To Kill a Mockingbird is primarily an example of Southern Gothic fiction in that it takes place in the South, contains both dark and comedic elements, uses Southern vernacular, features exaggerated characters, and references the supernatural. Southern Gothic is a genre that became popular in the first half of the twentieth century, as a sub-genre of the American Gothic. A preoccupation with the unresolved past informs many Southern Gothic novels, as characters are forced to confront the South’s legacy of racism, slavery, and violence, often in the form of either literal or figurative ghosts. In Mockingbird, the character of Boo Radley functions as a living ghost, both in terms of his physical appearance and his name. The novel’s plot centers on an act of violence, and the town’s deep-seated racism informs the outcome. However, To Kill a Mockingbird is not as gruesome as other examples of the genre, and Lee’s characters are more sympathetic than in many Southern Gothic novels, whose authors exaggerate their characters’ defects for comedic purposes.
This book is also one of the most famous courtroom dramas in American literature, as much of the action takes place during a criminal trial, and the ethical issues raised by the case heighten the story’s drama. “Courtroom drama” is a term usually applied to film, but it can also be used to describe books. Books in this genre take place mainly in a courtroom. Writers may use characters on either side of the case to represent opposing ideas about justice, morality, or society. Often in a courtroom drama, the protagonist has been wrongly accused of a crime that challenges the established social system. The accused is frequently defended by an attorney who convinces the jury to confront their prejudices. Keeping with the conventions of the genre, To Kill a Mockingbird centers around the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man who has been unfairly accused of rape. Implicitly, the racist prejudices of the entire South are put on trial. However, unlike many examples of the genre in which the innocent party is vindicated and prejudices are overturned, Tom is found guilty, and is killed soon after the verdict. In this more ambiguous, less triumphant conclusion, the novel deviates from conventions of the genre.
Finally, To Kill a Mockingbird is a bildungsroman, in that it traces Scout’s development from innocent child to aware member of her community through the experience of witnessing Tom’s trial and being rescued by Boo Radley. A bildungsroman, which means “novel of education” in German, describes one character’s (often the narrator) passage from youth into adulthood. In a bildungsroman, this character begins the book with little understanding of the adult world. She faces a major challenge that tests her understanding of the world and teaches her something important about the society she lives in. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout learns about racism in her community and in the legal system. While at the beginning of the book she believes that most people in her community are fundamentally good, by the end of the book she has seen violence and cruelty firsthand. As a result, she is wiser and more prepared to enter society. Note that bildungsroman does not necessarily mean that the main character is literally an adult by the end of the book. It only means that the character faces a significant life challenge that brings her closer to an adult understanding of the world. This is why To Kill a Mockingbird is a bildungsroman, even though Scout is still a child when the book ends.
Read more about coming-of-age stories within the context of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.