TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
SUBJECTS — U.S./1929-1941, the Law & Diversity/African-American; Literature/U.S.;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Justice; Male Role Model; Coming of Age; Courage; Mental Illness; Parenting; Disabilities;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect; Responsibility; Fairness; Caring; Citizenship.
AGE; 11+; No MPAA Rating;
Drama; 1962; 129 Minutes; B & W. Available from Amazon.com.
Note to Teachers About Book, the Film and Racism: The book, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and one of the most widely read books in American literature, is an important part of the reading curriculum across the country. It is a superior source from which to teach reading and writing standards to students.
The movie version is a classic of American cinema:
Many people, including Harper Lee, the author of the novel, consider the film To Kill a Mockingbird to be highly faithful to the novel. In fact, after seeing the film, many think that the dialogue was taken word for word from the novel. “This is simply not so,” says the novel’s author, commenting on the screenplay …. “Scenes humorous, scenes tender, scenes terrifying, each with a definite purpose and value, blended so delicately with the original, created the illusion that these were [my] words.” In further praise of the screenplay, Lee says, “For me, Maycomb is there, its people are there: in two short hours one lives a childhood and lives it with Atticus Finch, whose view of life was the heart of the novel.” Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide on To Kill A Mockingbird
However, no movie can contain all of the events and characters that add depth and ideas to a well-written, full-length novel. Watching the film and reading the book are parallel beneficial experiences which reinforce each other. Children who are strong readers should read the novel before seeing the film.
Criticism of the Story from the African American Perspective: Bryan Stevenson, a crusader for justice in the American Legal system (see Just Mercy), has this telling and appropriate criticism of the story. TWM suggests that the following paragraphs be read by everyone who has read the book or seen the movie.
What that book is really about is the South, a small town, the criminal justice system, a lawyer, and white people. The blacks in it really play no significant role and the struggle in the book isn’t about how you make black people, who are invisible, visible and bring them from the margins into the mainstream of the community. The issue was could Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, still be a true southern gentleman if he went against the community and defended an invisible person. The reason I dislike that book is because it contributes to the ”invisible legacy”. What did Atticus Finch do to change his community? The Tom Robinson’s of the world, and the black community from which he came, were still left in the margins. It doesn’t change things because there is one white Atticus Finch out there ready to represent you, willing to stand up against the other whites. It may make you feel better to believe there is someone out there like Atticus Finch, but it didn’t keep Tom Robinson from being killed.
The problem is that too many people in the justice system define their contribution as being like a modern-day Atticus Finch. Well, that’s not enough! What you should care about is creating a society and a legal system where people are not forced to have an Atticus Finch represent them, where people who do not have enough money or who are black or who are not well-educated do not have to be in a position where they pray for an Atticus Finch to step forward.
What I am talking about is the next level up from To Kill a Mockingbird, a higher level where what Atticus Finch did is not seen as extraordinary what is normal – the everyday way that things should be done. That is the level where the people in the margins are made part of the entire community, and that not only benefits the invisible people but also the community. It makes for a better community because it makes for real justice.
Quoted in Circumstantial Evidence – Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town, by Pete Early 1995, Bantam Books, New York, pp. 395 & 396.
Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:
THE BEST OF TWM
One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s list of the best movies to supplement classes in English Language Arts, High School Level.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
Atticus Finch is a lawyer and single parent in a small Southern town during the Great Depression. He has two young children: Jem and Scout. When Finch is appointed by the local judge to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, most townspeople expect only a token defense, yet he affirms the value of a fair trial and struggles to see justice done. A separate plot line concerns how the children come to accept a mentally ill neighbor.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
1962 Academy Awards: Best Actor (Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Black & White), 1963 Golden Globe Awards: Best Actor-Drama (Peck), Best Score, 1962 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Mulligan), Best Supporting Actress (Badham), Best Black & White Cinematography, Best Original Score.
This film is ranked #34 on the American Film Institute’s List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006). This film is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film.
Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Philip Alford, Mary Badham, Robert Duvall, Rosemary Murphy, William Windom, Alice Ghostley, John Megna, Frank Overton, Paul Fix, Collin Wilcox.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
The script for the film remains true to the novel’s intentions, thus the film and the book reinforce each other. To Kill a Mockingbird, with its lessons about dignity, tolerance, and respect is an excellent account of the racism that dominated the legal and social system in the South until after the Civil Rights Movement. Atticus Finch is one of the best role models ever shown in film.
Students who see the film will gain easier access to the novel, although the film by itself clearly demonstrates Lee’s universal themes. Through the discussion questions and assignments at the end of this guide, students will be able to exercise research, writing and speaking skills dealing with elements of literature as well as the value of the story’s themes to society.
Minor. The word “nigger” is used several times by whites who are portrayed as ignorant and racist. The word “boy,” applied to a black man in a derogatory manner, is also used by the villain. This is a story about a place and time in American history when these words were often used to describe African Americans. The story disapproves of the use of these terms.
Take care that your children are not seeing the film in lieu of reading the book that may have been assigned. Support your child’s teacher when the book is being read in class by asking about some of the characters or incidents that appear in the story or the themes of the story.
For a short article on the Great Depression generally, see Learning Guide to “The Grapes of Wrath.”
- In the Southern United States, before the 1960s, “Jim Crow” laws separated blacks from whites in many activities of daily life. For example, black people were not permitted to go to the same schools as whites, sit in the same part of the courthouse, eat in the same restaurants, use the same public restrooms, or drink at the same water fountains. They were forced to sit at the back of public buses. These laws were unconstitutional and have now been repealed or invalidated. For a discussion of “Segregation and Its Corrosive Effects,” see Learning Guide to “A Force More Powerful.”
- The Constitution of the United States requires that before a person is convicted of a crime he must be given “due process of law.” In the case of persons accused of a felony or a crime for which they can be imprisoned for a substantial period of time or for which they can receive the death penalty, this includes the right to a lawyer. If the defendant is poor and cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the state must provide a lawyer for him. In this film, the judge appointed Atticus as defense counsel for the man accused of rape to give him “due process of law.” For other films which assist in teaching the meaning of this vitally important concept, see “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “Twelve Angry Men.”
- At one point in the film it appears that there may be a lynching, which is an execution carried out by people who are not law enforcement officers as punishment for a crime or some other transgression. Often people who were lynched had been wrongly accused and were innocent, as in “The Ox-Bow Incident.” For more on lynching as a form of vigilante justice, see Learning Guide to “Barbary Coast“.
- In the Southern U.S., lynching was used as a means of social control well into the 1940s, although it steadily declined during the early 20th century and was extremely rare after 1946. Before the Civil War, white opponents of slavery were lynched. After the Civil War, lynching by white mobs became a favorite method of intimidating black people. From 1886 – 1963, more blacks than whites were lynched. Since 1882, when records began to be kept, more than 4700 people have been lynched in the United States. The largest number in any single year was 230 in 1892. There were only four lynchings in the 1960s, most famously the lynching of Civil Rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. Lynching Statistics from the Archives of the Tuskegee Institute. Lynching has now been effectively suppressed by law enforcement and public disapproval.
- The elimination of discrimination and segregation in public places and institutions is an interesting area of study to supplement the lessons in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” See Snippet Lesson Plan on the Civil Rights Movement – The Nashville Sit-ins, 1960. Howard Zinn’s account of how he and his black students at Spellman College managed to integrate a courtroom in Atlanta at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement illuminates the power of persistent non-violence. The account can be found in his book, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
THEMES IN TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
This is a story about the innocent, exemplified by Tom Robinson, Boo Radley, and the children, and how they can be hurt or killed by evil or misguided people, personified by Mr. Ewell, Mr. Radley, and the prejudiced community. The story is also about the mature/good people, represented by Atticus, Calpurnia, Sheriff Tate and, by the end of the story, a maturing Scout, who understand that the world contains both good and evil and who do their best to protect and nurture the innocent.
The story teaches the following lessons about life and the way it should be lived:
Innocent people must be protected and should not be hurt; “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Racial prejudice leads to injustice and causes grave harm.
Comment: This will seem obvious to children in the 21st century. However, it was not obvious to millions of Americans in 1960 when the book was published or 1962 when the film was made. In those days, the South was still mostly segregated and African-Americans suffered from discrimination throughout the United States. While students will readily assent to this principle it is harder for them to apply in their own lives and, in fact, many people today still harbor prejudice.
People should follow the rule of law but in extraordinary circumstances, the rule of law should be tempered with mercy.
It is important to stand up for your principles and oppose injustice.
Violence is not a good way to resolve conflicts.
Comment: Atticus is steadfast in his refusal to use force against another human being. He will stand alone against a lynch mob, but he won’t strike back, even at severe provocation. Thus, when Mr. Ewell spits in his face, Atticus merely walks away. Mr. Ewell, on the other hand, is a violent man. He beats his daughter and seeks revenge upon Atticus by attacking Jem and Scout. Seeking to live by the sword, Mr. Ewell dies by it.
Tolerance of people who are different, including the mentally ill, is a virtue; fears of others fall away when we come to see them as people.
Comment: As the film opens, Scout and Jem live in a world of innocence. Jem is concerned with outward and immature shows of maturity: responding to a dare to touch the Radley house; wanting to have a gun; wanting his dad to play football with the other fathers, etc. Through the events of the story, the children learn about the existence of evil and that a person they had once feared can protect them and become their friend. By the end, Jem has started to think about serious issues such as good vs. evil, and justice vs. injustice. Scout has also matured, shedding her fear of Boo Radley and understanding that thrusting him into the limelight would be like killing an innocent animal, a mockingbird.
Mature masculinity involves love, nurturing, and treating others with respect; you don’t need a gun to be a man.
Comment: The only possible criticism of Atticus Finch is that he is too tolerant of the prejudices of his community, but then bearing witness and being a good example are at certain times the best way to change society.
SYMBOLS AND OTHER LITERARY DEVICES
Symbols: The mockingbird which sings and does no harm is the symbol for innocent people who need protection. The mockingbird figures prominently in the title which refers to the statement, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus makes this statement at lunch on Scout’s first day of school. At the end of the film Sheriff Tate says it would be a sin to expose Boo Radley to the public. Scout then comments that it would be like killing a mockingbird.
The names of the characters are interesting symbols. Jem is a gem. Scout, the narrator, is the explorer for understanding. Atticus is a name that invokes the grandeur and rectitude of the classical virtues. The surname for the family of Atticus, Jem and Scout, is Finch, recalling another bird. The black man who is killed is Tom Robinson, yet another name recalling a bird. The Finch’s mother substitute/housekeeper is named Calpurnia, who, like her namesake Caesar’s wife, is beyond any reproach. Mr. Ewell’s name is “Robert E. Lee Ewell” highlighting the irony that the best of the old Confederacy (Robert E. Lee) has degenerated into racism and drunken, child-beating criminality. Some commentators have noted that the name “Ewell” is very close to the word “evil”. “Boo” is seen as a spook for much of the film. His name is ironic because he’s painfully shy.
Guns are a symbol of dangerous power that has only a limited use. The immature Jem desires but is not permitted to have a gun. Sheriff Tate, who exhibits wisdom throughout the story, declines to use a gun on the rabid dog. He asks Atticus, the better marksman, to make the shot. Atticus uses the gun with precision and gains immeasurably in the eyes of his immature son. Mr. Radley, the meanest man in town, almost kills Jem when shooting blindly at what he thinks is a prowler. The mob that comes to the jail has guns and the deputy shoots Tom Robinson to injure but “misses his aim” and kills the man. As the story unfolds and Jem starts to mature, he doesn’t ask for a gun again. In contrast, when guns are needed for specific and limited purposes, they are used. Atticus kills the rabid dog with a gun. Young Walter Cunningham has a gun and goes hunting with his father. He and his family are country people who live on small game. They need to hunt.
The treatment of guns in this story is a criticism of the idea that having a gun makes a person a man. In the book, Atticus says to Jem, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
Plot: The two main plots curl around each other and end with the same moral, the innocent must be protected. The main plot involves the trial and death of Tom Robinson. The conflict was between the Finch family, primarily Atticus, and the racism in the town. The resolution was not satisfactory: Robinson was wrongly convicted and died. He deserved protection that he did not receive. The primary subplot is the story of Scout and Jem coming to realize that Boo Radley is a person and not just a freak. It ends after Boo kills Mr. Ewell and Scout understands that it would be like killing a mockingbird to drag Boo into the limelight. The conflict for the subplot is between the children and their own ignorance and immaturity.
Tom Robinson and Boo Radley have much in common. They both try to help. They are the only people in the story who are imprisoned. Tom Robinson is persecuted because he’s black and Boo is persecuted by his parents for some long ago infraction. They are both at risk in the justice system of Maycomb. They are both “mockingbirds”. Wise men try to protect them both: Atticus tries to protect Tom Robinson and Sheriff Tate tries to protect Boo Radley.
Contrasting Characters (Foils): In this story, the good qualities of Atticus Finch find a foil in several other characters or groups of characters. As a man who upholds the rule of law, a man who is not prejudiced, a man who is courageous, and a man who is nurturing to his children, Atticus is contrasted with Robert E. Lee Ewell. Ewell is a racist, child-beating coward who is willing to manipulate the legal system to satisfy his desire for revenge and to protect his reputation. At the end of the story, Atticus goes along with the Sheriff’s suggestion that they bend the strict rule of law to avoid involving Boo Radley in Mr. Ewell’s death. Had Boo’s role in the incident been disclosed, the young man would have suffered immensely from the public exposure involved in an inquest. Atticus’ actions and those of the Sheriff are merciful and do not violate fundamental justice, whereas Ewell sought to have a man falsely convicted, imprisoned, and hanged for base reasons.
The lynch mob and the jury provide another contrast with Atticus’ belief in the rule of law and his lack of racial prejudice. Another character that contrasts with Atticus is Mr. Radley, who is not a nurturing parent and is overly strict, causing immense psychological damage to his son. This contrast points up how Atticus nurtures his children.
Contrasting Situations and Actions: In addition to contrasts among the characters, contrasting actions highlight themes of the story. The lynch mob tries to take justice into its own hands. This is properly portrayed as evil. However, at the end of the film, the Sheriff and Atticus take justice into their own hands, deciding to be merciful to Boo and lie about how Mr. Ewell died. Technically, they have committed the crime of obstruction of justice; as a practical matter, they are tempering justice with mercy.
Another contrast is the gentleness and forbearance of the black people shown in the film as opposed to the racism and violence of the white community in Maycomb.
Irony: There are many instances of irony in the story. Examples are: (1) Jem and Scout fear Boo Radley but he is the one who comes to their rescue. (2) Mr. Ewell dies while trying to hurt Jem and Scout. He thought he was attacking vulnerable children and didn’t count on having to face Boo Radley. (This is another example of the unexpected consequences of revenge. For more on this, see Learning Guide to “Hamlet“.) (3) It is Sheriff Tate, who may “not be very much” rather than the smart lawyer Atticus Finch, who comes up with the stratagem that will protect Boo. (4) Atticus Finch, the best shot in town, doesn’t own a gun and won’t let his son have one. (5) Ewell screams that Atticus is a “nigger lover” when the only white person in the story who has loved a black man is his own daughter, Mayella.
Flashback: The whole story is one big flashback.
Motifs: The symbols of the mockingbird and its innocence and of guns as a dangerous instrumentality that can be properly used only in extraordinary and extreme situations are repeated and are motifs.
Photographs, Diagrams, and Other Visuals: Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination: Documentation by Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographers from the Library of Congress.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. The mockingbird which sings and does no harm is a symbol for innocent people who need protection. Atticus says, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” at lunch on Scout’s first day of school. How do actions at the end of the film show the true meaning of this statement?
At the end of the film, Sheriff Tate says it would be a sin to expose Boo Radley to the public. Scout sees the connection and comments that it would be like killing a mockingbird.
2. In the book, Atticus says that courage is “…when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” What in the film showed this kind of courage?
Atticus shows this courage himself when he defends Tom Robinson with all of his skill and energy even though he realizes his cause is lost.
3. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley have much in common. What characteristics do they share?
Both Tom and Boo try to help others. They are the only people in the story who are imprisoned. Tom Robinson is persecuted because he’s black, and Boo is persecuted by his parents for some long ago infraction and by the community because of his oddness. They are both at risk in the justice system of Maycomb. They are both “mockingbirds” who are need of protection from others; Atticus tries to protect Tom Robinson and Sheriff Tate and Atticus protect Boo Radley.
4. Why did the lynch mob disburse after the children arrived on the scene and Scout talked to them?
There were several reasons. The mere presence of the children and their innocence and goodness highlighted the wickedness of the deed which the mob intended to perform. Jem’s courage in standing up with his father while hopelessly outnumbered shamed the men who could not do what they intended without the anonymity and protection of the mob. Scout’s recognition of Mr. Cunningham and her discussion about his son emphasized the purity of children and family life. The men realized that they would have trouble explaining to their children what they intended to do that night. (One of the tests to determine ethical conduct is whether the actor would want his family to know what he had done. See Ethical Testing: How Will Our Decisions Affect Other People, Animals and the Environment? — 4.D. the Rule of Disclosure.) Finally, the lynch mob had not intended to hurt any children. Their evil didn’t go that far. But the children would be witnesses and could testify against them. They had lost their anonymity and, being cowards, this was not acceptable to them.
For additional discussion questions, click here.
LITERARY FORMS AND ANALYSIS
The following two questions are designed to be asked together.
5. This is a story the focuses on two violent deaths, however, no violence is shown. If filmmakers don’t need to show violence to effectively tell a story about two violent deaths, why are so many movies filled with gory and explicit violence?
There are two reasons: (1) those who make films that rely on violence to interest viewers are not very good storytellers; they have little real artistic talent, and (2) filmmakers are pandering to the lowest common denominator in an effort to fill the theaters.
6. Many of the names in this story tell us something about the characters. What do they tell us?
See the Section on “Symbols” in the Learning Guide.
For more questions elaborating on themes of the story see Social and Emotional Learning Questions below and Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions below.
See also TWM’s Standard Questions for Use With Any Film That is a Work of Fiction and TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
EXPANDING ON THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND PROVIDED IN THE STORY
The Great Depression
1. What was the Great Depression? When did it start and when did it end?
The Great Depression was a worldwide economic contraction in which commerce slowed and millions of people were thrown out of work. The government had to step in with work programs and relief efforts. It began in 1929 and it didn’t really end in the U.S. until the country started to make weapons for WWII. The most dramatic event of the beginning of the Great Depression was the stock market crash of October 1929.
2. There was a reference in the film to the people of Maycomb being told that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. Who said this and why did he say it?
In his first inaugural address, in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt, said:
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
He said this because so many businesses had failed that it was hard for people to believe that investing in new business would make money. In addition, Americans had lost faith in the honesty of the leaders of the business community. As a result, people didn’t invest. So many people had lost their jobs that consumers were afraid to spend. But because there were fewer new businesses and little spending, the economy worsened.
3. Atticus tells Scout that “the Crash” hit country folk the hardest. What did he mean by this statement?
He meant the October 1929 stock market crash. Generally, he meant that the economic dislocations of the Great Depression were very hard on farmers.
The Racist Culture of the Southern United States
4. Why were there no black children at the school attended by Jem and Scout?
Before 1954, schools in many Southern states were segregated by law. The education provided for black children was inferior. This began to gradually change after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education.
5. What were the differences between schools for whites and schools for blacks in the South during this period?
The schools attended by white children received more funding and offered a better education than the schools attended by black children. For example, new textbooks would be provided to white schools. The old, and often out-of-date textbooks would be provided to the black schools. White teachers were often paid more than black teachers. White schools were newer and usually well maintained. Schools for black children were often old and dilapidated.
6. Why would there be serious consequences for a white woman if the community believed that she had sought the attention of a black man?
The short answer is that it violated the community’s code of conduct in a way that aroused basic fears about the relationship between whites and blacks in a racist society.
A longer answer will give rise to some interesting thoughts about the consequences of racism. In many societies that have a rigid or racist class system, the dominant group often develops myths that exaggerate the sexual potency of the men of the subordinate group and claim that the women of the subordinate group are licentious. During times of slavery and segregation, this was certainly true of whites in the Southern United States. Ironically, because of their dominant power position, it was white men who preyed upon black women during the times of slavery and, to a lesser extent, during the time of segregation. This was true even of rabid segregationists. See, for example, the story of Strom Thurmond. This man was a politician from South Carolina. For most of his career, Mr. Thurmond was a strong proponent of segregation. He served as governor and later as a U.S. Senator. As a young man, while believing strongly in the inferiority of black people, he had a daughter by his household’s black maid. This was hidden from the public for most of Thurmond’s very long political career. Southern white racists feared that if the (imagined) powerful sexuality of black people was not repressed it would destroy society.
Societies with racist cultures also develop illogical ideas about racial purity. For example, if a person had one black grandparent, they would be classified as black, even if all of their other ancestors were white. Clearly, this person’s dominant genetic background was Caucasian, but society in the South treated this person as black. Why would a white supremacist believe that Caucasian genes were so delicate that they would be overwhelmed by a few genes from a black person? Is this a reason for people to reject their own flesh and blood? Many modern societies, including the United States, still suffer from this totally illogical system of classification. How many people in the “black community” do you know who have ancestors that were Caucasian (even primarily Caucasian) but who are still considered black? People of mixed ancestry themselves, because of family connections or in order to find a community that will accept them, identify with the “black” community. A prime example is Barack Obama who was raised by his white mother and his white grandparents, but who identifies as black.
Another reason why a white woman having sexual relations with a black man would be intolerable to white men was probably their own guilt over the manner in which the society as a whole oppressed black people and the way in which white men could sexually exploit black women without suffering serious consequences. (This is not to say that most white men had sexual relations with black women. After the end of slavery, this appeared to be a small percentage. But it was the knowledge that this had occurred which rankled.)
7. Why was the villain (Mr. Ewell) so angry at Atticus after the trial that he would try to hurt Atticus’ children? After all, the jury had officially sustained Mayella’s honor and found against Tom Robinson.
There are many reasons. Some of them are as follows: A person who has done something very wrong and who has lied about it will often hate someone who refuses to go along with the lie and who bears witness to the truth. It was clear from Atticus’ presentation at the trial that Mayella Ewell was the aggressor in her relationship with Tom Robinson and that her father had beaten her. While the jury would not admit it officially, Atticus had established the truth of this in his cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses. Eventually, the people in the town would realize that Mayella had tried to tempt a black man. What self-respecting racist man would want to marry Mayella when she carried this baggage? Ewell’s knowledge that the town believed Mayella had tried to seduce Tom would infuriate him, especially because he knew that it was true. In addition, Mr. Ewell had a drinking problem and was probably drunk at the time of the attack. Alcohol diminishes not only a person’s coordination but also his capacity to make sound judgments. Finally, Ewell was a man who sought to solve problems with violence.
8. Tom Robinson said something on the stand that sealed his own fate. What was it and why did that statement make it almost impossible for the white jury to acquit him, even though it was clear that Robinson was not guilty? What does this tell us about the nature of racism?
Robinson inadvertently sealed his own fate when he said that he pitied the white woman. A racist society could not tolerate a black man pitying a white woman. It was especially difficult to take because it was reasonable, given the facts of the situation. It would have been easier to take if Robinson’s pity for Mayella had been irrational.
9. When Atticus took Calpurnia, the housekeeper, home from work why did she sit in the back seat of the car?
This was the custom. If she had been in the front seat the community would have understood that Atticus and she were friends rather than employer and housekeeper. (On this topic see Learning Guide to “The Long Walk Home”.) This would have adversely affected Calpurnia’s standing in her own community because there would have been a suspicion that she was having a sexual relationship with Atticus Finch. It would have also adversely affected Atticus’ standing in the white community as it would have been a sign of respect for a black person. Having Calpurnia sit in the back is an example of how Atticus made compromises with the customs of the white community so that he could live in Maycomb. It could also be a matter of Atticus choosing the battles that he was to fight.
10. Why did Mayella falsely accuse Tom Robinson of raping her? After all, he was one of the few people who had ever been nice to her.
Her father caught her hugging Tom and trying to kiss him. Mr. Ewell beat her up and insisted that she prosecute Tom. He would have continued to beat her up if she had not complained against Tom. When Tom testified that Mayella had been the aggressor and that she had hugged and kissed him, she would have suffered humiliation in the white community. White women were not supposed to be sexually attracted to black men.
The Legal System
For questions relating to due process and the legal system, see the JUSTICE section of the Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions.
11. “Dill”, the small boy who lived next door, offered to bet a “Tom Swift” and another book if Jem would run to the porch of Boo’s house. What was a “Tom Swift”?
The Tom Swift series of adventure/science fiction stories for young children was published in the 1950s and concerned a young inventor who solved mysteries. These books are still good reading for grades 4 – 7.
12. Why did it embarrass Mr. Cunningham to be thanked for the food that he gave to Atticus in payment of his legal bill?
He felt ashamed that he couldn’t pay in money. Perhaps a better way for him to deal with the situation was to have been proud that despite his difficulties he did what he could to pay his bills.
1. During the trial, Atticus tried to demonstrate that Tom Robinson could not have assaulted Mayella Ewell. How did he do this?
He had Mr. Ewell write his name and Mr. Robinson catch a glass. This was to demonstrate that Mr. Ewell was left-handed and that Tom Robinson could not use his left hand. The witnesses testified that Mayella was injured on the right side of her face which meant that most likely she was attacked by a person who led with his left. Atticus also showed that Mayella had marks all around her neck. This required two hands, while Mr. Robinson had only one good hand.
2. Did Atticus have to prove that Tom Robinson didn’t attack Mayella Ewell to secure a verdict of not guilty? Answer this from a legal and from a practical standpoint.
From a legal standpoint, he had only to throw reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case. Juries can only convict for a criminal offense if the prosecution proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. However, as a practical matter, representing a black man charged with raping a white woman before an all-white jury in the South before the Civil Rights Movement, Atticus had to prove that Mr. Robinson didn’t hurt Mayella. It was probably impossible to gain an acquittal because of the prejudice of the jury even if the prosecution had very weak evidence. The practical and legal standards that Atticus had to overcome very different.
3. Why did the jury convict Tom Robinson of rape when it was obvious that Mr. Ewell and Mayella were lying and that Tom was telling the truth?
The whites felt a need to close ranks behind Mr. Ewell, a white man, regardless of the truth or of their opinion of him as a human being. Believing that black men were chomping at the bit to get at white women, the jury could not risk letting black men believe that they had a chance to escape the consequences of raping white women by convincing a jury that the white woman was lying.
4. Would a jury in the present day South have convicted Tom Robinson? Defend your answer.
It is unlikely. Juries in the South are now integrated. They more accurately represent the entire community, including black people. For an example of how integrated juries affect verdicts, see the Learning Guide to “Ghosts of Mississippi”. In that case, a Civil Rights worker, Medger Evers, was murdered in 1963. Courageous prosecutors tried to convict the assassin twice in the early 1960s in front of all white juries. Each time the jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict. It was not until some 36 years later, after Mississippi started allowing black people on juries, that the assassin was again prosecuted and an integrated jury convicted him.
5. Why was a lawyer appointed to defend Tom Robinson?
In the case of persons accused of a felony or a crime for which they can be imprisoned for a substantial period of time or for which they can receive the death penalty, due process requires that they be represented by a lawyer. If the defendant is poor and cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the state must provide a lawyer for him. These requirements are imposed by the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution.
6. There was a problem with the selection of the jury in the trial of Tom Robinson. What was it?
He was not tried by a jury of his peers because only whites were allowed to serve on the jury.
7. Atticus told the jury that “[T]here 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 . . . is the court.” Do you agree or disagree?
This is a correct statement of the goal of the legal system. However, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. People and companies who are able to secure very good lawyers to represent them often get better results than people who can’t afford good lawyers. Being able to hire a good lawyer will improve one’s chances of winning. Fortunately, in the U.S., more often than not, the legal system works as Atticus described it.
8. Given the verdict by the jury, what power did Judge Taylor have and what should he have done?
If a judge finds that after a full trial the prosecution has presented so little evidence that no reasonable jury could make a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge can dismiss the case. Even if a reasonable jury could find a person guilty but the judge feels that a jury has made a mistake and that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the judge can set aside the verdict and order a new trial. Judge Taylor should have dismissed the case, as Atticus argued, because the state did not provide any medical evidence that Mayella had been raped. But even if the judge accepted Mayella’s testimony that there had been sexual intercourse, he should have ordered a new trial because the weight of the evidence was in Tom Robinson’s favor. But Tom tried to run away before the Atticus got the chance to present that motion.
MALE ROLE MODEL
8A. Would you classify Atticus Finch as a male role model? What are the reasons for your response?
Yes. Atticus Finch is patient, kind, nurturing, ethical and willing to stand up for what he believes in. As a lawyer, he will battle for the underdog. He is a wonderful parent.
The following three questions are designed to be asked in sequence.
9. The author of this story has a particular concept of masculinity, of what is good in a man. What is it?
A good and masculine man loves and nurtures his children, cares for his friends, and is tolerant and forgiving of others. He treats all those around him with respect and consideration. Atticus renounces violence but stands up for what he believes in, risking his standing in the community and his personal safety when necessary. He is wise. He respects the rule of law but can see beyond it to be merciful in situations in which the strict application of the rule of law would injure vulnerable people. He is competent at his profession.
10. What is your society’s concept of masculinity? Is it the same or does it differ from the concept of masculinity shown in this story?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Compare how it relates to the suggested answer to the preceding question.
11. What is your personal concept of masculinity? Is it different than what is shown in the story?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Compare how it relates to the suggested answer to the first question in this section.
12. Do you think that the character of Atticus Finch could be criticized for going along with an oppressive racist society without protesting its injustices in a more dramatic way than simply serving as an example? Or, do you think that this would be an unfair criticism given the time and place in which Atticus lived and the fact that he had spent almost all his life in Maycomb?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Instead, there are strong or weak answers depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshaled to support the response. Here are some concepts that would come up in a good discussion: He was too tolerant of the racism in Maycomb. He should have protested more or moved away. On the other hand, he was a force for change just by the example of treating blacks with respect. Important social changes take place one step at a time and his presence made those first few steps happen earlier than if he had not been there.
13. Describe the attributes of Atticus Finch as a parent. How does he relate to his children and teach them values?
He was caring and involved. He treated his children with respect. He was not a disciplinarian and taught his children to think for themselves. His children knew that they could disobey him without risk of getting severely punished. But most of all, as any parent will, Atticus taught best by the example of the way he lived his life. The fact that he was a truly exemplary character made him a much better parent.
14. Describe some occasions in the movie when Atticus’ children disobeyed direct instruction from their father. How did Atticus’ failure to enforce strict discipline affect his children?
There were four occasions: (1) when Jem refused to come down from the tree for breakfast; (2) when Scout fought at school against a child who insulted her father; (3) when Jem and Scout refused to leave Atticus to face the lynch mob alone; and (4) when Jem and Scout attended the Tom Robinson trial. As to the second question, there is no one correct answer. Instead, there are strong or weak answers depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshaled to support the response. The following concepts will be included in a strong response. Children who disobey their parents run risks because the parents have more experience with life and are often wiser than the children. One basic way to avoid discipline problems is not to make a big deal of it. If Jem wanted to miss his breakfast and stay in the tree, Atticus was not going to care. At the court and at the jail, Atticus had some practical problems. Was Atticus going to stop the trial and order Jem to leave? Atticus could not have forced Jem to leave the front of the jail without abandoning Tom Robinson to the mob. Perhaps there could have been consequences imposed later. Parenting is never perfect and the best way to test parenting is to ask if the parent is “good enough” for his children to thrive and grow into caring and mature adults. Atticus Finch was much more than “good enough”.
15. After an unpleasant encounter with Mr. Ewell, Atticus tells Jem that although he’d like to keep him away from the ugliness of the world, that is never possible. Can parents protect children from learning about evil and ugliness in the world?
No. Ugliness and evil are part of life. No one can be insulated from it. The trick is deciding when the child is mature enough to learn about ugliness and evil and how to talk to them about it.
16. Give some examples of courageous action in this story. Not all of them involve physical confrontation.
The characters are Atticus, Jem, Sheriff Tate, and Boo Radley. The examples are: for Atticus: defending Tom Robinson and facing down the mob alone; for Jem: refusing to leave Atticus alone with the mob in front of the jail (Jem stood with his father when his father was grossly outnumbered and in grave peril); for Sheriff Tate: exhibiting courage by refusing to permit Boo to be destroyed by the legal process and the fame associated with killing Mr. Ewell in defense of the Finch children; for Boo Radley: defending the Finch children and risking exposure by staying in the house to make sure that Jem would be alright.
17. In the book, Atticus says that courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” This could also fit a definition of foolhardiness. What is the difference between being foolhardy and being courageous?
There is no one answer to the question but a good answer would include the concept that courage involves standing up for a principle and for the good rather than merely doing something dangerous. There are times when it is best to back away from a hopeless fight in order to live to fight another day. This is true even when the fight is for a lofty purpose. Examples of this are the many almost miraculous retreats engineered by George Washington in which, after losing a battle to the British, he spirited his army away, sometimes right under the nose of a superior force. The Continental Army was able to survive and lived to fight and win on another day. There are times when people decide that the principle is worth the struggle even if they’ll lose and, sometimes, even if they’ll die. Excellent examples are the black soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment, the first full regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War. These men had something to prove, i.e., that black soldiers could fight as well as white soldiers. In the Civil War that meant that thousands of them would die. See Learning Guide to “Glory”.
18. There was one person in the story who was a coward, who was he?
Robert E. Lee Ewell. He used his position as a white man to persecute Tom Robinson because Mayella had shamed his family by trying to seduce Mr. Robinson. He then tried to hurt Atticus by attacking his children. These are all cowardly actions.
19. What was Atticus’ attitude toward fighting (in the sense of using force against another person)? Give some examples. What does this have to do with courage?
Atticus thought fighting was destructive, immature and unmanly. He told Scout not to fight with kids at school. Mr. Ewell tried to provoke him when he spit at Atticus but Atticus merely walked away. The fact that Atticus would not fight is very much like Gandhi’s refusal to condone violence. See Learning Guide to “Gandhi”. Atticus’ refusal to fight has nothing to do with courage except that sometimes a refusal to fight is the most courageous thing to do. Atticus shows his courage in other ways, such as being willing to put himself at risk to protect Tom Robinson from the lynch mob.
COMING OF AGE
20. What were the circumstances that brought home to Jem the realization that there was evil in the world?
The conviction of Tom Robinson when the evidence was clear that he could not have committed the crime described by the Ewells.
21. In the movie, when Atticus fells the dog with one bullet and Sheriff Tate tells Jem that Atticus is the best shot in the county, Jem’s eyes glow with admiration and pride. Is this a mature thought on Jem’s part, a realization that his father may not be such a wuss after all?
No. It’s an immature thought. Jem is equating manhood and masculinity with the power to shoot and kill. But the fact that his father can shoot well doesn’t mean his father should be admired as a man. However, it resonates well with an immature child who is concerned because his father won’t do the “manly” things the other fathers will do.
22. What is the significance of guns in this story?
Essentially they are trapping of maturity that is often false and always very dangerous. See the Discussion of Guns as a Literary Symbol in the Helpful Background Section of this Guide.
23. The fact that Atticus, who was the best shot in the county, never used a gun except when asked by the Sheriff to kill the rabid dog, relates to one of the themes of the story. What was that theme?
Guns are equated with violence and violence between people is not a good thing.
24. As the movie unfolds, Scout’s reactions to Boo change. Describe the change.
At the beginning, Boo was someone unknown and feared. By the end of the film, Scout realizes that he is a person who had feelings and who had saved her from Mr. Ewell.
25. Boo Radley was feared by the children and yet he proved to be a gentle and protective soul. What does this say about our reactions to people who are different and strange?
We are frightened by people who do not seem normal. But when we look beyond outward appearance and discover who these people really are, we often find that they have many good qualities.
26. Assume that Scout and Jem had wanted to give a present to Boo for saving their lives. What present would be the most helpful to Boo?
To be his friend and to treat him with respect.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
1. What does walking around in another person’s skin for a while allow you to do? Can you ever judge a person’s behavior without doing that?
It allows you to get a true understanding of what it is like to be that person. This is essential if you are going to properly judge a person’s behavior. The quote from the book is “You never really understand a person until you understand things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk about in it.”
2. Can you name one person that Atticus Finch did not treat with respect?
No. That was one of the things that was so wonderful about him. He even treated Mr. Ewell with respect.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
3. Jem disobeyed his father on a number of occasions and, fortunately, it worked out. One occasion was when Jem refused to leave Atticus to face the lynch mob alone. But this decision was not without its problems. Evaluate the ethics of that decision stating the competing values, the interests of the various stakeholders, how the five ethical tests apply, and whether Jem fell into any of the common rationalization traps often used to justify unethical decisions. When that analysis is completed, weigh all of the factors you have discovered and evaluate his decision. See Principled Decision Making.
There is no one correct answer to this question. Instead, there are strong or weak answers depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshaled to support the response. A strong answer will evaluate the various factors suggested in Principled Decision Making. Some points that would be included in a good answer are set out below: Jem knew that he should obey his father. Atticus was more experienced and wiser than Jem. Jem was still a child and knew that he should have been guided by his father’s instructions. In addition, Jem knew that Atticus had a strong desire to protect his children and that Jem, by being disobedient, was frustrating that need. However, competing with that injunction was the values that were served by protecting his father and Mr. Robinson. These were ethical thoughts, enhancing ethical values. There were also other stakeholders in the decision, namely Scout and Dill. Jem, as the oldest child and the leader of the group, had responsibilities to them. Finally, Jem had a value in acting on the adult stage, in showing that he was grown up. This was a normal value that most children have, but a value they should distrust because it can lead them into trouble.
Jem was faced with a conflict in values: the values of obedience; of protecting his father who was in danger; of protecting Tom Robinson, an innocent man; of taking care of Scout and Dill; and finally, of being an actor on the adult stage.
Jem’s decision to stay and help his father face down the mob passes three of the four ethical tests (the Golden Rule, Universality and Disclosure). It honors many of the established ethical standards but does not adhere to the Commandment to “honor thy father …” or the Pillar of Responsibility (do what you are supposed to do, which includes obeying your parents). Jem should be wary of this decision because it falls into one of the common rationalizations used to justify ignoring ethical values: “I was just doing it for you”.
Like many ethical decisions, the ultimate determination of whether Jem acted correctly depends on a factual evaluation. If Jem sensed that the presence of children would help bring the mob to its senses by interposing the mob’s value of not harming children against its desire to lynch Tom Robinson, and if Jem correctly judged that because the children were there the mob would not act, then Jem did the right thing. If Jem was simply refusing to obey his father and stayed in front of the jail because it was an exciting adult situation, then Jem’s refusal to leave the front of the jail was not an ethical decision.
(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)
4. Was the jury fair to Tom Robinson? If not, how was it unfair to him?
The jury was not fair because it voted to uphold the racist ethic when the jurors were sworn to act on the facts and the law. It is clear that the prosecution did not present evidence that was beyond a reasonable doubt. Mayella was simply not a credible witness. The physical evidence of where she was hit and how she was choked exonerated Mr. Robinson.
5. Is there anything fair about racism?
This is a rhetorical question but it makes a good point.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
6. Can you name one person to whom Atticus was not kind?
No. Even when he cross-examined Mayella Ewell and her father, he was respectful.
7. Describe three instances in which Atticus Finch lived up to the attributes of this Pillar to people who were not members of his family.
There are many, here are a few: (i) agreeing to defend Tom Robinson; (ii) acquiescing in the Sheriff’s decision to not to involve Boo Radley in the death of Mr. Ewell; (iii) accepting payment in kind from clients who had no money; and (iv) having Walter Cunningham for dinner.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
8. Did Atticus do his share for his community? Describe how he did it.
Yes, he represented an unpopular defendant, Tom Robinson.
9. Did Atticus merely do the minimum that was expected of him as an attorney for Tom Robinson or did he go beyond that?
Atticus went beyond what was expected of him by the community because he zealously represented Mr. Robinson and risked the anger of many in the community by those efforts. However, as a lawyer, Atticus had a responsibility to his client to do all that he ethically could do to represent him.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. As the film opens, the credits roll as the camera focuses on a box of objects containing a variety of things that are important to both Jem and Scout. Write an informal essay describing what would be included in a box of items significant in your life. Be sure to make the value of the items understood. For example, a ticket stub in the box should be identified by what event it represented and why the event was important. At least one of the items should serve as a reminder or an important lesson or experience that helped shaped who you are.
2. Research three people in history who have taken stands on principles that have led to social change in spite of great odds and great difficulties. Include biographical information and a brief description of their principled stand; include the consequence of their demonstrations of belief. The people that you find can be from different cultures and from any time period, famous or little known.
3. The vigilantes show up to take Tom Robinson from jail most certainly for a lynching. Write an informative essay resulting from Internet research that includes a timeline of the history of lynching in the U.S. Relate a few specific exemplary incidences, including the most recent, and show the struggle by progressives to end the practice.
4. Ironically, in the trial scene, the courtroom is segregated. Write an essay about the history of integration in the legal system. Be sure to include Howard Zinn who, along with the young women from Spellman College, was able to integrate a courtroom in Atlanta Georgia.
5. Interracial relationships during the time period in which the film is set were largely against the law. Using Internet research skills, write an expository essay on the miscegenation laws through which authorities tried to keep people of different races from marrying. Find details about when the laws were written and when they were subsequently invalidated. You may write in general terms or focus on one particular state or area of the nation. Investigate interracial marriages today and note the changes over the past half-century.
6. In the conversation between Atticus and Sheriff Tate after the children were attacked and Ewell has been found dead, the issue of “situation ethics” is raised. Both men have been shown to be honorable and moral yet they are now willing to cover up a set of circumstances that would normally call for a formal investigation. They plan to lie to the authorities and take the law into their own hands. Write an opinion essay in which you either justify or decry the action of these two men in defending Boo Radley.
For additional assignments, click here.
Empathic Response Assignments Introduced by Discussion Questions Specifically Designed for Use With To Kill a Mockingbird
In order to fully engage students in “To Kill a Mockingbird” teachers may find it necessary to show how stories about even dated behavior and attitudes can still be relevant to the lives of young people today. The following discussion questions are accompanied by suggested assignments that will engage students in an empathic reaction to the material in the film as well as provide an opportunity to exercise the skills required by ELA curriculum standards.
Teachers can select assignments that best fit their intentions in showing the film and in the standards upon which the students are working. The questions are chronological. The film can be chunked to allow the assignments to be given as students watch the film or the film can be shown in its entirety with work assigned after viewing has been completed.
For these questions, there are generally no single correct answers. Instead, there are strong or weak answers depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshaled to support the response.
For each assignment, specify the length of the writing and the rubric that will be used to evaluate the submissions.
1. [As the film opens, the credits roll as the camera focuses on a box of objects. Refer to this box and ask:] The objects in this box have importance to both Jem and Scout. The timepiece, for example, illuminates not only the point that one day a father will pass this object on to his son but the idea that childhood is a quick and soon lost period in a person’s life. What is suggested when the crayon drawing in this opening is torn and the film then moves into its story?
Strong responses will refer to the separation between innocence and maturity or to the end of innocence caused by experience.
Assignment: Write a descriptive essay showing what would be included in a box containing items significant in terms of your own life. Be sure to explain anything necessary to make the value of the items understood. For example, a ticket stub in the box should be identified by what event it represented and why the event was important.
2. The voiceover that begins the film belongs to Scout, as an adult, looking back into a particularly important time in her life. It was 1932 and she was 6 years old. She declares that days seemed longer back when there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and nothing to buy it with. What else does she see that indicates hard times felt during the Great Depression?
Here is one instance; there may be others. Scout sees how collards and hickory nuts are used by Mr. Cunningham to pay her father for work he has done. Her father says, by way of explanation, that the 1929 stock market crash hit the farmers the hardest and that Mr. Cunningham is embarrassed by a “thank you” since he is paying off debt rather than acting with generosity.
Assignment: Write a brief account of how you would fill a summer day without access to cable television, the Internet, video games, or anything that would cost money. Assume you could not ride in a car or take public transportation anywhere.
3. Boo Radley’s house is spooky to the children and Miss deBoise is someone to be avoided altogether. How does Atticus address both of these issues in the hopes that the children will learn from him?
He tells his children to leave “those poor people” who live in the Radley house alone. Atticus is also nice to the old woman. When she is ranting against the children, he distracts her by complimenting her garden.
Assignment: Write a narrative about a scary neighborhood threat, real or imagined, that caused you to shift your behavior. If none occurred in your neighborhood, write about some national circumstance, such as kidnapping, a school shooting or 9/11, that may have engendered fear and altered your way of going about your life. Be sure to describe the circumstances fully, including how you felt, not just what you thought. Describe what you did, if anything, to protect yourself against the scary neighborhood threat.
4. Atticus shows courage in his willingness to defend Tom Robinson against the rape charges. Even the implied threats of Robert Ewell did not deter him. What values are shown in Atticus’ stance?
Atticus shows a firm sense of justice and as a lawyer, he shows deep respect for the legal process. He shows self-confidence in having the kind of personal power required to stand up against bigotry. He shows courage in being willing to stand against most of his community, risking his standing in the town and his personal safety.
Assignment: Using the Internet, write a one-page short essay about each of three people in history and how they have taken stands on principle in spite of great odds and great difficulties. For each person include some biographical information and a brief description of their principled stand. One of your subjects can be taken from an incident in the life of the following: Alice Paul (suffragist leader); Emile Zola (the Dreyfus Affair); George Washington (and any other patriot of the American Revolution who risked their lives fighting the most powerful empire on Earth); and Mahatma Gandhi. The people that you find can be from different cultures and from any time period. You will receive extra credit by finding people who are not known to your classmates.
5. When Jem runs back to the collard patch to get his pants, he says that his father had never whipped him since he could remember and he planned to keep it that way. Atticus does not seem like the kind of father who would ever whip his child and what Jem really fears is Atticus’ disapproval. What could be the reason that Jem fears his father’s disapproval?
Atticus carries himself with such authority that he seems to have a great deal of power.
Assignment: Think of someone you know who seems to have a great deal of authority that has nothing to do with his or her physical strength or official position. Or, think of someone who is given considerable respect from those around him or her. Write a brief characterization of this person that will explain the reasons for the esteem in which he or she is held. Use details about personal appearance, actions and what is said either by or about this person of authority or respect.
6. When Walter is invited to the house to share a meal, Jem expresses for the second time his interest in guns. At this point, Atticus tells Jem about the rule that one must never shoot a mockingbird. The mockingbird is a symbol that appears at other points in the movie as well. What relationship does the statement “It’s wrong to kill a mockingbird” have to do with Boo Radley and Tom Robinson?
The mockingbird represents something or someone who does not try to hurt anyone and who provides the world with a little beauty or goodness. The bird is like Tom Robinson in that the man simply wanted to help a woman in need who seemed overwhelmed and lonely. The mockingbird is like Boo Radley in that he left tokens in the tree to share with the children and protected them when they were attacked. Neither person meant any harm in the world. Both of them were injured by others who didn’t understand their goodness, Tom by the racist jury, and Boo by his family. Good people in the movie tried to protect them. Atticus tried to protect Tom from being convicted for a crime that he did not commit and that never actually occurred. Atticus was not successful. However, the Sheriff and Atticus protected Boo from the publicity of an inquest concerning the circumstances of Mr. Ewell’s death.
Assignment: Think of someone in your life or in mass media who seems to be like a mockingbird as Atticus sees it. Characterize this person in a brief paragraph. Give examples of the kindnesses he or she has shown others and explain the motivation.
7. Atticus defends the teacher who makes a mistake in trying to give money to Walter Cunningham. He says that you can never understand others until you see things from their points of view. How would it be possible for the teacher to understand Walter Cunningham or for Scout to understand the teacher?
Answers will vary. The class should consider the possibility that neither the teacher nor Scout will ever be able to understand Walter. They will never know what it is like to grow up in abject poverty. Coming from an upbringing such as the one provided by Atticus, Scout may be able to empathize with the teacher because she has learned tolerance of opposing points of view.
Assignment: There are people either in mass media or in your personal life who have behaved in ways that you cannot comprehend. Write about that person making clear the nature of the disagreement you have with him or her. Then play devil’s advocate and come up with a justification for actions with which you find a complaint from the point of view held by the perpetrator.
8. When Atticus kills the mad dog, the children are told that their father is the best marksman in town. Jem is impressed, yet Atticus has made it clear that he believes ownership of guns is not an attribute of manhood. What might be the reason Jem is so enamored of guns?
Children love to pretend that they are shooting guns. In addition, in the general society, many people who have been entranced by the myth of the cowboy or the advertising of the gun lobby believe that owning a gun is a mark of being a person of power. Atticus disagrees with this view of manhood.
Assignment: Write a persuasive essay which seeks to convince your reader to share your opinion about the value of guns in society today. Should they be regulated, outlawed, or left to the demands of the marketplace and the desires of the individual? Be sure to include in your essay at least one counterargument to a position put forward by persons on the other side of the issue.
9. When Atticus takes his children to see Helen Robinson, the wife of the man he is defending, Robert Ewell shows up and calls him a “nigger lover.” Atticus does not comment and later tells Jem not to fear Ewell who is “all bluff.” Comment on the connection between the use of the term “nigger lover” and the prospect that Ewell is more than bluffing.
Answers will vary. Students may suggest that anyone willing to use verbal violence such as “nigger lover” may well be capable of using physical violence. Others may feel that verbal violence is a substitute for physical violence. Some may simply suggest that Atticus is wrong; Ewell is not bluffing.
Assignment: Try to recall a time when you heard the use of verbal violence or hate speech. Write a narration about the time you witnessed its use. Show what led up to the verbal violence and detail the consequences. Narratives are like stories; be sure to describe the setting and the characters and make the circumstances clear.
10. As open-minded as Atticus seems to be, Calpurnia still sits in the back seat of the car when he drives her home. Why isn’t Calpurnia sitting in the front? Is it merely racism or are there additional factors operating here?
There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps, Calpurnia sits in the back to hide from the community Atticus’ feelings about racism. Another is that both Calpurnia and Atticus desire to demonstrate to their respective communities that their relationship is only an employer/employee relationship and that it is not an equal relationship. A third possibility is classism. Atticus will not allow Calpurnia to sit in the front seat because Calpurnia is a poor working domestic and Atticus is an attorney from a distinguished Maycomb family. Differences in class, as well as differences in race, motivate this arrangement. See that the students engage in discussion about the vague distinction between classism and racism.
Assignment: Classism, like racism, is based upon pre-conceived notions of status in society. Take a survey of the different kinds of classism you see in your classroom, school, neighborhood or in the mass media. From your survey, list examples of classism based upon economics, age, talent, beauty, intelligence and employment. Share your examples with the class.
11. Tension builds prior to the trial. Atticus takes a lamp and a book and sits in front of the jail in case trouble arises from vigilantism. The children show up and refuse to obey when he demands that they go home. In what sense is the children’s defiance a principled and caring action?
By disobeying Atticus, the children are saying that their safety is secondary to the support they can offer Atticus in the stand he is taking for justice. They are willing to risk punishment in defense of Atticus, for both his cause and because he is their father.
Assignment: Narrate an experience you have had either with peers or with any authorities when you took a stand in defense of principle. Be sure to specify exactly who the authorities were, what point you were defending and the outcome of the situation. If you have not experienced any such incident, draw upon those shown in novels or in films to complete the assignment.
12. When the vigilantes show up to take Tom Robinson from jail most certainly lynch him, the presence and behavior of the children defuse the situation. How are the children at least partially responsible for saving Tom Robinson from being lynched that night?
Some may assert that when the men see the children, they are reluctant to continue behaving in a way that they themselves see as dishonorable. Children often bring out the best in adults who are ashamed to act badly in front of them. See e.g., TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan The Child Savior Myth and Literary Archetypes– An Introduction Using Man on Fire. In addition, the presence of witnesses often cause reconsideration of action. Others may note that Scout brings out the sense of community and a degree of compassion when she recognizes Mr. Cunningham and tells the crowd that she goes to school with his son and her father has done legal work for him. Another possibility is that the men remember that Atticus had helped many of them keep their land. Scout mentions this in the scene.
Assignment: Mr. Cunningham is living under what is referred to as an “entailment.” Using Internet research, define the term and explain its historical context.
13. In the trial scene, the courtroom is segregated. What ironies can be found in this scene?
The courts are places where justice is supposed to be meted out fairly, without regard to race. Segregated seating, along with the fact of an all-white jury makes clear that in Maycomb racial justice is not a part of the equation. Another irony is that Jem and Scout sit in the “colored section” of the courtroom with complete safety while a black man before the jury is in mortal danger.
Assignment: Using Internet research skills, find the information and write a summary of the account told by Howard Zinn about how the girls from Spellman College were able to integrate a courtroom in Atlanta Georgia.
14. What irony can be found in the revelation that Tom Robinson says he felt sorry for Mayella, a white woman who has unjustly accused him of rape?
Tom’s sympathy for Mayella seems to be the insult that pushes the jurors toward conviction. What should have been seen as kindness is considered by the white racists to be an insult, a suggestion that Tom felt himself to be above Mayella. His kindness, pitted against the racism, gets him convicted.
Assignment: The white people do not think Mayella needs the sympathy of a black man and Mr. Cunningham does not want sympathy for his economic plight. In a brief ruminative essay, try to explain what characteristics in an individual would cause him or her to reject sympathy even when deserved. Share your ideas with your classmates when the assignment is completed.
15. In his closing arguments, Atticus says that Mayella, a victim of ignorance and poverty, has put a man’s life at stake because she broke a code. What is the code and why did it exist?
The code is the taboo that once prohibited interracial sexual contact. It is based not only on the notion that blacks are inferior to whites but that blacks are “not to be trusted around our women.” Atticus says that there exists an evil assumption that all African Americans lie and are “basically immoral beings.”
Assignment: Using Internet research skills, write an expository essay on the miscegenation laws through which state governments tried to keep people of different races from marrying. Find details about when the laws were written and when they were subsequently invalidated. You may write in general terms or focus on one particular state or area of the nation. Find the numbers of interracial marriages today and note the changes over the past half-century.
16. To which part of his final argument is Atticus referring when he says to the jurors, “In the name of God, do your duty”?
Atticus has asserted that the courts are “great levelers” and that in their jurisdiction all men are created equal. He has claimed that the racist reasoning used in the trial is contrary to the principles of “a living, working reality” of justice. He believes jurors have an obligation to put aside passion and weigh the evidence against Tom Robinson with the objectivity the law demands.
Assignment: Using Internet research skills, find a case since 1900 in which some people have accused jurors of making decisions based on racial prejudice. Support your opinion with reference to the cases.
17. After the trial is over, the black people remain in the segregated section of the courtroom and stand when Atticus leaves the building. Scout is told: “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” What is it that Scout failed to grasp in this scene?
Scout did not understand the attitude of the black people who witnessed the trial. She thought her father lost the case; the black people deeply respected his work on behalf of Tom Robinson.
Assignment: Jem and Scout are too young to fully appreciate the risks Atticus took to defend Tom Robinson. When lawyers take on the defense of unpopular defendants, they risk livelihood and reputation. Write an opinion piece that would appear in a local newspaper in support of a lawyer who has taken on the case of someone who is accused of being a terrorist or a child molester.
18. After Tom Robinson is dead, the story continues and the focus moves to Boo Radley and the death of Mr. Ewell. The children have been attacked and it is clear from the bruises on the left side of Jem’s face that Ewell assaulted the boy. In the encounter, the children were protected by Boo Radley and Bob Ewell is killed. What ironies lie in this incident?
The children had been living in fear of Boo Radley and he is the one who saves them from Ewell. Further irony lies in the fact that Ewell has attacked the persons in society who have the least amount of power – Tom Robinson, a black man, and the children – and he is killed by Boo Radley, a man of even less power and lower standing in the community.
Assignment: The racist Bob Ewell bullies his daughter, spits in the face of Atticus, lies in the courtroom and attacks the children. He is clearly a bad man. Write an essay in which you do what Atticus instructed his children to do: walk around in Bob Ewell’s shoes. In your essay, speculate as to why Ewell is so hateful. Try to take Ewell seriously as a person and to shed some light on his character.
19. In the conversation between Atticus and Sheriff Tate after the children were attacked and Ewell has been found dead, the issue of “situation ethics” is raised. Both men have been shown to be honorable and moral yet in the situation involving Ewell, they are now willing to cover up a set of circumstances that would normally call for a formal investigation. This is obstruction of justice, something Atticus would ordinarily oppose. They are lying and taking the law into their own hands. Compare their actions to what the lynch mob wanted to do or to what the Ewells did by lying at the trial.
Strong answers will mention that one of the basic themes of the story is that people should follow the rule of law but the rule of law must be tempered with mercy in extraordinary circumstances. Sheriff Tate’s decision to claim that Mr. Ewell fell on his own knife and to hide the role of Boo in the incident, before he did any investigation and when it looked as if Mr. Ewell was killed by Boo, is the example showing that justice must at times be tempered with mercy and that the justice system should not be strictly applied in all situations.
Assignment: The Great Divide is an informal setting for debate. First, the class should work together to create a firm definition of situation ethics. Then the class can be divided into two groups, those that believe in situation ethics and those that believe ethics to be absolute. They sit across from each other in the classroom thus creating a visual image of the amount of support each side has amassed. For the sake of order, a chair can be placed in the front of each group facing the opposition. A student must make his or her argument sitting in the chair. Rebuttal must come from someone who sits in the chair of the opposing side. This method of debate encourages cooperation since there may be several people at any time who want to sit in the speaker’s seat. Students can then engage in debate, referring to their definitions, actions in the film, historical or hypothetical incidents, and pure argumentation to support their side of the Divide. Any student who changes his or her mind can move to the other side of the classroom. The “winner” of the debate is the side with the most students in support of either situation or absolute ethics. If it is necessary to get the discussion going, the class should focus on the situation ethics employed by the Sheriff and Atticus when they lied to keep Boo’s involvement in the death of Mr. Ewell a secret.
20. In the end, Atticus introduces Boo Radley to Jem as Mr. Arthur Radley. What final lesson do we learn about the character of Atticus Finch in this scene?
Atticus is unrelenting in his humanism and respect for people even if they are different.
Assignment: Write a characterization of the strangest person you know either in your own life or in mass media. You may even consider writing about Michael Jackson. Present details about the nature of the “strange” qualities of this person and note how he or she has been treated by others over the years. Then consider how this individual’s life would improve were people to treat him or her with kindness and respect. Suggest a code to be followed when one comes into contact, especially consistently, of a strange person. Share the code you have created with the class.
21. Who is the character in this story that made the strongest impression on you?
There are only strong or weak responses to this question, depending upon the logic used and the evidence marshaled to support the response.
Assignment: The characters of Jem, Scout and Atticus have evoked strong reactions in millions of people who have seen the film or read the book. Write an essay about what one of these characters meant to you.
Generic Assignments Useful with Most Films
BRIDGES TO READING
To Kill A Mockingbird is a wonderful and beautifully written book. All adults and any child ages 12 and up should read it. Children ages 9 – 14 might also like the Tom Swift books.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Reel Justice, by Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow; Andrews and McMeel, 1996.
The Learning Guide was written by James Frieden, except for the assignments which were written by Mary Red Clay. The Suggested Response to empathic response assignment #12 was updated on February 4, 2012, with a suggestion from LAUSD teacher Mindy Garza. Thanks, Ms. Garza! The Guide was last update June 7, 2020.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU:
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:
“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.
I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.
So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much. From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021
Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.
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