Brooklyn Public Library is proud to host Harper Lee’s highly acclaimed novel as part of The Big Read -- an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture. The Big Read is all about bringing people together to read one great American classic at the same time and understand how its themes are still relevant today. In
First published in 1960, Mockingbird received the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has since become one of the most widely read, studied and cherished novels in
The historical context of the novel is formed by the regional history of race relations in Alabama in the 1930s and contains many themes such as pride and prejudice, ignorance and hatred, humor and pathos, humanity and brutality, fear and superstition, curiosity and innocence, courage and justice, and life's almost invisible politics and polarities.
Narrated by young Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, the novel is a fictionalized account of the Scottsboro case of 1931, in which nine black youths were arrested and several of them sentenced on the charge of raping two white women while riding on a freight train near the town of
The novel centers around Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, whose humane view of life is the heart of the novel. The facts of life dramatized in the novel are often ugly but they are reality. Atticus Finch defends a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Although Finch’s defense clearly proves his client to be innocent, Tom Robinson is nonetheless found guilty by the white jury, and is later killed during a prison escape. Into this tragic and cruel scenario, Scout weaves the predicament of Boo Radley, the reclusive bogeyman of neighborhood legend, whose invisible presence tantalizes the children, and who eventually protects Scout and her brother, Jem, from Tom’s accuser. Boo is connected with Tom with the motif of the mockingbird (‘they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us’), and creates an impression that something innocent is being bruised and broken.
In the views of renowned critic Edgar H. Schuster, Harper Lee’s greatest achievement in this novel is that she has placed prejudice in a perspective which allows us to see it as an aspect of larger phenomena--phenomena which arise from unconscious forces, from phantom contacts, from fear and lack of knowledge of the “other.” It disappears with the kind of knowledge or education that one gains through learning what people are really like when you “finally see them.” It is one of those rare books that expose some of the worst aspects of human nature but also provides insights into how people can be capable of the best.
Some discussion questions:
In what ways is the 1930s era, with WWII looming on the horizon and the Great Depression in full swing, relevant to the events of the novel? How does what was happening in Nazi Germany at the time parallel relations between blacks and whites in the American South?
In his closing arguments, Atticus asserts that Mayella accused Tom Robinson of rape “in an effort to get rid of her own guilt” for trying to seduce him. Can you think of other instances of this psychological dynamic—one group projecting its guilt onto another and then punishing that group to preserve its own “innocence”?
What had you heard about the novel before you read it? Had you seen the film? How was your experience of the book different from what you expected? How is it different from the film?
Atticus also insists to the jury that “there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” Does the jury’s guilty verdict invalidate Atticus’s claims? Are the courts today “the great levelers,” making us all equal, as Atticus believes, or do wealth and race play an inordinate role in the way justice is distributed in
In what ways does Mockingbird speak to the current identity (race, class, creed, gender, ethnicity, sexuality) issues that confront