To Kill a Mockingbird


Lessons Learnt

Scout learns various lessons through To Kill a Mockingbird through being exposed to different people and the outcomes and concequences of their beliefs and, because the novel is told in the 1st person, the reader learns these lessons too. The main lessons are:

  • to be openminded: Scout is taught by Atticus not to judge a person until you "climb in their skin and walk around in it"
  • to protect the innocent: the children learn that it is a "sin to kill a mockingbird" and the symbol is frequently revisited in the novel to reinforce this lesson
  • to respect all people: in the court scenes Atticus refers to Mayella as "ma'am" and Calpurnia teaches Scout to respect people despite their heritage; "Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' comp'ny, and don't you let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty!" 
  • to take moral stances: sometimes taking the quick way out in a fight isn't the answer and this is what Atticus teaches Scout; not to think with her fists as this will always have concequences. Just to “hold your head up high and be a gentleman”
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Steps to answering the extract question

Step 1: Read the extract and think about where the extract is in the novel: do we know the outcome of the trial yet? Do we know the truth about Boo Radley? 

Step 2: Highlight the key quotes/events relating to the question and focus on the technique used, themes, symbols or unique idea. Express the socio-historical context: 1930s = racism and patriarchal society (men rule over women; e.g. on the jury) 

Step 3: Write the introduction referring to the key points of the extract and refer to the author's name (e.g. Harper Lee is able to make this extract a moving moment in the novel)

Step 4: Introduce your point (e.g. Lee uses the symbol of the mad dog in this extract in order to create the idea of an ongoing conflict and fight.)

Step 5: Explain the technique used, if applicable. (e.g. The mad dog symbolises a battle for the characters in the novel and for the reader.)

Step 6: Explain how the quote and, even better, how a single word effects the reader and what it's intended impact is, relating directly back to the question asked.

Step 7: Do this roughly 3 times and in a lot of depth. Don't forget to mention the socio-historical context and how it relates to the contemporary reader using embedded quotes and say whether a new point reinforces a previous point or contrasts with it. 

Step 8: Conclusion. Roughly restate the introduction but focus more on the effect on the reader and the intentions of the writer. Finish off with a unique idea that interests the reader.

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As you should know, the novel is laid out over 2 parts. Whilst the first part occurs over two years, the second part of the novel is a lot faster paced with the most dramatic events occurring in quick succession over a couple of months. Part 1 allows Lee to build a connection between the children and the reader and build up the setting, policies and characters of Maycomb in order to make the novel more authentic. This layout also allows Lee to build suspense for the reader and teach the readers the lessons they need in order to end the novel shocked at the treatment of black people and to advocate the civil right acts for equality.

  • Part 1: characters are introduced to the reader and the tone is very lighthearted
  • Part 2: characters are developed and become more mature as they learn their final lessons and the tone becomes more passionate and angry as the children become exposed to the obselete racist and prejudiced views of those in Maycomb
  • Part 1: the symbols are exposed, for example the mockingbird and unusual events like the fire, snow and mad dog create a sense of foreboding
  • Part 2: the symbols are developed and used to finalise lessons learnt during the novel to foreshadow 
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Socio-Historical Context

Harper Lee wrote this book in the 1960s after the civil rights acts were first introduced. However, the book was set in the 1930s, where the Jim Crow Laws and segregation were at their highest. The fact the novel is set in Albama hightens the racism and prejudism we come to know as we read the book because these were the regions of the US that hated the equality and slave trade. The subtle features of the socio-historical features are:

  • Harper Lee uses Scout's optimism and the wise words of Miss Maudie to show that the civil rights movements will occur and the lives of black people will get better. She uses the knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to show how the 1930s will progess just a "baby step" towards this movement.
  • Tom Robinson's trial is loosely based on the Scottsboro trials of the 1930s where 9 men were charged with the r*pe of 2 white women who were clearly lying. Despite this the trial was spurred on by racism

This allows Lee to poke fun at the racistly corupt government who were in charged of the schools, church and court:

  • Miss Caroline condemns Scout for being able to read and write and doesn't encourage her
  • The court bases their whole case on the fact that Tom is black so he must have done it (pun)
  • the white church is a lot better than the black church with "hymn books" etc
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Harper Lee uses various symbols in the novel in order to reinforce key ideas:

  • The Mockingbird: "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird" - the mockingbird symbolises innocent creatures that need to be protected and the injustice that greets characters in the novel. Tom is one of the book's mockingbirds (his death is compared to the "senseless slaughter of songbirds") and the other is Boo Radley (exposing his heroic act of saving the children would be "sorta like shootin' a mockingbird")
  • Radley House: the house represents fear and mystery as no one can see what goes on behind closed doors
  • Nut-grass: symbolises prejudice and gossip as it can cover the whole of Maycomb if someone doesn't act; "Why, one spring of nut grass can ruin a whole yard. Look here. When it comes fall this dries up & the wind blows it all over Maycomb county!"
  • Snowman: the dirt and snow that Jem and Scout use to make the snowman symbolise how all people, no matter their skin colour, are equal.
  • the mad dog: the mad dog not only foreshadows Tom's death but is also used to show the obstacles Atticus has to overcome and protect the children from and raises the question of can he always protect them?
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The Significance of Names

Lee also uses the names of her characteristics to portray their roles and attitudes in the novel, as well as to connote the prejudism in the novel:

  • Finches - a finch is a type of songbird belong to the Finches family. This suggests that the Finch family can also represent the symbol of the mockingbird as they are all free from racism, making them innocent and good like the connotation of birds. Alone, the Finches family connotes the different types of Finch (bullfinch - scout as she fights Walter, goldfinch - Aunt Alexandra as she is proud of the superior Finch family and gold connotes rich and superior) 
  • Jem - connotes a gem or jewel suggesting that Jem will have delicate features and be emotional at some points, for example when Jem cries in chapter 7 because the tree knot hole is cemented shut - marking the end of Boo's last line of communication with the children
  • Scout - like a boy scout which associates a tomboy nature to Scout 
  • Aunt Alexandra - the alliteration of A highlights how Aunt Alexandra believes she is a Class A citizin, an elitist
  • Cal (Calpurnia) - she has only one name, white people believe black people only deserve one
  • Tim Johnson (mad dog) - has two names, unlike Calpurnia with only one, and is remarkably similar to Tom Robinson and is used to foreshadow what will happen to Tom Robinson
  • Robert Ewell: named after the confederate general who fought for slavery but this is ironic beacause he didn't believe in slavery himself
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Scout Finch

Scout, whilst extremely intelligent, is the opposite to a lady; she enjoys fist fights and is outspoken to the point of being rude. 

The whole novel is narrated through Scout's eyes. This allows Lee to achieve:

  • realism: telling the narrative in the 1st person creates a realistic atomosphere with authentic emotional responses by Scout
  • perspective: whilst Scout is only a child during the novel, she is writing as an adult. This flashback allows Lee to achieve a variety of perspectives and show a change across the county as the novel progresses
  • humour: after a dramatic moment in the novel, Lee uses Scout's innocence create a humourous moment to relieve the tenision
  • morality: Scout's misinterpretation and unreliable descriptions (Boo - "malevolent phantom") forces the reader to make their own judgements and decisions
  • lessons: as Scout learns lessons, so does the reader
  • suspense: Lee uses the fact that the children ARE children to create suspense by making them go to dinner to hold back the result of the jury
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Tom Robinson

Tom's name comes up well before the reader is introduced to his character. This allows Lee to build up a stereotype around him as a 'typical' black man and the reader is never sure what to believe or understand, it is only in the trial that they are truly able to form their own opinion. He is one of the book's mockingbirds because he is innocent from the crime to which he is accused. Tom's powerlessness to the racism and prejudice to which he is subjected is highlighted in the lynch mob scene. Whilst Atticus and the children face off the mob of white people, Tom is silent throughout the whole event, only speaking "from the darkness above" when they had left. Witholding this information from the audience allows Lee to shock the reader with Tom's disability in the court scene.

Even in the court scene Tom is used as a lab rat on the sides of racism: Tom the friend vs Tom the beast! Tom asks with the upmost respect throughout the trial, adressing the lawyers as "suh" and admits to helping Mayella do some hard tasks for free. However,  this backfires as Tom explains, though with good nature, how he completed the tasks because he "felt sorry for her." This identifies how there was no motive for him to kill Mayella, but him being a black man was enough to give him a guilty verdict." 

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Arthur (Boo) Radley

Boo Radley is the person that is blamed for everything, the town's scapegoat. When he was a young boy he got in with the "wrong croud" and, when he committed a crime, was shut in the Radley House. It is then the stigma of Boo Radley is built upon, the symbol of Radley House shining true, and 'Boo' is born; the "malevolent phantom." However, he too is a victim of judgement, people assuming that he is crazy and evil.

However, as Boo begins to make contact with the children, their understanding of him begin to change. Jem, after Mr Radley cements the tree knot, expresses their growth by accepting Boo as a person when he says Boo only stays inside "because he wants to." By concealing Boo's appearance to only what the children and other people in Maycomb say forces the reader to accept their judgement and it is only at the end of the novel that they realise this mistake and Atticus' lesson rings true; don't judge a person until you “climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

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Random Ideas

  • Cout scence: children finally understand why atticus agreed to do the trial; because all people deserve justice and Tom wasn't receiving any.

  • It is also as if sexism controls racism; that if women were able to be in the jury, they wouldn't have been compelled by racism and so an innocent man would've been freed. 

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