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English Literature

Themes

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A theme is an idea that runs through a text. A text [text: Any piece of writing. More widely, a text can be anything that conveys meaning - eg, a film, tv programme, advert, website, or image. ] may have one theme or many. Understanding the themes makes the text more than 'just' a story - it becomes something more significant, because we're encouraged to think deeper about the story and work out what lies beyond the plot [plot: The sequence of events in a narrative; a story. ].

The main themes that run through To Kill a Mockingbird are: Prejudice, Understanding, Loneliness, Courage and Innocence.

The themes interlock, but we'll start off by looking at them separately. As you go, think about the contribution Atticus makes to each one.

Prejudice

Prejudice permeates Maycomb society. Almost every character is either prejudiced against others, or the victim of prejudice. There is racial prejudice, class prejudice and prejudice against individuals who don't fit in.

Racism

The majority of the white population of Maycomb are racist. They see Blacks as second-class citizens (they do menial jobs for little money) and second-class humans.

The table below shows some examples of the racist views shared by most of the characters in the novel.

Examples of Racism

CharacterExample of racist attitudes
The SheriffWhen he arrested Boo Radley (suspected of stabbing his father in the leg with a pair of scissors) he "hadn't the heart to put him in the jail alongside Negroes".
Mrs DuboseShe tells the children: "Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!"
Aunt AlexandraShe doesn't like to talk about important matters "in front of Calpurnia and them".
Scout's cousin FrancisHe claims that Atticus is "ruining the family" by taking on the Robinson case.
Mr CunninghamHe's part of a mob of men who would have lynched [lynching: Executing someone (usually by hanging) without a legal trial. ] Tom Robinson, had Atticus not been on guard outside the jail.

Only a few people in the book are open-minded enough to recognise racism for the evil it is. Here are some examples:

Examples of Anti-Racist Attitudes

CharacterExample of anti-racist attitudes
AtticusHe hates the town's racist attitude and refers to it as "Maycomb's usual disease".
Miss MaudieShe is proud of "those people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only."
JemHe can't believe that the jury can convict an innocent man just because he is black. "It ain't right!" he says.
ScoutShe sees the hypocrisy of her teacher who opposes Hitler but supports the Tom's conviction. "It's not right to persecute anybody, is it?"

Class prejudice

As well as prejudice about people's colour, there is prejudice about people's social standing. There are strict divisions along class lines in Maycomb society. For example...

Examples of Class Prejudice

CharacterExamples of Class Prejudice
Aunt AlexandraAunt Alexandra is obsessed with the superiority of the Finch family, part of the local white aristocracy. She doesn't allow Scout to play with Walter Cunningham because...
The CunninghamsThe Cunninghams are lower class whites - poor farmers, badly hit by the Depression. However they are a better class of people than...
The EwellsThey are 'White Trash' - the lowest class of whites - uneducated and poor. But even they look down upon...
The BlacksThe black community is automatically seen as at the bottom of the class system, yet since the abolition of slavery, the boundaries between them and the Ewells is less clear. This is one reason why Mr Ewell is so racist.

Prejudice against individuals

Finally, there is prejudice against anyone who doesn't fit in to Maycomb's fixed expectations of how people should behave. The most important victim of this type of prejudice is Boo Radley.

  • Most of the town are prejudiced against Boo. Local gossip portrays him as a malevolent phantom. Children run past the Radley house out of fear and won't eat anything that came from Radley trees, believing them poisoned.
  • Yet a very few people accept him for what he is. Miss Maudie remembers him when he was a boy who always spoke nicely; and Atticus tries to make the children understand him and not torment him. By the end of the novel, the children respect him too.

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