 is, I believe, a perfect second stopping point for the book (though I didn’t plan it that way!), as it clearly shatters Jem’s perceptions of the world and makes way for his pathway to adulthood.


“It’s time you started bein’ a girl and acting right!” (131).

1. Jem has clearly changes some from Part One, when he was telling Scout to stop acting like a girl.  But Scout, Dill, and even Atticus all change in some ways during this second section.  What are your thoughts on these changes?

“I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.” (175).

2.  As I mentioned above, there has been much debate about the mob scene outside the jail.  This seems to be a part of the book where many opinions could be found equally valid.  What are your thoughts about what happens between Scout and the men?  Why does it work? Is it believable? Does Scout know what she is doing?  And what do we think about Mr. Underwood’s covert stake-out, having Atticus “covered all the time?” 

“Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal . . . There is a tendency . . . for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious – because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal . . . some people are smarter than others.” (233).

3.  In the first check-in post, I raised a question about the possible “statements” being made in this book about education.  Some felt the scenes of Scout in school were realism for realism’s sake, others thought Harper Lee might have been trying to say something more.  In light of the above, I’m still convinced that Lee has strong opinions about education – what are your thoughts on this?  Have they changed from last week?  What other conclusions can we draw from Atticus’s assertion that the only way in which we are all equal (in the U.S.) is in the eyes of the law? And is this true?

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TKAM Read-Along: Part 1 (Ch. 1-11) (#MockingbirdReads)

pp-mockingbird3Hi, Everyone!

This is the first check-in post for our read-along of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, we cover chapters 1-11 (or “Part One” of the book).

Check-in #2 will cover chapters 12-21 and will go live on Thurs., July 25th.

Check-in #3 (or final review) will cover chapters 22-31 and will go live on Weds., July 31st.

If you want to link-up your own thoughts, your answers to my questions (below), or, eventually, a review of the book, you can do so at This Post. You can also still sign-up to join us in this read-along by visiting This Post

Participation is totally voluntary, of course. Linking-up to your check-in posts and “registering” is just a way for those of us who are reading the book to visit one another, see what we all think, and engage in some fun conversations about this piece of classic American literature.  I’m sure we’ll all have different experiences with this one, and I look forward to reading your thoughts!

Summary of Part One:

At the beginning of the book, we meet our narrator, Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, as well as her older brother, Jeremy Atticus (“Jem”) Finch.  Scout is entering the first grade and her brother is almost ten, but they seem to be close friends and playmates, despite the age difference and differences of temperament. Scout is a tomboy who does not take kindly to be called a “girl” and Jem seems to be something of the All-American boy type.  He respects his father, Atticus, immensely, and wants to be a gentlemen, just like his dad.  We also meet their friend, Charles Baker (“Dill”) Harris, who stays with his aunt, Miss Rachel.  We later learn that he might not have much of a permanent home at all – he is creative, dramatic, and imaginative, and he becomes obsessed with the mystery of Scout & Jem’s neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley.

In this first part, Jem and Scout (and sometimes Dill) are at the center of the story.  We readers see much of their world, Maycomb, through their eyes – but we see more clearly the racism, myths, and legends than they do, and particularly more than Scout as she is so young and in many ways quite naive. The child’s play (and especially the presence of Dill) seems to be the central focus – youth, innocence, and playfulness.  There are hints, as the chapters go along, of darker things to come – which leads me to believe that this will be a coming-of-age story for both Scout and Jem.

Some of the other interesting interactions include Scout’s relationships at school, both with her classmates and with her teacher.  Scout shows herself to be quite bright, thanks to instruction from her father, but the teacher is clearly threatened by her intelligence and her ability to read.  Jem is balancing between childhood and adulthood, viewing his father in ways that Scout can’t, yet.  He still grasps childhood in many ways, as demonstrated by his playtime with Dill and Scout, but he longs to know more about and be more like his father, Atticus. 

The mystery of Boo Radley is dangled in front of the reader in many ways, but mostly through a child’s somewhat mystified view.  There is no clear reason given to us to fear Boo Radley, but his private nature, the history of his father and family, and the supernatural wonderment of childhood in general all help to construct an eerie, ominous aura around his character.  Some of the more clear-headed and just adults, like Atticus and Miss Maudie, try to help guide the children toward compassion and hint at deeper troubles in the Radley family’s past. 

Near the end of Part One, a fire takes Miss Maudie’s house and threatens the entire neighborhood.  Though Miss Maudie takes the events in stride, this fire seems to be a turning-point of sorts.  Immediately afterward, Scout  begins to learn more about what her father does for a living, and about the troubling case he will soon be involved with (as a lawyer).  People’s darker natures – racism, bigotry, and ignorance- begin to show, and in such a way that Scout, who is growing up, can begin to comprehend and feel threatened by it.  The trial of Tom Robinson is clearly going to change Scout’s world forever. 

My Thoughts:

Well, the first eleven chapters cover approximately two years, which is already a departure from what I remembered of my first read, years ago. I thought the entire book took place during one summer.  Oops!  I also remembered the book being narrated entirely from a child’s (Scout’s) point of view, but while it is Scout’s POV, the narrative voice seems to fluctuate between adult, past tense, and childlike in-the-moment, such as in dialogue.  This is interesting – it really does make it feel like an adult’s recollection of her childhood, which is exactly what the narrative is. 

I’m also enjoying the narrative structure more than I remembered (or perhaps more than I was able to appreciate the first time).  The use of ellipses in Scout’s tales of Boo Radley, for instance, create an interesting sense of positive mystery.  We learn that Boo is probably the one responsible for doing nice things for the kids, such as mending Jem’s pants and creating soap figurines of Scout and Jem, but this is never implicitly stated.  It adds a complexity to the story, a sort of guessing game that makes us sympathize with Boo (in a way that Atticus and Miss Maudie probably do) without even having met him, yet.  

Finally, I really enjoy the gothic elements of this story.  It was not something I remembered at all, and I rarely see it talked about.  We get the sense of the gothic from the legends and secret tales of Boo Radley (all great gothic stories have ancient and scary word-of-mouth tales at their core), and also the superstitions that fill Part One.  These are all childlike in nature, so it may be something that fades away in the rest of the book, but I enjoy it here.  The gothic mood is intensified with the extraordinarily cold temperatures and snow that arrive in Maycomb for the first time in anyone’s memory (an exhausted technique, but still wonderful!), the fire, and the mad dog (which reminded me of something out of E.A. Poe).  All of this, I think, leads up to the danger that will be Tom Robinson’s trial.  

Overall, I’m enjoying To Kill a Mockingbird quite a bit – much more than I did when I read it the first time, about 5 or so years ago.  I still find the prose somewhat dry, but I love the characters and I’m interested to see how the rest of the book will compare to this “Part One,” which is clearly constructed to present a childlike “before” picture to what will be happening “after.”  


“When we were small, Jem and I confined our activities to the southern neighborhood, but when I was well into the second grade at school and tormenting Boo Radley became passé, the business section of Maycomb drew us frequently up the street past the real property of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose”  (114).

1. What are your impressions of Scout as narrator?  We know she is young, but clearly the narrative voice is quite sophisticated. Do you see any conflicts or problems with this?  Or do you find it effective?

“[Miss Caroline] discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste.  Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading” (19).

2.  This book, though perhaps most widely known for its statements about equality and civil rights, also clearly has something to say about education.  Given what we know about Scout’s “learning,” her teacher’s reprimands, and the state of children such as the Ewells, what does To Kill a Mockingbird seem to say about education? What are the other (higher?) priorities?

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (32).

3.  And, just for fun:  Who is your favorite character so far?  Least favorite?  Why?