120spacer.gif (56 bytes) To Kill A Mockingbird

Questions and Penseés

Harper Lee’s book brings up many, many possible areas of thought for discussion. Some of these are personal, some societal. Please work through these questions and penseés in groups, with lots of discussion. Let the discussion go beyond the classroom walls, and into your lives. I hope you enjoy the novel study.

Don’t try to do all of these … choose some to do deeply.


  1. On the very first page of the novel, the reader gets a glimpse of the importance of history, and a feeling of connectedness to it that is important in the lives of people in the novel. Find some specific references to this need. Are there any echoes of this sort of thing in your lives? Talk about them? (A couple of hints for consideration; why are some people reluctant to throw things out … and many people have a great reluctance to move from their homes.)
  2. "Mother was a Graham" "Walter’s a Cunningham" Burris is an Ewell. Winston County in North Alabama was full of persons with "No background". And what are you, dear Reader? What does being part of a family, or having a certain sort of pedigree of place, mean, both in the novel and in your real life? How could being part of a family, well - known or ill – known, affect one’s life? (Would your life be different if you had a different name? How? Why? Be sure to talk about assumptions!)
  3. The Radley Place contains a malevolent phantom, according to local knowledge. No kids would eat pecans from the tree, no ball was ever retrieved from the yard. How do the children and adults see "The Radley Place" differently? How does this change throughout the novel? (Think of Jem finding his britches folded for him, and the hole in the tree being blocked up.) And Boo! He’s six and a half feet tall and eats raw squirrels! And he’s a "haint" who nearly killed Walter Cunningham. What could make the kids in the novel obsess on Boo?
  4. Miss Caroline Fisher has been hired as a teacher. (Oh dear.) What are some of her (strongly-held) beliefs? Where and how do these clash with the kids she has in front of her? She does not seem to understand when Scout informs her that "Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham", referring to Walter who has not brought a lunch to school. The other kids turn to Scout to fill Miss Caroline in. This later gets Scout a caning. How does the other teacher referred to change the class’ behaviour with two sentences? And why does it work? Later, Scout hints that the whole idea behind school was that the State of Alabama meant for her to be tested with twelve years of uninterrupted boredom. What on earth is school for (in Maycomb County)? Does it work? And why would the grade sixes referred to by another teacher be studying the pyramids?
  5. Walter enjoys syrup, and talking crops. Scout is left out of the conversation. She talks about Walter and the molasses, and is strongly corrected by Calpurnia. Atticus knows and trusts Cal completely. What did Scout do?
  6. Burris is certainly his father’s son. Reflect on events later in the novel than Burris’ being sent to get clean and comment on the statement. What does this say about ‘family’?
  7. How does one "Climb into his skin and walk around in it"? Why would one want to do this, or have this skill? This is Atticus’ advice to Scout when she demurs about the value of returning to school for another day’s education. Then there is the way the populace of Maycomb County allows Mr. Ewell to hunt for food (because he drinks his welfare cheques). The law, suggests Atticus, must be a bit flexible. How flexible? Why? Describe the flexibility required for Atticus’ and Scout’s deal about reading to work.
  8. Atticus is a superb father, gentle, caring and patient. Cal is, likewise, a wonderful mother, although she is the hired help. The kids grow up with firm guidelines and strong moral strictures. They do NOT always get their own way, and whining just does not work. How was your growing up different from these kids? Better or worse? How are (were) your parents like Atticus and Cal?
  9. Things start to appear in the trees at the Radley Place. Gum. A broken watch. What is going on? And why?
  10. Dill scares Scout with talk about death. Jem eggs him on with talk about Hot Steams. Scout goes for a tyre ride and winds up at the Radley Place. Jem retrieves the tyre, and damns Scout by telling her that sometimes she acts so much like a girl "It’s mortifyin’." How has Jem seen Scout up to now? How about Dill? How does Scout see herself? (Even after she beats Dill up, twice, after he offers to marry her, she feels a bit out-of-sorts.) How does Dill change the relationships between Scout and Jem?
  11. Miss Maudie thrust out her bridgework at Scout, which cemented their friendship. How is Miss Maudie special to the kids, and to Atticus? Maudie says that "There are some men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learn to live in this one … ". What does she mean? Give evidence from the text, and perhaps from your own experience with others.
  12. What is it about The Radley Place that keeps drawing the kids back? After their evening foray into forbidden territory, what happens?
  13. Calpurnia is a black woman, but Atticus and the kids don’t see that. She is just Calpurnia, or Cal, whole and complete, not in need of labelling. As the novel progresses there are a few comments about Negroes, and one by Cal, (referring to belief in Hot Steams as being ‘Nigger talk"). Later in the novel it is a bit of a puzzle in the kids’ minds as to why there is a problem with Atticus defending Tom. How is prejudice maintained in the town? Is there any around you? What do you do about it?
  14. The children are blamed for all sorts of things, especially snow. The blame may be serious, in some cases. There is a phrase I learnt long ago … "You don’t have to blow out my candle to make yours burn more brightly" … which seems to me to sum up part of this belief. The other is that Maycomb is part of a profoundly un-scientific society. The comments about foot-washing Baptists. The accusations of some townsfolk about naughty children causing it to snow (with a cheesy ‘remembrance’ of an ancient battle thrown in as part of a sort-of curse on the kids.) The kids’ beliefs about haints and Hot Steams. And finally Atticus’ failure to have people understand what might have been going on at the Ewell place between Tom and Mayella. These are all evidence of kinds of fear. What is feared in Maycomb?
  15. Using the word "nigger" is quite off-limits for Atticus, and although Scout defends it by saying that all the kids at school say it, Atticus remarks that there will be one less using the word as of right now. This is not open to discussion or negotiation. The situation comes from Cecil Jacobs’ accusation that Scout’s father defends niggers. Atticus remarks that of course he will defend a Negro, named Tom Robinson, explaining to Scout that if he didn’t he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up around town, or be able to ask Jem and Scout to do what he tells them. Scout asks, "Atticus, are we going to win it?" Atticus says "No, honey … because we were licked a hundred years before we started …(but that’s) … no reason for us not to try to win." And Atticus is a practical man, remarking that "…We’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends, and this is still our home." What does Atticus know about himself, his neighbours and the town? After all, he condemns it as "Maycomb’s usual disease."
  16. Aunt Alexandra reminds Scout of Mount Everest … cold, and there. What does she mean? And Alexandra tries to get Scout to be a lady. What is a lady, here?
  17. Atticus has Jack get guns for the kids, but refuses to teach them to use firearms, not even air rifles … he says that’s Jack’s job. Later, Atticus is revealed as being a crack shot. Why would Atticus not want to pass on this skill? Tie this in to Atticus’ views about violence.
  18. "Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." Why?
  19. Cal says Atticus can do lots of things, but she can’t rightly list ‘em off. Atticus is old (nearly an antique … 50!), and Scout and Jem want to be proud of him at school, with some sort of special bragging rights. Then Atticus kills a mad dog. How does this scene restore their pride in Dad, especially when Miss Maudie recalls him with the accolade "One-Shot Finch"?
  20. "People in their right minds never take pride in their talents", opines Miss Maudie. What does this mean?
  21. Mrs. Dubose delivers herself of a philippic on the general moral defects of the Finches, and hits home with an assault on Atticus, which makes Jem see red. Jem retaliates with an assault on some innocent camellias. Atticus fires Jem off to see Mrs. Dubose, who demands a penance of being read to, two hours daily, for a month. Mrs. Dubose likes having the kids around, and sets her alarm off a bit later each day. Atticus finds them all together one day, and visits. After Mrs. Dubose’s death, Atticus tells Jem why Mrs. Dubose was a brave woman, making herself die free. What is it about Mrs. Dubose that inspires Atticus?
  22. Going to church with Cal is quite an operation. It is a family affair, and Cal isn’t going to be happy until she is proud of them. What happens, and what doesn’t happen, at First Purchase Church?
  23. How does the singing of hymns go? Be able to describe the "Lining out" Zeebo leads.
  24. Rev. Sykes ‘sweats out’ the money needed from his flock for Helen Robinson. How and why is this done? Talk about the centrality of the rôle of the church in the community.
  25. That Cal is bilingual (coloured and white-folks) is a novel idea to Jem and Scout. What would cause Cal to need to be bilingual? Are you? Calpurnia is many things to many people ... only to Aunt Alexandra is she a mere servant.  To Atticus and the kids she is a close part of their family, with a series of roles finely woven into their lives.  So, what sorts of confusion could be going through Scout's mind when she is told "You're a Finch"?
  26. "One or two of the jury looked like dressed-up Cunninghams."  Justice is separate, like the lives of those in the courtroom.  The kids go up and sit with Rev. Sykes in the 'Coloured' galleries of the courtroom.  How is the courtroom an accurate mirror of the town of Maycomb's people?  And what will the sight of Scout and Jem and Dill being next to Rev. Sykes tell the townsfolk who have come to witness the trial?
  27. Why won't the women lynch, but the men will?
  28. Crowds form, tension mounts. Atticus knows there may be difficulty when Heck Tate shows up, and complains that there may be trouble at night if a bunch of the Old Sarum bunch get all shinnied. This does eventually happen, and Jem, Scout and Dill all witness the assembly of a potential lynch-mob. Scout saves the day … how? What does Mr. Cunningham learn?
  29. Now; please briefly review chapter 16, wherein you begin with hearing some commentary on the trial from some of the ne'er-do-wells of Maycomb. Then you will be introduced into the courtroom itself. Chapter 17 takes you into the heart of the trial, and Chapter 18 deals with Mayella Ewell's testimony in the court, her outburst and Atticus' presentation of his theory of her lying. Pay special attention to the paragraphs starting with Mayella yelling "I got somethin to say and then I ain't gonna say no more". She is asserting the social correctness of her (white) story over anything that Tom Robinson (black) might say, OR any facts that might prove her to be a liar. And the jury, as you know, believes her, in the end, because they all have to live with each other (not with the Robinsons) and to acquit Tom would destroy the basis of the town's organization. Chapter 19 deals with Tom Robinson's testimony, wherein he breaks the barrier by admitting that he felt sorry for Mayella (we can assume because he know about the desperate circumstances of her life). Chapter 20 is Atticus' final address to the Jury, and Chapter 21 is the conviction. Focus especially on the end of Chapter 21. Read, and hold in your memories, the last paragraphs, about Rev. Sykes telling Jean-Louise to stand up because her father is passing.

  30. Find some proof that Mr. Ewell and Mayella may be in cahoots and lying to the court about the rape with which Tom Robinson is charged.
  31. Mayella may, or may not, be lying through her teeth. Describe how she tries to manipulate the jury and the whole situation to her benefit, especially when asked by Atticus about her treatment at the hand of her father.
  32. Atticus loses the case, but everyone in the gallery still stands up for him in a dignified gesture of great respect. What may be going through his head at this point?
  33. Tom’s greatest sin was pity. What is it about this which drives so many of the townsfolk wild?
  34. What does Jem know which the jury refused to acknowledge? It must be hitting him hard, for he is crying. "… They’ll do it again, and when they do it – seems that only children weep. Good night", says Atticus. What does Atticus know?
  35. The end of Chapter 22 tells a lot about Maycomb, through the words of Miss Maudie. What does she reveal? Would you agree? What does she mean when she says that Atticus is doing an unpleasant job for us?
  36. What comes between people and reason? Atticus hints at it a couple of times … it happened on the steps of the gaol at night, and it happened in the jury-room.
  37. Near the end of the story, Jem decides that Boo might be right … that it is worth staying inside to stay away from people, who are, as groups, driving Jen bonkers. What is the source of the new-found sympathy with Boo?
  38. Scout survives the torture of having to behave in a roomful of trussed-up Ladies. What is the sort of threat that Scout might represent to all of them (save Miss Maudie)?
  39. Who was Mrs. Roosevelt, and what is the complaining about her referring to?
  40. After Cal and Atticus leave to go tell Helen Robinson about Tom’s death, Alexandra and Miss Maudie spend some time in the kitchen. There is a feeling of a chasm opening in Alexandra’s heart. What is wrenched out of her? And what is Miss Maudie’s reply? Maudie says, grimly, "Then let us join the Ladies", and marches back into the parlour.
  41. How does Mr. Underwood reveal his own disgust?
  42. Miss Gates teaches that the USA is a D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y, comparing it to Hitler and the situation of the German Jews. Jews suffer from prejudice, she teaches. What do the children not receive as a close-to-home lesson? What could have been taught at this moment by Miss Gates?
  43. What would be like shooting a mockingbird?


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