So many excellent points were raised below my article about morality in To Kill A Mockingbird last week that I can't resist continuing the discussion. Most people agreed that the book is more complicated than its critics may have suggested – and that Harper Lee is neither childish nor simplistic in her portrayal of good and bad. But within that broad consensus, there was a fascinating variety of opinion.
I was particularly impressed by the analysis of the novel's commentary on the rule of law. The comment that started this discussion, from Amtiskaw, more than deserves to be quoted in full – with the caveat that you may not want to read it, if you haven't yet reached the end of the novel. It deals with the conclusion in detail:
"The main plot is concerned with the white townsfolk conspiring to convict an innocent black man and allow a guilty white man to go free, based on their prejudices. The evidence in favour of Tom Robinson and against Bob Ewell is overwhelming (Ewell is not on trial, but Atticus essentially constructs his defence case as a prosecution against the other man). In the end, the jury convicts Robinson, choosing to deliberately ignore the evidence and the proper course of justice because it conflicts with their bigoted morality.
The secondary plot of the novel concerns Boo Radley, a neighbourhood recluse who, at the novel's climax, intercepts and kills Bob Ewell in order to prevent him taking revenge on Atticus by attacking and perhaps murdering his children. In the aftermath, both Atticus and the sheriff realise what has happened, but agree to fabricate a story that Ewell fell on his own knife, rather than subject Boo Radley to an investigation that, even if it would probably lead to his exoneration on the grounds of justifiable homicide, would drag the reclusive man into the limelight.
The book portrays the latter decision as an attempt to protect an innocent person rather than condemn him, and leads to the metaphor of the book's title, where to kill a mockingbird is to deliberately destroy something innocent, which suggests the author agrees with the decision. However, there is still an uncomfortable parallel between the actions of Atticus and the sheriff in protecting Boo Radley, and that of the jurors in the Tom Robinson trial. All are participants within a criminal justice system with a responsibility to the truth, but who choose to ignore it in order to achieve what they consider the "right" result, based on their personal morality.
We sympathise with Atticus and the sheriff's morality, while finding the racist townsfolk's [morality] reprehensible, but does that make the decision of the former OK? Both conspire to pervert the course of justice, but we are prompted to absolve one but condemn the other based on our own prejudices. For me, this the book's greatest flaw: despite featuring a criminal trial with a lawyer as a central character, it fails to grasp that blind justice cuts both ways, and you can't pick and choose which biases are right or wrong. Morality should be enshrined in the law and applied impartially to all through public mechanisms such as trials, not privately or subject to the whims of individuals. Even if it doesn't always result in the best outcome for people like Boo Radley, it is the best system for giving the fairest outcome in the most cases."
Fascinating as this post is, I don't entirely agree. I don't see the Boo Radley dilemma as a "flaw" in the novel. Doesn't it just add another layer of ambiguity and interest? Leaving Boo Radley to retreat back into his exile is an emotionally satisfying ending – and as Amtiskaw points out, it chimes well with the novel's title and the idea that you should leave the rare and harmless bird alone. However, the decision to let Boo retreat back into the shadows isn't just a Hollywood conclusion. As Amtiskaw so eloquently argues, it causes problems for the rule of law that Atticus himself seeks to protect – and that seems both deliberate, and deliberately provocative. Is Harper Lee suggesting that blind justice is a forlorn hope? That personal morality can trump that of the state? That seems to be how Amtiskaw sees it:
"To Kill a Mockingbird provides a compelling account of justice failing and the evils of racial prejudice, but for me it fails to get beyond that and offer much of a solution except fighting fire with fire, which is why I can't enjoy it as much as an adult as I could as a child."
However, as other commenters pointed out, it's not the job of the novel to provide a solution. What Harper Lee does is make us think about our own attitudes – and those of the people around us. She might even, as nightjar12 suggests, be deliberately wrongfooting her readers:
I love this book but I have always seen it as somewhat subversive – it spends most of the novel setting Atticus up as a good and just man who can do no wrong but then he decides effectively to take the law into his own hands and to lie in order to save Boo. We are all hoodwinked into accepting this as the right thing to do … it always leaves me feeling very unsettled! I have never seen it as a children's book by the way – partly for that reason.
In a fascinating article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell takes these arguments a step further by suggesting that the novel actually demonstrates the limitations of "Jim Crow liberalism". The stance adopted by Atticus may be good – but it isn't good enough. He holds one set of standards for an apparently "respectable" white like Boo Radley, and another for the Ewells; and the kind of gradual change and improvement he advocates, and working within the status quo, are flawed solutions. This book gets trickier the closer you look at it.
What, too, are we to make of the following problem suggested by Tigercrane:
I read an interesting criticism of the book a few years ago. The author, a criminal defence lawyer, studied a number of real-life trials similar to the Tom Robinson trial. She learned that although the defendant lost in most of them, on those few occasions when the defendant won it was by employing the defence that Atticus used: namely, that the accuser was trashyand was asking for it. In other words, employing a mix of sexism and classism in an attempt to neutralise racism.
Again, my reaction is to defend Harper Lee. Firstly, she is clearly reflecting a reality. Secondly, the case isn't quite so simple. Mayella may have been keen on Tom, but she certainly isn't blamed for that, nor is there any suggestion that she deserved a beating. Her father is the villain of the piece, both for attacking her and making her testify against Tom. Is it possible to see Atticus's adoption of this defence as a further attempt to question the rule of law? Perhaps that's pushing it too far, but again the novel seems to imply that achieving justice is more about prejudice than it is about simple facts, or right and wrong. I'd be terrified to end up in Harper Lee's courtroom.
And what's the worst of it? She wasn't making it up. As plenty of readers demonstrated on the Reading group thread last week, cases like Tom Robinson's weren't so unusual in 1930s Alabama. Harper Lee's main diversions from reality came in the facts that Tom made it to trial without being lynched, that the judge listened to the case and the jury took time to deliberate before handing out its guilty verdict. That reality still hurts – and all the ideas about blind justice that the novel throws up have to be seen in that context. Or, indeed, in the continuing problems of the US justice system.
If we need any further reminder that the novel's thesis still has bite, we need look no further than the Trayvon Martin case. If George Zimmerman can be declared innocent after shooting a boy walking home carrying nothing more threatening than a bag of Skittles, what hope is there for a modern-day Tom Robinson in a similar court? I know I'd rather rely on Atticus' personal judgment than on most courts in the US – or anywhere else, for that matter.
For some students, the most difficult portion of an AP exam is the free response portion. This is not different for students who have to take the AP English Literature exam and tackle the essays in the FRQs. The exam is designed to test you on your ability to analyze higher level pieces of literature and to make you demonstrate your comprehension of the various pieces. However, for many students, a challenging part of the essay portion is having to select and remember key themes and highlights of the novel so that you can provide evidence with your analysis.
These abilities will be particularly put to the test with the third question on the free response question section of the AP English Literature exam. While you are given a prompt for the third FRQ, just like the first two, it’s up to you to select which piece of literature to use to answer the question. You will be provided with a list of suggested works to answer the question, so the safest bet is to choose from the list at your disposal. But, it’s up to you to select a book, come up with a thesis, and provide evidence from the literature you choose.
For the AP English Literature exam, you are not expected to have specific sections or lines memorized from every single novel, play, and poem you covered during your class. However, knowing key themes and important scenes of the books you covered is a great way to prepare yourself for the exam. Another way to get prepared for the exam is through FRQ practice. So, for this AP English Literature Ultimate Guide, we will be covering how to use To Kill A Mockingbird for the 2015, 2011 and 2009 free response questions.
To Kill a Mockingbird AP English Lit essay Themes
To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of siblings Scout and Jem, and their father Atticus who all live in Maycomb, Alabama. The main storyline centers around how Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man convicted on false rape charges.
A central theme in To Kill A Mockingbird is the theme of good and evil; the book itself explores humanity and human morality. Atticus himself believes that people have both good and evil present in them, but at the end of the day good will win out. This is shown through his defense of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man who is falsely accused of rape. After the trail, and Tom Robinson’s conviction Scout and Jem are disappointed with the fellow people in their town because of their explicit racism.
Another theme that is central to the novel is the theme of education. Atticus taught Scout how to read and write and so she is ahead of her class when she enters school; she is then punished and told not to learn at home because the teacher feels that Atticus doesn’t know how to properly teach.
However, Atticus clearly takes pride in encouraging his children’s education and their curiosity; he is always truthful with them when they ask questions, and he encourages them to grow within their intellect and their morality. There is a conflict within this education at home and the education at school because the school teacher for Scout feels there needs to be a specific schedule of learning.
Social inequality and racism is also a major theme throughout the book. This is clear to the setting of the novel, in Alabama during the Depression Era there was still rampant racism. Tom Robinson’s story line is the epitome of this racism, due to the fact that he is convicted with rape solely because of his skin color.
How to use To Kill a Mockingbird for the 2015 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
The 2015 AP English Literature FRQ gives you this prompt:
“In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim. You may select a work from the list or another work of equal literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”
A major theme in To Kill A Mockingbird is good versus evil, and cruelty is a key player in the evil portion of this book. There are two characters that can be used to demonstrate how cruelty is present in the novel: Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.
Boo Radley is victimized by the people who live in Maycomb. While the town portrays him as a savage, he is actually gentle and kind. The cruel rumors spread about Boo Radley and his supposed crime means that he is forever suspected of bad intentions and bad deeds. The people of the town refuse to give Boo Radley a chance, and continue to make their own conclusions about him. The cruelty shown to him is the town’s ridicule and gossip.
Tom Robinson is shown cruelty by the false rape allegations and false rape conviction he faces. This is down to utter racism, because although other characters in the book profess to Tom’s character and innocence, he is eventually convicted because the accuser was white and Tom is black.
How to use To Kill a Mockingbird for the 2011 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
The 2011 AP English Literature FRQ gives you this prompt:
“Choose a character from a novel or play who responds in some significant way to justice or injustice. Then write a well-developed essay in which you analyze the character’s understanding of justice, the degree to which the character’s search for justice is successful, and the significance of this search for the work as a whole. You may select a work from the list or another work of equal literary merit. Do not merely summarize the plot.”
For To Kill A Mockingbird, the two best characters to choose for a possible thesis is either Atticus or Scout.
For Atticus, you can discuss his decision to defend Tom Robinson despite the criticism of the town and threats of violence. In a very racist town in Alabama during the Depression, this is an unsurmountable task. Atticus works extremely hard to challenge people’s social perspectives and the racism that is deeply ingrained in each individual and the town’s society.
If you choose Scout, you can discuss how she reacts to social injustice when it is placed in front of her. Throughout the novel it is made clear that Scout doesn’t believe that people should be treated unequally, and she has a difficult time understanding why there is a social and racial class structure in the town.
How to use To Kill a Mockingbird for the 2009 (Form B) AP English Literature Free Response Questions
The 2009 AP English Literature FRQ (Form B) gives you this prompt:
“Many works of literature deal with political or social issues. Choose a novel or play that focuses on a political or social issue. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue and explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot. You may choose a work from the list below or another novel or play of similar literary merit.”
To Kill A Mockingbird is a perfect novel to choose when discussing political or social issues. The particular social and political issue that is present in the novel is racism. Throughout the story, Scout attempts to understand the differences between the races that cause the social structure of Maycomb. Another large factor of racism in the book is the conviction of Tom Robinson for no other reason than he is black.
A possible thesis you could use is a discussion of how Scout and Jem attempting to understand what actually defines social classes. Scout errs on the side of things are what they are, and Jem’s belief is that where you fall in social standing is due to how long someone’s ancestors have had the ability to write. Scout is presented clearly with the social and economic differences in her town when a boy came to school without lunch or money to buy lunch. Scout and her classmates are aware of the inequalities present, but they see them as something naturally occurring, as well as permanent.
An interesting factor is that within the social hierarchy of the town, the Finch family is comfortably near the top; also, the hierarchy is only applicable to the white people in town, whereas the black population is below any of the white families. Although Scout is aware of the social structure of Maycomb, it is difficult for her to understand why it’s like that because she believes that no matter which family a person came from, everyone should be treated the same way.
Just like with any novel, play, or poem you consider using for the AP English Literature essay on the FRQ portion of your exam, it’s essential that you have a grasp on the key themes of To Kill A Mockingbird. When you reach the third essay on the FRQ portion of your exam, make sure that you not only pick a book that you know enough about to provide adequate evidence, but also one that is highly applicable to the prompt.
You could know a lot about a book, but if a grader doesn’t feel it adequately responded to the prompt given to you, then you will receive a lower score. However, To Kill a Mockingbird was a suggested piece of literature on all three of the examples covered in this guide, and the novel was highly applicable to all three.
Remember, almost every single student who is enrolled in an Advanced Placement course is going to be stressed and concerned about the AP exams. And the AP English Literature exam is no exception, particularly with the essay on the FRQ portion of your exam. However, this Ultimate Guide to To Kill a Mockingbird on the 2015, 2011, and 2009 AP English Literature FRQs should help ease your concern.
Are you looking for a more general overview of the AP English Literature FRQs or you want writing advice for the FRQ section? Then check out our Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and our Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. Our AP English Literature section also has practice free response questions with both sample responses and rubrics to help you practice for the AP English Literature exam. Good luck!
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