Ever watch one of those home decorating shows where the decorator asks, “What sort of theme do you want to go with?”
The decorator is essentially asking about theme because he wants to know whether he should use elements of early modern, colonial, or maybe contemporary design to tie everything together to create that cozy, mountain retreat.
In a sense, literature is sort of like decorating. Decorators need themes to tie the elements of a room together. Similarly, writers include a theme (or several themes) to tie ideas in literature together.
So what, exactly, is a theme in literature? A theme is the underlying meaning of a literary work. It’s what the author is trying say by writing the piece.
A theme is not simply a plot summary or what the literary work is about.
Thus, even if you read To Kill a Mockingbird, it could very well mean that you know all about Jem, Scout, Atticus, and Boo Radley and could write a superb summary of the book.
But you might not be sure what to write if you’re assigned to write a paper about the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird.
If you’ve found yourself in this very situation, here are three themes in To Kill a Mockingbird to help you get started.
3 Important Themes in To Kill a Mockingbird
There’s a lot going on in this book, so don’t assume that the three themes I’ve included here are the only important themes. These are simply the three we’ll discuss. (Here are a few other themes if the themes in my post don’t work for you.)
Before we discuss the actual themes of the novel, here are a few additional tips to keep in mind when writing your paper.
If you’re writing about themes in To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re most certainly writing a literary analysis. That means that you need read the book closely, so it wouldn’t hurt to take a few notes as you read (or re-read).
You should also make sure you have evidence to support your analysis. (You know, stuff like examples from the story and quotes from the characters.)
If you need a little more help with the finer points of writing about literature, read 8 Components of a Smart Literary Analysis before starting your essay.
With these quick literary analysis tips in mind, take a look at the following three important themes in To Kill a Mockingbird for a little writing inspiration.
Theme #1: Morality
We all know that people can be judgmental, racist, and even lacking in any moral code. The characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are no different.
Atticus Finch, however, is the one character who continuously displays a strong sense of morality throughout the story. He also helps establish a moral code for his children, Jem and Scout.
Throughout the novel, Atticus emphasizes the fact that people should not judge others by appearance and should not judge others if they do not know their situations.
Words of wisdom about morality from Atticus Finch:
“Are you proud of yourself tonight that you have insulted a total stranger whose circumstances you know nothing about?”
Here, Atticus is speaking to his children, who destroyed their neighbor’s flowers even though they knew nothing about her situation in life. He emphasizes the fact that his children should not be judgmental and should be more considerate of others. He also says:
“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.”
In the above quote, Atticus tells Scout that you can’t really understand what someone else is going through until you’ve walked a mile in that person’s shoes.
Want to see how one student analyzed Atticus’s morality? Read this sample essay for inspiration: An Overview of the Strong Morality by the Character Atticus in the Novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Theme #2: Good vs. evil
The presence of good and evil are a constant throughout To Kill a Mockingbird.
Jem and Scout begin the novel in childhood innocence. As children, they believe that everyone is inherently good. As the story progresses, they encounter evil in the form of hatred, ignorance, and racism.
It’s their father, Atticus, who helps the children navigate their new world and helps them understand that not everyone is all good or all evil.
Words of wisdom about good vs. evil from Atticus Finch:
“They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only the children weep.”
Here, Atticus is referring to the conviction of Tom Robinson, stating that no one except children care about the injustice (the fact that a man is falsely accused of rape). He also says:
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.”
In the above quote, Atticus suggests that prejudices and evil will make their way into a courtroom even though justice should be blind to color. He explains that evil, unfortunately, will always be part of life.
Need more inspiration for how to tackle the good vs. evil theme? Read this student’s take on it in an example essay: An Analysis of Good and Evil in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Theme #3: Racism
The residents of Maycomb (where To Kill a Mockingbird takes place) are blatantly prejudiced and racist. This is most evident in the key storyline of an African American (Tom Robinson) who is falsely accused of raping a white woman.
The Finch family even feels the wrath of the racism from the community because Atticus Finch agrees to be Robinson’s attorney.
Words of wisdom about racism from Atticus Finch:
“There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”
In this example, Atticus clearly points to the presence of racism in the courts and in society. He also says:
“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.”
Here, Atticus again illustrates his role as a moral compass and explains the evils of racism, arguing that people, no matter what color, should be treated equally.
Need a bit of writing inspiration? Read The Racism in the Trial of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to see how one writer tackled the topic.
Making the Connections
As you can see, the themes of the novel aren’t entirely separate from each other. Morality, good vs. evil, and racism all overlap. These issues are never simple, clear-cut ideologies.
What is clear-cut, however, is the fact that Atticus Finch plays a prominent role in both the characters’ and the readers’ understanding and interpretation of the story’s themes.
If you want to delve into his character a little more deeply as you discuss theme, check out the section about Atticus in All You Need to Know About These 4 To Kill a Mockingbird Characters or read How to Write a Character Analysis That Works.
You might also want to read 2 Character Analysis Essay Examples With Character to see what a finished character analysis essay looks like.
One final reminder: Any literary analysis requires specific examples and quotes from the text to fully support your arguments.
If you’re not sure that your examples sufficiently support your discussion of the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird, let the Kibin editors offer a bit of expert advice.
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human morality, and presents a constant conversation regarding the inherent goodness or evilness of people. Atticus, father of Scout and Jem, also plays the role of teacher, for his children and his town. Atticus believes that people usually contain aspects of both good and evil, but that good will usually prevail. Atticus teaches this to his children, but also to the town, as he works to defend Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. In the racist town of Maycomb in the heart of America's South during the Depression era, this is a Herculean task. Despite the challenge of overcoming the town's deeply ingrained racism and forcing people to change their social perspectives, Atticus struggles on, because he believes that one day, goodness will prevail over the evils of racism and racial equality will exist.
Throughout the book, Scout and Jem make the classic transition from innocence to maturity. Jem leads this change, as he is older than Scout, but both children experience it. At the beginning of the novel, they approach life innocently believing in the goodness of all people, thinking everyone understands and adheres to the same values they and their father do. During Tom Robinson's trial, the children are sorely disappointed when the jury, made up of their fellow townspeople, convicts the obviously innocent Tom Robinson simply because he is a black man and his accuser is white. The realization that there is true evil within their society shakes Jem to the core. He held a strong belief in the goodness of all people, but after the trial must reevaluate his understanding of human nature. The challenge of this struggle causes him great emotional pain as he tries to come to terms with disappointing realities of inequality, racism, and general unfairness. Scout also struggles to understand these things, but even following the trial is able to maintain her belief in the goodness of human nature. At the end of the novel, both children are faced with true evil, as Bob Ewell tries to kill them. True goodness, embodied in Boo Radley, saves them. In this final conflict between these opposing forces, goodness prevails.
Shortly after the novel begins, Scout starts her first year at school. The educational system in Maycomb leaves much to be desired. Scout is ahead of her classmates because Atticus has taught her to read and write, and Calpurnia has even taught her script. However, once her teacher discovers this, she punishes Scout and tells her not to learn anything else at home, because her father does not know how to teach her properly. This is the first clear conflict between institutionalized education and education in the home.
Atticus clearly takes great pride in instilling a powerful sense of morality in his children. He truthfully answers whatever questions they ask, and encourages their inquisitive minds by treating them as adults and encouraging them to grow intellectually and morally as much as possible. On the other hand, Scout's teacher has a very specific understanding of what children should learn when, even if this schedule requires holding a child back. For example, when she asks Scout to write during class and Scout writes in script, she chides her and tells her that she should not be doing that for many years, because it isn't taught in school until much later. Scout feels frustrated that her teacher does not understand her and only wants to hold her back.
Scout comes to Atticus with concerns about her education and he helps her understand that she must get an education, even though she might find the process frustrating, and that he will continue to read with her and teach her at home. Clearly, Atticus understands the faults of the educational system, but also knows it is necessary for his children to pass through this system to be a part of society. However, his teaching at home, both morally and otherwise, is far more valuable to his children than anything they learn in the classroom. Scout notices this most obviously when learning about the Holocaust. Her teacher explains that such oppression of one group of people could never happen in the United States and Scout is astonished. She heard Miss Gates outside the court house during Tom Robinson's trial saying that, referring to black people, she thought it was, "time somebody taught them a lesson, they thought they was getting' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us." Scout sees Miss Gates's statement about blacks in clear conflict with her statement about the equality in America.
Scout receives the majority of her education in the home, and doesn't believe school will do much for her. At the end of the novel, she notes that she has learned probably all there is to learn, except maybe algebra. Clearly, Scout understands that life experiences are the true teachers, and that Atticus has taught her more than school ever will. Clearly, Lee is expressing a lack of belief in the institutionalized educational system, and in fact suggests it might do more harm than good. Perhaps a more valuable education can be found in the home.
Along with struggling with concepts of good and evil, Scout and Jem spend a great deal of time trying to understand what defines and creates social strata. Scout tends to believe that "folks are just folks", while Jem is convinced that social standing is related to how long people's relatives and ancestors have been able to write.
Scout elucidates the town's social strata quite clearly on her first day at school when Walter Cunningham does not have lunch or lunch money. Her classmates ask her to explain to the teacher why Walter won't take a loaned quarter to buy lunch, and she lectures the teacher on the Cunningham's financial situation and how they trade goods for services. Scout and the other children have a very clear understanding of the social inequalities in their town, but see these inequalities as natural and permanent. The Finch family falls rather high up in the social hierarchy, while the Ewell family falls at the bottom. However, this hierarchy only includes white people. Maycomb's black population fall beneath all white families in Maycomb, including the Ewells, whom Atticus labels as "trash".
Scout understands this social structure, but doesn't understand why it is so. She believes that everyone should be treated the same, no matter what family they are from. For instance, when she wants to spend more time with Walter Cunningham, Aunt Alexandra objects saying no Finch girl should ever consort with a Cunningham. Scout is frustrated by this, as she wants to be able to choose her own friends based on her definition of what makes a good person: morality.
When Scout and Jem receive airguns for Christmas, Atticus tells them that although he would prefer that they practice their shooting with tin cans, if they must shoot at living things, they must never shoot at mockingbirds. Atticus explains that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. Clearly, this is the title scene, but the theme continues throughout the book. Miss Maudie explains why Atticus is correct - mockingbirds never do anyone any harm, and are not pests in any way. All they do is sing beautifully and live peacefully. Therefore, it is a sin to kill them. The mockingbird comes to represent true goodness and purity. Tom Robinson is one example of a human "mockingbird". He stands accused of raping and beating Mayella Ewell, but is innocent of the charges. The town commits the ultimate sin by finding him guilty and sentencing him to death. In effect, they have killed a mockingbird. Boo Radley is another example of a human "mockingbird". He has spent his entire life as a prisoner of his own home because his father was overzealous in punishing him for a childhood mistake. Boo Radley observes the world around him, causing no harm to anyone, and then saves Jem and Scout's lives when Bob Ewell attacks. The sheriff determines that Ewell's death will be ruled an accident to avoid forcing Boo to go to trial, even though Boo killed him to protect the children. Atticus agrees, and wants to make sure Scout understands why this little white lie must be told. She replies saying of course she understands, putting Boo on trial and in the public sphere would be like killing a mockingbird. The mockingbird represents true goodness and innocence that should always be protected.
Throughout the novel, Atticus urges his children to try to step into other people's shoes to understand how they see the world. Whenever Scout doesn't understand Jem, Atticus encourages her to try to understand how he might be feeling. Usually, Scout finds this advice helpful, and her attempts to gain insight into other people's perspectives on life and the world broaden her moral education and social understanding.
When Mrs. Dubose, the mean old woman who lives down the street from the Finch family yells insults at Jem and Scout on her way to town, Jem reacts by returning and cutting up all the flowers in her front yard. His punishment is to read to Mrs. Dubose for a specified time period every day. He complains to Atticus that she is an awful woman, but Atticus tells Jem and Scout to try to understand Mrs. Dubose's point of view. She is an old woman, very set her in ways, and she is entirely alone in the world. Jem and Scout agree to visit her. After Mrs. Dubose dies, Atticus reveals that by reading to her each day, the children were helping her break her morphine addiction. Atticus explains that Mrs. Dubose was fighting to regain sobriety, even as she stood on the brink of death. Because of this, to Atticus, she is the bravest person he has ever known. He explains this to the children to try to make them understand the terrible pain she was experiencing, and how their presence helped her through the process. Although she might have said some horrible things, Atticus encourages the children to try to see the world from her perspective and to understand how brave and strong she was.
At the end of the book, Scout escorts Boo Radley back to his home. After Boo closes the door, she turns around and surveys the neighborhood from his perspective. She imagines how he has witnessed all the happenings of the recent years, including her and Jem running by the house on their way to and from school, her childhood Boo Radley games, Miss Maudie's fire, the incident of the rabid dog, and finally, Bob Ewell's attack. As she steps into Boo's shoes, Scout gains a new respect for his life, and understands that his experience is just as valid as hers. With this understanding, she is humbled.
Obviously, racism is a major theme of the novel. During the Depression era, blacks were still highly subjugated members of society. Blacks were not permitted to commingle with whites in public settings, as exemplified in the courthouse physical separation of races and in the clearly distinct black and white areas of town. Moreover, things like intermarriage were almost unheard of, and sorely looked down upon.
Throughout the novel, Scout explores the differences between black people and white people. She and Jem attend church with Calpurnia and Scout truly enjoys the experience. Afterwards, she asks Calpurnia if she might be able to visit her house sometime because she has never seen it. Calpurnia agrees, but the visit is never made, largely because Aunt Alexandra puts a stop to it. Jem, Scout and Dill also sit with the black citizens of the town in the balcony of the court house to observe the trial. In addition, Scout and Dill have a lengthy conversation with Mr. Raymond, a white man who married a black woman and has mixed children. Mr. Raymond reveals that he pretends to be an alcoholic by carrying around a paper bag with a bottle of Coca-Cola inside in order to let the town excuse his choice to marry a black woman.
Tom Robinson is convicted purely because he is a black man and his accuser is white. The evidence is so powerfully in his favor, that race is clearly the single defining factor in the jury's decision. Atticus fights against racism, and a few other townspeople are on his side, including Miss Maudie and Judge Taylor. Jem and Scout also believe in racial equality, but are obviously in the minority. When Atticus loses the trial, he tries to make his children understand that although he lost, he did help move along the cause of ending racism as evidenced by the jury's lengthy deliberation period. Usually, such a trial would be decided immediately.
Bravery takes many forms in To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus is brave to defend a black man in the face of criticism and threats of violence. He also is brave in the face of danger, both when he kills the rabid dog with a single shot and when facing the mob of men outside the jailhouse. Atticus urges Scout to be brave and prevent herself from fighting those who criticize her or her family. To Atticus, withholding violence is one of the highest forms of bravery. The children believe themselves to be brave when approaching the Radley house early in the book, but learn later on that this was false bravery, and in fact, silly. Atticus holds up Mrs. Dubose as the ultimate definition of bravery, as she finds against her morphine addiction in order to be free from it before she dies, even when she knows she will die in the process. Atticus, who also fights against a power greater than himself, tells his children they should have great respect for Mrs. Dubose. Finally, Bob Ewell represents the greatest cowardice, as he both lies in the courtroom to protect himself and resorts to attacking children in the darkness in order to make himself feel more of a man.
Atticus is a lawyer, and the book is centered around his representation of Tom Robinson. Although Atticus loses the trial, he believes strongly that despite social inequalities, all men are equal in the courtroom. He includes this information in his closing statements to the jury, and during his later discussions with Jem and Scout regarding jury selection and the trial process, makes this statement again. Atticus believes that progress towards racial equality can and will be made in the courtroom.
In addition, although he believes powerfully in upholding the law, Atticus understands that it must be bent in certain situations. For example, Bob Ewell is permitted to hunt even in the off season because the town authorities know that if he is prevented from hunting, his children might starve. In addition, at the end of the novel, the law would require Boo Radley to be placed on trial to determine whether he killed Bob Ewell is self defense or not. However, Atticus understands, as does Heck Tate and Scout, that Boo should not be forced to experience powerful public attention or criticism. Therefore, it is necessary to bend the law in this case to protect Boo.