Question of the Day: “What is the most important theme in To Kill a Mockingbird?”

As the school year is starting up again, I am reminded of one of the most taught novels in the United States. It is Harper Lee’s one-hit-wonder. I am also quite convinced that it was written mostly by her best friend Truman Capote. You may have made note of the fact that I did not say it was my favorite novel because it is far from it. After teaching this novel for 20 years, I do not think the theme of killing a mockingbird is the most important message from the text. Not even close. I actually think it is an often overlooked theme that carries throughout the entire book.

Harper Lee contained many themes in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but her most important one was the following: “You don’t really know a person until you walk in their shoes.”  This theme is throughout the novel and is presented directly in the beginning by Atticus as he speaks with Scout over her difficulties at school.  Scout met her new teacher on the first day of school and she was not particularly pleased.  Ms. Caroline did not want her reading or writing with Atticus because, Ms. Caroline believed, it was keeping Scout from learning.  At the end of the chapter, Atticus finds Scout sitting alone and questions her about her first day.  Scout responds that she will not be going back.  Atticus is not entirely fazed by this, but proceeds to hear about why Scout feels so strongly.  It is here where he says his iconic lines about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes so you can better understand where they are coming from and thus starting Harper Lee’s major theme.

This theme is further addressed throughout the story as Scout, Jem, and Dill try and make Boo Radley come out of his house.  There is a particularly difficult moment when Atticus reprimands them for re-enacting the scissor scene outside of the Radley’s residence, and when Jem realizes that Mr. Nathan Radley was filling the hole in the tree to keep Boo from being able to communicate with the children.  The children begin to fully put themselves into the mindset of the elusive Boo, who Scout is finally able to meet at the end of the novel after he saves them from Bob Ewell.  After Boo saves the children, Scout walks Boo home and then turns around outside of his porch to view all of Maycomb for perhaps the very first time.  She looks around and describes the town from Boo’s perspective, describing not only the houses, but even herself, Jem and Dill as Boo’s children and the various things they had done throughout their summers in Maycomb.  It is only in this moment that she truly understands this elusive character since she is metaphorically standing in his shoes.  Her presumed innocence on all of  Maycomb’s difficult affairs have ended and her eyes are much more aged and much more skewed in a way the reader could not have imagined at the beginning of the book when Boo was described as a squirrel-eating, peeping Tom.  Now he can be viewed as an innocent figure who’s been made into a ghost by a heartless and cruel family, but despite this cruelty came to love them all.

It’s important to note this theme due to its cyclical nature as it takes the reader through Scout and Jem’s journey amidst their own loss of innocence and physical, emotional, and spiritual changes.  Though it is Scout who stands at the end recounting the events of the years, it is the reader as well who goes through it with her.  Scout is in Boo’s shoes in that moment, but the reader is in hers.  The reader has this moment in time with the author as Scout narrates her experience through the eyes of Boo and the reader sees the world of one character and then another character-once removed.  It is a beautiful and crucial part of the novel as well as life itself.