Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.

Gothic Details

The forces of good and evil in To Kill a Mockingbird seem larger than the small Southern town in which the story takes place. Lee adds drama and atmosphere to her story by including a number of Gothic details in the setting and the plot. In literature, the term Gothic refers to a style of fiction first popularized in eighteenth-century England, featuring supernatural occurrences, gloomy and haunted settings, full moons, and so on. Among the Gothic elements in To Kill a Mockingbird are the unnatural snowfall, the fire that destroys Miss Maudie’s house, the children’s superstitions about Boo Radley, the mad dog that Atticus shoots, and the ominous night of the Halloween party on which Bob Ewell attacks the children. These elements, out of place in the normally quiet, predictable Maycomb, create tension in the novel and serve to foreshadow the troublesome events of the trial and its aftermath.

Small-Town Life

Counterbalancing the Gothic motif of the story is the motif of old-fashioned, small-town values, which manifest themselves throughout the novel. As if to contrast with all of the suspense and moral grandeur of the book, Lee emphasizes the slow-paced, good-natured feel of life in Maycomb. She often deliberately juxtaposes small-town values and Gothic images in order to examine more closely the forces of good and evil. The horror of the fire, for instance, is mitigated by the comforting scene of the people of Maycomb banding together to save Miss Maudie’s possessions. In contrast, Bob Ewell’s cowardly attack on the defenseless Scout, who is dressed like a giant ham for the school pageant, shows him to be unredeemably evil.

Reading and Writing

The ability to read and write is a topic that occurs frequently throughout the novel and invites questions about education, class divisions, and perspective. While literacy means different things to different characters, it appears inherently tied to authority and social hierarchy. In Chapter 2, Scout’s teacher, Miss Caroline, tells her not to read with Atticus any more as a means of attempting to maintain control over her students’ education. While this attempt to use literacy as a form of manipulation is a relatively innocent example, other instances, such as the history of Black churches lacking hymnals or the Ewell children’s lack of attendance at school, have more severe implications. Ultimately, the ability to read and write represents the gateway to advancing up Maycomb’s social hierarchy. Jem astutely observes a similar point when he tells Scout that “background doesn’t mean Old Family…I think it's how long your family's been readin' and writin’.” Atticus, whose primary pastime is reading, holds significant power in his community through his role as a lawyer while the Ewells, for example, will be perpetually stuck near the bottom of the hierarchy. Historically, enslaved people were also prevented from learning to read and write out of a fear that an education would give them the power to challenge their situation. While there are certainly exceptions to the relationship between literacy and class, the motif of reading and writing throughout the novel illuminates many of the power dynamics at work in Maycomb.