To Kill a Mockingbird Theme


Hey, you know what one of the biggest problems is, when I try to teach theme to my students? A lot of kids have this mistaken impression that theme is a lesson, or a moral to the story; something the author is trying to teach us. But you know what, theme isn’t really that black and white. In fact, it’s really more of a piece to a puzzle. It’s something that we have to put together.

Now what we’re going to do in this episode is first talk about theme. Then we’re going to move on to conflict and talk about motif and subject, and how those are all their own distinct different things. But together, they’re all pieces to one big puzzle. So let’s get going, let’s try to put this puzzle together.

So it’s important before we really get into this, that we understand the different between subject and theme, and motif. All of those concepts are so related, but they’re not exactly the same thing. So let’s review them real quick before we get into talking about the book.

Subject is the first thing, subject includes plot and setting. It’s very surface level. It is the topic of what it is that you’re reading. The subject of To Kill a Mockingbird, is the story of two children coming of age watching various events unfold in a small Southern town during the Great Depression. So one sentence giving us details and showing the three things that I've just talked about.

Motif on the other hand is repeated, significant idea, or image. It can also be a reoccurring symbol, and it can be summed up in one word. That’s my big teacher tip for you. You can tell like we just talked about subject or topic that’s one long sentence with a lot of details. Motif on the other hand summed up in one word. And remember, it’s something that keeps popping up throughout the whole work.

Birds are a motif in To Kill a Mockingbird. Remember it needs to not just show up one time, so not just talking about The Mockingbird. We’re also discussing songbirds, blue jays, and don’t forget the family’s name they’re of course, the Finches. So we need to remember that a motif is more than just one example, it’s not just symbol that happens one time. It’s a reoccurring thought or idea that we keep seeing over and over again.

The last of these three concepts, and this is that one that trips people up a lot, is the theme. The theme is a main idea or a message. It can also actually be a question, something that the author wants us to think about. Theme is also going to differ from motif, remember we said motif is one word. Theme is also going to be expressed in a sentence. So if you feel pretty good about this, let’s move on and start talking about theme in the book. But if you’re a little bit unsure, go back and re-watch this again until you feel like you’ve got a really good grasp on it and then move on ahead to the next section.

Before I tell you what I think my idea of theme is, I want to give you a little bit of word of caution. You might not agree with what I’m going to say, you're probably not used to a teacher saying that. But the thing about theme is that it’s kind of subjective. You can have an opinion and you can back it up with examples from your book. And that’s fine, but it might be different from somebody else’s idea of theme. So my idea might not be the same as your idea, classmate might have a completely different idea. It’s your choice to make that decision of whether you think that that is what works out for you in you mind, with whatever it is you are reading. It’s kind of the cool thing about literary analysis. It’s not like a math problem where there is a right, or wrong answer. There is a lot of room for debate, decision and growth. It’s pretty cool.

So let me give you my idea on what I think about the theme for this book. I’d say it has to do with Harper Lee and wanting us to think about how good and evil can exist together.

So here is my proposed theme. Good and evil exist in every man, but it’s our struggle to remain while knowing evil that defines us as people. My idea here is kind of that, a person is shaped by what they choose to pay the most attention to. Bad things might happen to them, but if they concentrate on the things that are good, and want to focus on that, it might change their personality and it really forms who they are.

Remember though, I can’t just put it out there like that. An uneducated opinion or something that’s not based on real examples from the book, isn’t going to get you very far. I’m not going to really respect your opinion unless you can you can show me why you believe it.

So let’s look at some ideas from To Kill a Mockingbird that back up my proposed theme. This first one here comes from Miss. Gates. Do you remember who that is? That Scout’s teacher. Well in chapter 26, here is a quotation, something she says. They’re in school they’re talking about the persecution of Jews and Hitler. Miss. Gates says, “Over here, we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are who are prejudiced...Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of’s one of the most terrible stories inn history.”

That sounds good, she is open minded, it shows that she’s a little bit outside the prejudiced community, I guess ,of Maycomb. But looking at later on in the story, this comes outside the courthouse after Tom Robinson trial. “Well, coming out of the court-house that night Miss. Gates was - she was going down the steps in front of us, you musta not have seen here - she was talking with Stephanie Crawford. I heard it’s time somebody taught 'em a lesson, they were gettin' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us.”

Well that’s a whole different side of Miss. Gates. She had this whole thing talking about Hitler, prosecution of Jews, we don’t have prejudice here, but clearly, in what she’s saying outside the court-house she herself has prejudice. The whole race relations here and the idea that black citizens couldn't do the same things as white citizens, or that she didn't want the two to mix. Obviously is showing some prejudice. So this goes back to our theme, she has good parts in her, but she also has the bad parts as well. They’re existing in her at the same time, and she’s just one person.

So we can kind of put all this together and by saying, Scout’s 3rd grade teacher, speaks disparagingly about the persecution of Jews. But ultimately shows her true racist colours after Tom Robinson’s trial. Now that’s my backup number one. If this is all I had, to go with my proposed theme, it wouldn’t be enough. I personally would say, try to go for at least three back ups, because that’s really going to give you a solid argument.

The next back up I’m going to use is Jem. This is Jem talking about Boo earlier in the book. “Boo is about six and half feet tall...he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face, what teeth he had were yellow and rotten.” Can you tell that this a little kid talking about someone? He’s very descriptive, but he’s really unfair at the same time. These are clearly things that aren’t the truth. He makes Boo Radley out to be this horrible monster.

Later also when he’s talking to Dill, he says, “I hope you’ve got it through your head that he’ll kill us each and every one, Dill Harris. Don’t blame me when he gouges your eyes out.” Again, he doesn’t know Boo Radley, he’s got a prejudice against him. Normally we don’t think of prejudice outside of race lines, or gender lines, or sexuality lines. But in this case, it’s just a strange man that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know him that’s kind of the key to prejudice. He’s got this ideas of what he’s like but he doesn’t know him.

So backup number two, we have Jem who's got this really distinct feelings about Boo Radley. But then later on, through the course of the story, he changes. He has had this evil kind of prejudice going on when he talks about Boo at the beginning, but later on he opens up to him. And we kind of see the good back in Jem. So we can kind of put this together by saying, Jem initially shows his own prejudice early in the book in his treatment of Arthur Boo Radley. But through the story, realizes the evil in himself and attempts to overcome it. By the end of the book he’s really seen this kind of ugly side of himself, and he makes a conscious effort to overcome it. So that was back up number two, lets move on to number three.

Backup number three has to do with Atticus. Atticus at this point in the book, is talking about Mrs. Dubose. Now you need to remember that Mrs. Dubose is someone who has spoken really disparagingly of him in front of his children. You think that he would have a really negative reaction to her, but here is what he says about her. “She said she was going to leave the world beholden to nothing and know, she was a great lady ...she had her own views about things, a lot different from mine maybe...She was the bravest woman I ever knew.”

That’s so significant and it’s so Atticus, to think about the fact that this is a woman who completely talked about crap about him to his own kids. It’s horrible, it’s unforgivable in a way. But he’s a good guy, he sees that the closest he gets to criticizing her, is saying she had her own views and they were a lot different from his. That’s about as far as Atticus is going to go with this. He believes and understands that there is good and evil in others, but he chooses to really look at the good, even about someone like Mrs. Dubose.

So we can put this one together saying Atticus proves his own self to be good, by being able to acknowledge that good and evil exists in each person. But choosing to acknowledge the better things rather than focusing on the bad. So he understands that it’s there, he’s not naive. He understands that’s there is bad, that there’s evil, that there is prejudice, but he chooses to look at things in a much more positive way.

With my own class, something I almost always do when I teach this book, is ask them to identify types of conflict that we see in the book. Now, you might not be sure of these, but I think they’ll sound a little familiar when we go through them. Let’s review them briefly.

The types of conflicts are first of all; man verses man, man verses society, man verses himself or herself, man verses the supper natural, man verses machine, and man verses nature. Now for our purposes here with To Kill a Mockingbird, we’re not going to worry about these last three, because they really don’t apply. We don’t have the supernatural, or the machines, or nature as a really compelling conflict in this book. So don’t even worry about those right now. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist and you could certainly apply them to other works of literature. So I’ve linked in the bonus material section a kind of conflict cheat sheet. If you want more information on this go check that out.

So let’s talk about the ones that really apply to our novel. Man verses man is the first one. Man verses man is simply, when one character or group fights against another character or group, pretty basic. Bob Ewell verses Tom Robinson, that’s one of the examples of a man verses man conflict in this story. Bob Ewell brings Tom Robinson essentially to court, convinces his daughter that she brings allegations against him, so it’s one man verses one man. If you think about fists fights, and fights that happen in comic books, super man verses whatever villain, those are the same kind of thing man verses man.

Another example in the book, Bob Ewell obviously a trouble maker, verses Atticus Finch. Remember he’s a got a horrible grudge against Atticus after the trial, that’s why he attacks Jem and Scout. So those are all illustrations of the man verses man conflict.

The next one, man verses society. This is a really big one in this book. Man verses society is when one character battles the society in which he belongs. And the values of the society are then challenged. So there is a character who kind of doesn’t have the same belief system as the community that he lives in, or within his world.

Atticus Finch and the Maycomb society. That one you should have been able to figure out, as soon as I said man verses society. Atticus is very much alone or close to alone, in his feelings about race relations and equality for black and white citizens. It’s very different from the feelings of Maycomb society as whole.

Additionally, Tom Robinson kind of found himself in a place against the whole community. In that he was someone who was accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He ended up being found guilty, but the entire town kind of thought about things a different way. Atticus essentially proved that he wasn’t guilty. So those are some things to think about when we talk about man verses society.

Boo Radley verses Maycomb it’s a little bit different from the other two. Because there is not really a direct conflict between the two, but if you think about the way that Boo Radley is treated by the citizens of Maycomb, they make fun of him. They make up this elaborate stories about him. He’s essentially persecuted by members of his own society. In the end, once he’s proven himself to be a hero, he really changes the way that Maycomb society thinks.

This is the one that I think is kind of the juiciest. Man verses him or herself. This is your classic inner turmoil; a character in conflict with his own beliefs, actions or memories. If you’ve ever really agonised over a decisions, and are pulling with the devil on shoulder and the angel on your shoulder, that’s really what’s happening here in man verses self.

Jem certainly has conflict with himself in this story. He basically has to make decisions, about what he’s learned, about what he’s seen. He struggles with keeping his innocence while being exposed all this horrible things that he sees happen, throughout the course of the book.

Scout is similar, maybe not quite as intense because she’s a little bit younger. But, she’s again exposed for the first time to these horrible travesties of justice, and men just being really ugly to other men. So in that way, she really has to fight with herself, to figure out how she’s going to come out of all that.

If you feel pretty good about this, in conflict, we can go on to the next section. But if you need a little bit more information, either check out those bonus materials I talked about or go back and rewatch this part. There is a lot of information to digest but, I think you can get it.

In case I didn’t have your complete and undivided attention, because you were kind of staring off watch your favourite episode, of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, here is the gist of what you missed. We started putting these puzzle pieces together with theme and the idea of the coexistence of good and evil, even in one person. We also talked about motif and subject and how those are different from theme.

The third thing we talked about was conflict, the different types and the ones that apply to this work in specific. Now in my next episode, be ready because I’m going to earn my place as your new bff. We’re going to about common assignments that you’re going to see in your English class and develop a game plan for each one. So if you’re ready let's move on and hit those common assignments.

Theme subject motif conflict