To Kill a Mockingbird

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Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon
Prejudice Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Courage Theme Icon
Small Town Southern Life Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To Kill a Mockingbird, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Theme Icon

To Kill a Mockingbird is largely remembered of in terms of the trial of Tom Robinson and its racist outcome. For this reason, people often think that the book's theme is simple, a straightforward criticism of racism and evil. But To Kill a Mockingbird is actually more complicated (and interesting). Except in the case of Bob Ewell, the novel avoids simple portrayals and criticisms of "evil." Instead, it shows through Scout and Jem's experiences that Maycomb and its citizens are a complicated mixture of good and bad, full of people with strengths and weaknesses.

There are two characters of almost complete good in To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus and Boo Radley. But they are good in different ways. Boo maintains his goodness by hiding from the world, while Atticus engages with it. Atticus acknowledges the evil in people and the world and fights against that evil, but he also appreciates what is good in the very same people who through fault or weakness might be supporting an evil cause. Atticus believes that everyone has a basic human dignity, and that he therefore owes each person not only respect, but the effort to try to understand their point of view. Atticus tries to instill this worldview in Scout when he tells her that instead of condemning people for doing things that she thinks are cruel, or unfair, or just plain weird, she should first try "standing in their skin."

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Good, Evil, and Human Dignity Quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird

Below you will find the important quotes in To Kill a Mockingbird related to the theme of Good, Evil, and Human Dignity.
Chapter 3 Quotes
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Scout has returned home from school upset and indignant that her teacher, Miss Caroline, wants her to stop reading at home. She expects that her father will share her righteous anger, but instead, Atticus takes a different tack. He may believe strongly that reading to Scout is important and healthy – indeed, he doesn't stop doing it merely because Miss Caroline said so – but he is unwilling to conclude that Miss Caroline is evil as a result. Instead, he suggests that neither he nor Scout should judge Miss Caroline's actions or behavior, since they don't know exactly what prompted her to say such a thing, nor where she's coming from in general. 

Atticus suggests in this passage that it takes time and effort to understand another person's point of view. He doesn't simply suggest that this effort is necessary in order to be able to justify criticizing someone; he implies that the more one tries to understand another person, the less one will be moved to condemn the other person at all. Atticus, as we see for the first time here, doesn't think that human nature is constant and unchangeable. Rather, he thinks that the way people act often stems from their past,  from their environment, and from their opportunities or lack thereof – and therefore that it makes little sense to put strict moral labels on others.

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"There's some folks who don't eat like us," she whispered fiercely, "but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't. That boy's yo' comp'ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?"

"He ain't company, Cal, he's just a Cunningham-"

"Hush your mouth! Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' comp'ny, and don't you let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty!
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Calpurnia (speaker), Walter Cunningham
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

Jem has invited Walter Cunningham to their house to eat, and Scout is shocked by the way Walter pours molasses all over his food – and she says so. Here, Calpurnia gives Scout a lesson about the way she should treat other people. Scout implicitly has a sense of who counts as "company" and who doesn't – that is, who is worthy of politeness and respect (richer, more prominent members of the community) and who is not (poorer members of the community). It is this implicit belief that Calpurnia rebukes Scout for, saying that "company" is anyone who is invited home, and that Scout should be ashamed of thinking otherwise.

Indeed, Scout is meant to learn through this event that judging Walter at all, much less talking about it, is something to be ashamed of, far more than Walter should be ashamed of his eating habits. Calpurnia and Atticus are clearly on the same page regarding the way they believe one must treat other people, all people: with common dignity and without prejudice.

Chapter 5 Quotes
"There are just some kind of men who—who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results."
Related Characters: Miss Maudie Atkinson (speaker), Nathan Radley
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Scout is curious about her family's reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, and here she asks a friend of the family, Miss Maudie, why he never leaves home. As with Walter Cunningham, Scout reveals here how easy prejudice can be: even a young child can be naturally suspicious of people who act differently than she does. Luckily, Scout has a number of adults, from Atticus and Calpurnia to Miss Maudie, who are willing to be patient and teach her to take a step back and consider alternative possibilities to her prejudice.

Here, Miss Maudie humanizes Boo, telling Scout about his strict, very religious father, who was against all pleasure in life. Like Atticus, Miss Maudie doesn't think people are just born a certain way: instead, she believes that a combination of personality and opportunity work to influence how a person is and acts, and that one should seek to understand this process rather than judging from appearances.

Chapter 9 Quotes
"If you shouldn't be defendin' him, then why are you doin' it?"

"For a number of reasons," said Atticus. "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again."



"Atticus, are we going to win it?"

"No, honey."

"Then why-"

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win," Atticus said.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Tom Robinson
Page Number: 100-101
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Atticus teaches Scout a difficult lesson about morality – one that goes counter to her own childhood impulses. Scout has heard other children at school criticize Atticus, and when she asks why, he tells her that he has decided to defend in court Tom Robinson, a black man accused of murder, even though he knows there's no chance of winning. Until now, Scout has considered that physically fighting and winning is what it means to be courageous. Now, her father attempts to explain to her that it can show even more courage to strive for something even when one knows that failure is inevitable.

Rather than acting because he will win, Atticus chooses to defend Tom Robinson because he knows that it is the right thing to do. Interestingly, even though many people in town are prejudiced and disagree with Atticus's choice, for Atticus it is the fact that everyone in town knows him and his own beliefs that serves as another motivation for him to act according to his beliefs. He believes that only by standing up for his ideas can he then, in turn, be seen as a representative of the community (even if the community disagrees with some of those beliefs). In order to be morally consistent, Atticus believes, he must act on behalf of human dignity – and more specifically, this man's dignity – regardless of the end result.

Chapter 10 Quotes
"Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
"Your father's right," she said. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Miss Maudie Atkinson (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mockingbird
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

The air rifles that Atticus gives Scout and Jem for Christmas come with a warning: never to kill a mockingbird. Scout rightly notices how rare Atticus's strong language here is. Usually, when she tries to make a judgment or condemn someone or something, Atticus immediately tries to draw her back, to help her to understand where the person is coming from, and to gain a more nuanced view of the situation. 

Miss Maudie, who usually has just as subtle an understand of human actions as Atticus, is nonetheless is in agreement with him on this exception. The moral world of To Kill a Mockingbird is far from simple, but there are rare elements in it that are, in fact, purely simple. Miss Maudie is obviously describing real, physical mockingbirds in this passage, but her description also holds for human beings – people who are endlessly generous, who give rather than take, such that they deserve only appreciation and care. It will be Scout's task to attempt to apply the lesson from Miss Maudie and from Atticus to the people around her, as she develops a more advanced understanding of how good and evil interact in the world.

Chapter 11 Quotes
The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.
Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Atticus is attempting to explain to Scout and Jem what it is that made Mrs. Dubose's quiet, persistence fight against morphine so courageous. His reference to "majority rule" reflects his own expertise as a lawyer, deeply schooled in the Constitution and in the laws and history of the country. In the United States, of course, we live legally by majority rule – a majority elects a president, a majority of politicians vote for our laws, and even in a jury, a majority can convince the minority enough to ensure a unanimous sentence. Usually, this process works well enough, and Atticus obviously isn't calling for a radical dissolution of majority rule.

Still, he shows in his comments here both that there are profound weaknesses to the idea of majority rule, and that there are other, significant elements of human existence – a person's conscience, for instance – that don't abide by this standard. Majority rule, for instance, pays little attention to ideas that may be unpopular, so it can confirm existing prejudices. Atticus suggests, however, that a person's conscience always knows, deep down, what is good and evil, what is right and wrong. On an individual level, then, one must fight against what on a social level is accepted and widespread.

Chapter 12 Quotes
Lula stopped, but she said, "You ain't got no business bringin' white chillun here—they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?"

… When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone. In her place was a solid mass of colored people.

One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo, the garbage collector. "Mister Jem," he said, "we're mighty glad to have you all here. Don't pay no 'tention to Lula, she's contentious because Reverend Sykes threatened to church her. She's a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an' haughty ways—we're mighty glad to have you all."
Related Characters: Lula (speaker), Jean Louise Finch (Scout), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem), Calpurnia, Reverend Sykes
Page Number: 158-159
Explanation and Analysis:

Calpurnia has invited Jem and Scout to her all-black church while Atticus is away at the state legislature. This passage pins one woman, Lula, who is suspicious of the white children's presence, against the rest of the congregation, which welcomes them. Lula is portrayed as being just as prejudiced as the white people in town, just as susceptible to judging people on the basis of their skin color rather than of their character. In this sense, the rest of the congregation is shown to surmount this small-mindedness and embrace the inherent human dignity in welcoming guests into their home or place of worship.

Nonetheless, another way to interpret this passage would involve making a distinction between the kind of "prejudice" Lula shows and the kind shown by the white members of the town. The black people in Maycomb are discriminated against and restricted in almost every facet of their lives – their church is among the only places where they can feel secure and at home. It is understandable, therefore, for Lula to express suspicion at white children interrupting this small sanctuary in a town that seems to have little room or desire for people like her. As children, of course, Jem and Scout haven't played any kind of active role in creating this double standard, but Lula's reaction only underlines how deep and structural are the inequalities that persist in the town. The novel itself does not seem to recognize this latter view of Lula's position, but that might be taken as a criticism of the novel rather than a defense of it.

Chapter 13 Quotes
Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Aunt Alexandra
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Alexandra has moved into the Finch home because she believes that Scout needs more of a "feminine" influence. In addition, she begins to try to inculcate Scout with some of her own social values, values that stress class and family history over character and behavior. The Finches have, indeed, lived in Maycomb for a long time, and Alexandra believes that this means they are inherently superior to other people who have not been around for so long in the town. The way Scout describes this belief – "squatting on one patch of land" – makes clear through its tone just how skeptical she is of Alexandra's ideas. 

In other situations, Scout's childhood innocence is shown to revert back to easy prejudice, such that her father must teach her a better, more nuanced, and less prejudiced way of thinking. Here, however, her innocence makes her see more clearly, making it obvious to the reader as well just how silly the idea of moral superiority based on land ownership or family history really is. 

Chapter 19 Quotes
“The way that man called him 'boy' all the time an' sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered— … It ain't right, somehow it ain't right to do 'em that way. Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that—it just makes me sick."
Related Characters: Charles Baker Harris (Dill) (speaker), Tom Robinson, Mr. Gilmer
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

Dill has begun to cry in the courtroom during the trial of Tom Robinson, so Scout takes him outside. They had been listening to the prosecutor Mr. Gilmer's cross-examination of Tom Robinson. Gilmer – making little attempt to introduce hard evidence with which to convict the defendant – has been essentially trying to bait the jury into succumbing to racism in order to convict him. Dill cannot stand to hear the way Mr. Gilmer is talking to Tom Robinson: for him, the lawyer is essentially treating Tom as a different, inferior species. 

An advantage of having a child narrate To Kill A Mockingbird, and in having other children populate the novel, is that we as readers can look with fresh eyes at appalling prejudices in American society. We may be in danger of growing accustomed to these prejudices, of assuming that they are simply the way the world works. Part of Dill's distraught feelings stem from the dawning realization, as he and Scout grow up, that this is the way the world works: but the way in which he rebels against what is given reminds us of the danger of becoming complacent, and forgetting just how shocking such prejudices really are.

"If you had a clear conscience, why were you scared?"

"Like I says before, it weren't safe for any nigger to be in a—fix like that."

"But you weren't in a fix—you testified that you were resisting Miss Ewell. Were you so scared that she'd hurt you, you ran, a big buck like you?"

"No suh, I's scared I'd be in court, just like I am now."

"Scared of arrest, scared you'd have to face up to what you did?"

"No suh, scared I'd hafta face up to what I didn't do."
Related Characters: Tom Robinson (speaker), Mayella Ewell, Mr. Gilmer
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

As Mr. Gilmer cross-examines Tom, he is trying to make the jury give in to its racist prejudices and assume that Tom must be guilty, even in the absence of any proof. One way he does this is by suggesting that Tom must have run away because he was guilty. Here, though, Tom reminds Mr. Gilmer and the rest of the audience that for black people in the South, any uncertain situation would almost certainly be blamed on them.

As he and Mr. Gilmer go back and forth, it becomes ever clearer that Gilmer is, purposely or not, misunderstanding Tom. Tom is attempting to refer to the societal assumption that all black men must be guilty – and, indeed, that that is why he finds himself in court now. Mr. Gilmer, for his part, stubbornly clings to this very assumption of guilt whose prejudiced bases Tom is referencing, and so Gilmer takes everything Tom says as an indication that Tom is guilty.

Chapter 22 Quotes
They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep.
Related Characters: Atticus Finch (speaker)
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

Jem tells Atticus that he can't understand how the jury could have convicted Tom Robinson based on the evidence and based on the arguments from Atticus and from Mr. Gilmer. Here, Atticus implicitly returns to what he told his children at the very beginning, and has repeated again and again: that good will won't necessarily conquer evil, and that sometimes prejudice will win out over both evidence and human dignity. 

While Atticus has done his best to educate Jem and Scout so that they lose some of the weaknesses and errors of childhood, here he shows himself to be convinced that childhood holds some major moral advantages over adulthood. Children are still innocent enough – they still have been little enough affected by the world – to be able to notice and be devastated when something unjust happens. Unlike adults, they have not yet learned to grow bitter or even just used to the way things are. This state of shock and anger, Atticus implies, is a powerful reminder for adults not to become complacent.

Chapter 25 Quotes
Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell
Page Number: 323
Explanation and Analysis:

As Scout reads Mr. Underwood's editorial, which compares Tom Robinson to a mockingbird, she thinks about how prejudiced and wrong the blasé attitude of the rest of Maycomb is. Maycomb residents think Mr. Underwood is just trying to be "poetic," but here Scout summarizes what she really believes to be the lesson of the piece. Atticus's battle against prejudice had lost, not because he wasn't a good enough lawyer, and not because he didn't provide sufficient evidence to make the case for Tom's innocence, but because prejudice was so ingrained in the hearts of Maycomb people that they would never be able to be convinced that Tom wasn't guilty. In this context, any time black people are accused of anything, guilt will be the presumption – a danger that Scout is only beginning, soberly, to recognize.

[Jem] was certainly never cruel to animals, but I had never known his charity to embrace the insect world.

"Why couldn't I mash him?" I asked.

"Because they don't bother you," Jem answered in the darkness. He had turned out his reading light.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem) (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mockingbird
Page Number: 320
Explanation and Analysis:

Scout has been poking at a roly-poly bug, preparing to smash it, but Jem has stopped her. She pays attention to him because he's her older brother, but she's also confused as to why he has forbidden her this game. However, by the end of the passage Scout (as well as we readers) should recognize the parallel that Jem is making. He is expanding the definition of "mockingbird" to include any living creature that cannot defend itself, that should be protected rather than destroyed. By only applying the lesson of the mockingbird to some things – people rather than animals, for instance – the significance and power of this attitude is lost.

Once again, as Jem and Scout both grow up over the course of the story, in some ways Jem leads Scout. Several years older than her, he must grapple with the lessons about good, evil, and how to treat other people on his own, even as his sister slowly comes to understand what he does as well.

Chapter 31 Quotes
A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention. It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose's. . . . Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day's woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children's heart break. Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem), Atticus Finch, Arthur Radley (Boo), Charles Baker Harris (Dill), Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose
Page Number: 374
Explanation and Analysis:

After Bob Ewell's attack on the Scout and Jem was thwarted by Boo Radley, Scout accompanies Boo Radley back to his house. She pauses on the Radley porch and looks out at the street. Briefly, we relive the entire trajectory of the novel, from the most significant highlights to the descriptions of everyday life in Maycomb, but through Boo Radley's eyes from within his house. Atticus's lesson, which Scout has remembered from long ago, was that you shouldn't judge someone based on first impressions: instead, you should try to see things from his or her perspective, try to really understand the person behind the appearance. Now she tries to do so, seeing herself and Jem as if they were someone else's children, viewed by a sympathetic stranger.

Of course, Scout has not really pierced Boo Radley's character – she hasn't really gotten to know him – merely by standing on his porch. But her revision of the events of the last year or so are a child's earnest attempt to try. She sees how Boo Radley could have developed a close emotional connection to her and her family even without ever speaking with them. The goodness and empathy that he shows is not on the surface, in the way he talks or looks, but in fact is far more profound.

When they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . ." His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them." He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
Related Characters: Jean Louise Finch (Scout) (speaker), Atticus Finch (speaker), Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem), Arthur Radley (Boo)
Page Number: 376
Explanation and Analysis:

Back at the family home, Scout tries to explain to Atticus what she has realized about Boo Radley: that all the suspicious rumors and prejudice against him actually have no basis in fact. Atticus is not shocked by this revelation. Indeed, he has told the children not to judge people before they stand in their shoes not so that they wait to judge until they understand better, but rather so that they learn that they have little right to judge at all. Atticus believes deeply that most people are good at heart, but are led astray by prejudice and by temptation. He is not naive – he does recognize the existence of evil in the world that must be fought against – but for him this evil is not located permanently in specific people but rather moves around, always able to insert itself in a given situation, but always able to be challenged as well.

Scout and Jem have, through the events of the novel. learned to take such a subtle approach to good and evil as well. They have lost much of their childhood innocence as a result. Still, having gained these difficult lessons, they are still in a transition period between childhood and adulthood. Atticus's great gift to them is to accompany them through this transition, watching over them as they make it.