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“To Kill a Mockingbird" Study Guide: Common Themes in the Novel

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/14/2012

If you’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, you’ve likely noticed several important themes that recur throughout the novel. These “To Kill a Mockingbird" themes include the horrors of prejudice, the struggles of growing up, and the meaning of true courage.

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    The overwhelming theme of “To Kill a Mockingbird" is prejudice, and the inability that we have to step into another person’s shoes. Most blatantly, the jury’s decision to condemn Tom Robinson despite clear evidence of his innocence, purely on the basis of his race, shows how prejudice can overcome all rationality. The prejudice that Scout, Jem, and Dill show towards Boo Radley, purely because he seems “different," only dissipates once he saves Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell. And by aligning himself with Tom Robinson, Atticus himself becomes an object of prejudice, even though he has always been one of the most respected men in Maycomb.

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    Growing Up

    Throughout “To Kill a Mockingbird," the reader can see how Scout is growing up, slowly understanding the relationship between good and evil in the real world. At the beginning of the novel, she believes that the world is mostly good, with “scary" things or people, such as Boo Radley, as the only real evil. As she grows, she realizes that the town of Maycomb, although made up of mostly good people, can also harbor deep evil, such as racism and prejudice.

    Jem realizes this on a deeper level. While Scout is simply leaving basic childhood, Jem is becoming a teenager during the course of the novel. His inability to reconcile the evil that is coming from the people in the town who he has trusted truly breaks him, and his confusion about how Atticus could have failed shows to what extent he has always believed that Atticus could do anything. Each of these aspects are important to the theme of growing up, as well as which parts of ourselves we have to grapple with as we do so.

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    The Meaning of Courage

    The third of the most important “To Kill a Mockingbird" themes is that of courage. Atticus shows courage in defending Tom Robinson, and Scout shows courage in her innocent manner of turning away the lynch mob. Boo Radley shows courage in attacking Bob Ewell, and Heck Tate shows courage in deciding to cover up what Boo did. Throughout the book, the author glorifies people who show courage in the face of adversity.

To Kill a Mockingbird

A series of study guide articles on To Kill a Mockingbird, from character descriptions to plot summaries and an analysis of the novel's symbolism.
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird: Characters
  2. Symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird
  3. “To Kill a Mockingbird" Study Guide: Common Themes in the Novel
  4. The Banning of “To Kill a Mockingbird": What Was the Controversy?