The main and underlying theme in the novel is that of black slavery, its abolition and the subsequent lack of its acceptance in the southern community. Harper Lee has portrayed the deep-set traditional way of thinking of the southerners who are unable to accept that the blacks have been released from the bonds of slavery. So, even if externally there are no slaves, the blacks have not yet been openly admitted into the whites’ fold and are denied the equality they deserve and even have a right to. The whites find it difficult and unacceptable to consider them equal. This theme has been illustrated while depicting the lifestyle of the black community and the varied problems they face from the white community.
Along with the major theme, Harper Lee has introduced smaller but no less important themes in the novel. The legend of the mockingbird, which only sings to please others and therefore the sense of sin associated in shooting a mockingbird, has been intricately woven into the plot. Tom Robinson’s death is likened to this sin since even Tom was an innocent, harmless person who would never hurt anybody and his death was unnecessary. Similarly, when it is revealed that Arthur Radley is the one who had killed Bob while saving the children’s lives, Mr. Heck Tate refuses to hold him responsible because he feels that it would invite unnecessary speculation, interest and undue attention to Boo Radley, which he does not wish for. To bring him into the limelight would again be like killing a mockingbird, just as Scout, very intelligently surmises.
The theme of morality is also introduced. Morals such as love for human beings, importance of living things, and an open attitude towards others’ beliefs and actions are well demonstrated. These are the subsequent themes in the novel.
The mood of the novel on a general level is light and humorous, especially when it relates Scout’s impulsive actions, Dill’s antics and Jem’s brotherly demeanor. However, the underlying mood throughout the novel is somber and profound, because certain important issues are being valued and dealt with. Atticus’ dealings with the blacks, the negative attitudes of some other members of the community, the trial of Tom Robinson and his gruesome end, depicts a seriousness and a grave reconsideration of accepted norms, which is expected of the readers by the author.
Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. She was the youngest daughter of the three children of Amassa Coleman Lee and Francis Lee. She completed her schooling in the Monroeville Public School, and later entered the University of Alabama to study law. Having failed to complete her degree, she moved on to New York. Her experience and knowledge of law, however, aided her a great deal in her writing career.
Harper Lee was part of the generation of writers that emerged after the Second World War. She wrote several essays and three short stories. On her literary agent’s advice, she expanded one of her stories into the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It was on the best seller lists for over eighty weeks and won the Pulitzer Prize and the Alabama Library Association Award. In spite of her success, Lee had no desire to write a sequel to the novel.
Maycomb County, where her novel is set, closely resembles the place where Harper Lee was born and spent most of her life. Though she insists that her novel is not autobiographical, her father was a lawyer and was the inspiration for the character of Atticus Finch.