Theme 1 - The Coexistence of Good and Evil
The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of the human condition: whether people are essentially good or essentially evil. The novel approaches this idea by dramatising Scout and Jem's transition from a perspective of childhood innocence to a mature understanding of the coexistence of good and evil. At the beginning of the novel, they approach life innocently, believing in the goodness of all people. Later during Tom Robinson's trial, the children are sorely disappointed and this is changed when the jury made up of their fellow townspeople convict the obviously innocent Tom Robinson, simply because he is a black man and his accuser is white. The realization that there is evil in those who they thought good greatly confuses Scout and Jem; after the trial they must re-evaluate their understanding of human nature. While conversing with Scout, Jem says "If there's just one kind of folks, why can't they get along with each other? … I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time - it's because he wants to stay inside". The challenge of this struggle causes Jem great emotional pain as he tries to come to terms with the disappointing realities of inequality, racism, and general unfairness, whilst sharing his thoughts with Scout.
Although the children are used to present a mature understanding of the human condition and the coexistence of good and evil, the guiding moral voice of To Kill a Mockingbird is embodied by Atticus Finch. He knows that rather than being simply creatures of good or creatures of evil, most people have both good and bad qualities. Atticus tries to teach this ultimate moral lesson to Scout and Jem - "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". This educates them, as well as the audience, that important thing is to appreciate the good qualities and understand the bad qualities in people. Atticus implies that this can be done by treating others with sympathy and trying to see life from their perspective. Additionally, that it is possible to live with conscience without losing hope or becoming cynical: "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions … but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience".
Theme 2 - Prejudice
In the first chapter of the novel, Harper Lee uses setting as a key element to present and explore the theme of prejudice. The physical portrayal of Maycomb is a direct representation of the nature of the people who live there, the personification "tired old town" has a deeper meaning; reflecting the tired attitudes and values of the towns people. Additionally, descriptions of the Radley house further present the theme of prejudice. "Rain rotted shingles drooped" and personification "picket fence drunkenly guarded" present an image of disarray and decline, used to indicate that the Maycomb society judge on appearance. This is further strengthened in the repetition of "people said", which shows that the opinions of the Radley's are based on speculation rather than knowledge. The towns aversion to difference is highlighted when the "shutters and doors" are closed on Sunday, something "alien to Maycomb ways". Thus reflecting that they cannot accept things of which they do not understand. Setting is used effectively by the author as a parallel to Tom Robinson, introducing the idea that prejudice based on appearance is unjust. Harper Lee asks the audience to question their own judgement of others.
Atticus’s previously presented belief in treating and respecting everyone as an individual is contrasted in To Kill a Mockingbird with other Maycomb inhabitants' attitudes. These other views in the novel vary as different forms of prejudice: religious, racist, and classist ideas make up the characters opinions. The most obvious form of prejudice in the novel is racism, which causes otherwise upstanding white citizens of Maycomb to accept the testimony of the corrupt Mr Ewell over the undoubtedly innocent Tom Robinson. During the trial described, a metaphor is stated by Mr Ewell "a little bantam cock of a man rose and strutted to the stand", expressing his arrogant assumption that he will win the case, in turn reflecting the prejudice deep in Maycomb society. Later in the trial, Tom's suggestion that he "felt really sorry for her [Mayella]" is repeated by Mr Gilmer "you felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her". The use of italics reflect Mr Gilmer's tone as he emphases Tom's mistake to the crowd. Tom's suggestion that he, a black man, felt sorry for Mayella implies he thinks he is above her, which strongly influences the crowd and guilty verdict. Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee comments on the insecurities felt by the white community, stimulating the reader think about how simple fears and ignorance can lead to prejudice and injustice.