Transcript TKAM Lecture
Narrative Voice and Structure
‘Lawyers I suppose were children once’
-rational, secular world of lawyers characterised
by man made laws intended to guarantee justice
and order in society
-a universe of children characterised by
instinctively perceived moral and spiritual
Robert Butler on Harper Lee’s Religious Vision in TKAM
Comparisons and contrasts
The narrative is full of comparisons and contrasts. Here are some examples:
• Past and present
• Old people and young people
• Male and female characteristics
• Justice and injustice
• Progress and tradition
• Reality and imagination
• Innocence and experience
• Good and evil
• Light and shade
If you think this list is missing something, then add it.
Choose the five most important areas of comparison or contrast and explain
how they work in the novel.
• Scout Finch is not only the most important character in the novel,
she is also the narrator. Everything that happens is seen through her
eyes. However, unlike most first-person narratives, she does not
confine the narrative to things that she has directly experienced for example she recounts stories from the history of Simon Finch,
and repeats what other people tell her, so that we see other
viewpoints as people speak, making it possible for the reader to
• The author's decision to use a child to tell the story is a very
important element in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout had no
comprehension of the complex web of sexual fears and racial
prejudice that made so many white Southerners recoil in horror at
the very idea of sexual contact between a white woman and a black
man. It is not even clear that Scout ever understands what rape is,
even though she claims to understand.
“In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is
probably the most widely read book dealing with race
in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most
enduring fictional image of racial heroism.”
In 1991 the Library of Congress conducted a survey of book
readers. Readers were asked to cite books that had made a
difference in their lives. One of the books most often cited was
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The only book ranked higher
by readers was the Bible.
Since the 1960s, as the discourse around race
and justice in America has become more
complex and multi-faceted, To Kill a Mockingbird
has come under strong criticism for the
fundamental values it puts forth.
“Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel
is the denial of the historical agency of Black people.
They are robbed of their roles as subjects of history,
reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless
victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle
against their own oppression and exploitation. … The
novel and its supporters deny that Black people have
been the central actors in their movement for liberation
Atticus the role model?
“Finch never attempts to
change the racism and
sexism that permeates the
life of Maycomb […] On the
contrary, he lives his own life
as the passive participant in
that pervasive injustice. And
that is not my idea of a role
model for young lawyers.”
“You know, I’d hoped to get
through life without a case
of this kind” (p.98)
– Transition from innocence to experience
– Onset of puberty
Themes and Motifs
Themes are the fundamental and often universal
ideas explored in a literary work
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts and
literary devices that can help to inform and
develop the text’s major themes
– Superstitions about Boo
– Unnatural snowfall
– Fire at Miss Maudie’s house
– Mad dog
– Halloween night
A long episodic novel can easily lose its way, but Harper Lee has a very organic sense of a single
story with a unifying or central theme (the mockingbird theme) which is illustrated by the
examples of Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson.
How many readers recall, by the end of the novel, the first sentence (“When he was nearly
thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow”)? This statement is soon
forgotten, amidst a mass of narrative detail, but this incident, which Scout does not see and Jem
cannot recall, is the defining moment or climax of the entire story.
The first part of the novel is an account of Scout’s early years, taking her first days at school as a
starting point. Most of this section is about the search for Arthur “Boo” Radley. The second part
shows Scout becoming more able to understand the adult world, which is mirrored by the more
serious events that occur at this point in her life.
In the conclusion, however, Harper Lee brings the two narratives together – the stories are not
separate. While Scout and Jem have been thinking more about the trial and less about Boo
Radley, Arthur has not forgotten them. His appearance in the final chapters is almost miraculous
– it is plausible (believable in its context) because it is so understated. There is no direct account
of Arthur Radley’s attack on Bob Ewell. It is inferred from the sounds Scout hears and what Heck
Tate discovers at the scene.
Standard and non-standard forms
To Kill a Mockingbird is a conventional literary novel. This means, among other things that it:
• is written in a form of standard English which has a wide-ranging lexicon (vocabulary),
• includes references to art and culture which the author expects the reader to know (or find
• relates principal events mostly in the past tense
The narrative contains some distinctively American lexis (vocabulary) so, to take one chapter (11)
as a random example, we find “sassiest”, “mutts” and “playing hooky”.
In some cases you will find a form which is standard in both UK and US English, but with a
different meaning. So when Jem leaves his “pants” (trousers) on the Radley fence, this is not as
alarming as it might seem to English readers. On the other hand, when he stands “in his shorts
(underpants or boxer shorts) before God and everybody”, this is perhaps more alarming.
In the account of the visit to First Purchase, Scout records the distinctive speech of the coloured
people noting with particular interest the way Calpurnia switches into this non-standard variety.
Southern colloquialisms and dialect
The Radley place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings it drew him as the moon
Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like
soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
nothing to fear but fear itself (6): an allusion to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's
first Inaugural Address
Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin (8): King Arthur's adviser, prophet
stump hole whiskey (10): illegally made and sold whiskey that would be hidden in
the holes of tree stumps
bread lines in the cities grew longer (128): during the Great Depression, thousands
of people relied on charitable organizations for meals and would line up for simple
meals often of bread and soup
Mrs Roosevelt-just plain lost her mind coming down to Birmingham and tryin’ to sit
with ‘em (258): in 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended a meeting for the
Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama where she
defied state authorities by sitting in the centre aisle, between whites and blacks,
after police told her she was violating segregation laws by sitting with black
as sure as eggs: Something that is bound to happen; just as chickens are sure to
set my teeth permanently on edge: to annoy someone or make them feel nervous
the way in which Aunt Alexandra tends to annoy Scout
travelled in state: To travel in state is to do so in the position of a person of great
wealth and rank
he had seen the light: In this case to have seen the light means to have become
blind spots: a prejudice or area of ignorance that someone has but is unaware of.
Mr Cunningham's blind spot is his prejudice against Tom Robinson
guests of the county: on public assistance or welfare
into the limelight: in theatre, the limelight is an intense light thrown on stage in
order to highlight an actor, etc. To be in the limelight is to be put in prominent
position before the public
Depicting racism through dialogue
• The novel is set in the 1930s but was written in the late
1950s. The dialogue is marked by frequent use of the word
"nigger". This is a convenient way to indicate to the reader
the racist attitudes of various characters. When she wishes
to refer to African-Americans, Harper Lee uses the term
"coloured". It is not only racist whites who say use the term
"nigger", however - at First Purchase church, Calpurnia
addresses Lula as "nigger".
• Since the novel was published, attitudes have changed
about what is acceptable to speak and write. In the trial of
O.J. Simpson, the word "nigger" was considered too
offensive to repeat in court, and was described as the "Nword".
Southern colloquialisms and
The USA is a vast country, and Harper Lee makes
use of many regional expressions, local to the
southern (former Confederate) states or to
Alabama more specifically, like “cootie”, “haint”,
“scuppernongs” and “whistled bob-white”.
As you read this story, how conscious are you of the
author? What are her purposes, in your view?
Is this story written to entertain, to earn money, to
warn, to frighten, to teach, to amuse, none of
these, all of these?
What do you think is the author's reason for
In the broadest sense, a novel reflects the
viewpoints of the author. The depiction of
African-Americans of the 1930s in To Kill a
Mockingbird, although sensitive to the rank
injustices they experienced, is nevertheless a
view put forth by a Caucasian who could "get
inside of their skin" only vicariously, through
Attitudes behind the text
If you study the text closely, you may have a sense of assumptions the author makes
about the world, or of an outlook on life, which affects the way, she tells the story.
What are these attitudes or assumptions? If you find this question hard to answer, try
this test. With which of the following statements do you agree or disagree?
• dislikes coloured people
• thinks you can learn more out of school than at school
• is critical of women
• prefers trousers to dresses
• thinks children should obey their elders
• supports traditional values
• approves of Hitler
• thinks Maycomb is a wonderful place in which to live
• is really the same person as Scout (apart from the name change)
Arrange these statements in order of probability. The first one should be the one you
think most likely to be true. Give reasons for your view. At the end will be the
statements you think least likely to be true. And in the middle may be some about
which you lack the information to make up your mind.
Agency of African Americans
• Scout (narrator)
– Reader sees events through her eyes
– Is she a ‘reliable narrator’?
• Atticus (central protagonist)
– Catalyst for dramatic events in the novel
– Moral centre of the novel
– Embodies the ‘coming of age’ thread of the narrative
– Juxtaposition of his maturation with childlike
sensitivity to injustice
The ‘mockingbird metaphor’
personified in characters
– The target of sustained persecution and alienation
because of his difference
– Example of a Southern Gothic character
– A martyr for the cause of protecting the innocent
– A representative for segregated and
-Over 25% of labor force unemployed during worst years of
the Great Depression.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt wins presidency with promise of his
"New Deal," 1932.
-The Scottsboro Boys trials last from 1931 to 1937. Harper Lee
is four years old when they begin.
-Jackie Robinson signs baseball contract with the Brooklyn
-President Truman ends segregation in the military and
discrimination in federal hiring.
-Harper Lee moves to New York City to become a writer.
-Brown vs. Board of Education rules school
-Rosa Parks refuses to surrender her bus seat to
a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955.
-Harper Lee accompanies Truman Capote to
Kansas as "researcher" for his book In Cold
The early 1960s
-To Kill a Mockingbird published on July 11, 1960.
-The film follows in 1962 and wins Oscars for best actor,
screenwriter, and set design.
-Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers I Have a Dream speech on
August 28, 1963. King wins the Nobel Prize in 1964.
-Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforcing the
constitutional right to vote.
-Malcolm X is assassinated, 1965.
Despite rumors of a second Southern novel, Lee never finishes
Segregation (Jim Crow)
– Throughout the book there’s a tension between what Mayella is
(a Ewell) and what she needs to be to justify the condemnation
of Tom Robinson (the flower of “Southern womanhood,” an idea
that itself is, according to Atticus, a “polite fiction” [15.39]).
– In order to convict Tom, the jury has to believe in, or at least
pretend to believe in, the fragile, helpless girl who gets taken
advantage of by Tom, rather than the desperate, lonely woman
who actively desires him. It’s not just ideals of what women are
that’s at stake, but also of men, as Mayella’s challenge to the
court makes clear.
– Despite Mayella’s trash status as a Ewell, in accusing a black
man she’s able to access the privileges of white Southern
womanhood – namely, the chivalrous protection of men, no
– Walter is almost as old as Jem but is in Scout’s class at school. On the
first day of first grade he lacks both shoes and a lunch, but it’s clear
he’s a step up from Burris Ewell, since Walter at least has clean
clothes. Scout tries to explain Walter’s lack of a lunch and refusal of a
loan to the teacher since Walter himself can’t or won’t, but Walter’s
situation (too poor to pay back a quarter) is simply beyond Miss
Caroline’s ability to understand.
– Scout’s own ability to understand is exceeded when Walter pours
molasses all over his lunch at the Finches, and she learns from Cal that
just because someone’s different doesn’t mean she gets to judge
them. Scout gets a lesson in the other direction when she wants to
hang out with Walter but Aunt Alexandra squashes that idea because
the Cunninghams, in her eyes, are trash.
– Walter, as a Cunningham at Scout’s age level, serves as her gateway
into the complex world of white class relations in Maycomb.
– For Scout and Jem, summer means Dill, and Dill’s imagination:
"Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head
teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint
fancies" (1.39). While the Finch kids, despite their imaginative
flights of fancy, are firmly entrenched in the reality of Maycomb,
Dill’s outsider status causes him to see the Maycomb
community from a different perspective.
– This becomes most clear at Tom Robinson’s trial. While Scout
accepts Mr. Gilmer’s rude treatment of Tom on the witness
stand as normal, Dill starts crying uncontrollably at the injustice
of Tom’s being treated so differently from the white witnesses.
He can’t quite explain his feelings, but Mr. Raymond can.Walter
– Miss Maudie uses her sharp tongue to counter meanness rather than
to perpetrate it. When Miss Stephanie tries to spread tales of Boo’s
fearsomeness, Miss Maudie doesn’t just refuse to listen, or even just
smile and nod and forget.
– Jem and Scout count Miss Maudie as a friend because, unlike most
adults, she treats them with respect
– And Miss Maudie’s equal-opportunity respect extends to AfricanAmericans, too. When Aunt Alexandra is depressed and bitter over the
townspeople’s leaving Atticus to do the right thing all by his lonesome,
Miss Maudie speaks up for the small group of like-minded people in
– Like Atticus’s constant advice to Scout to put herself in the other
person’s shoes, Miss Maudie’s respect for others is based on
sympathy. Unlike Atticus, she can’t be a lawyer or face down a lynch
mob (or maybe she could), but perhaps her local influence is still
potent despite being exercised in tea parties rather than courtrooms,
and provides an example to Scout of how being a lady doesn’t
necessarily mean having your selfhood diminished.
-While everyone in the novel is filtered through Scout’s perception –
she is, after all, the narrator – Calpurnia in particular appears for a long
time more as Scout’s idea of her than as a real person.
-Scout at first sees Calpurnia less as a human being than as a force of
nature that she runs up against all too often.
-By taking the Finch kids with her to First Purchase Church, Calpurnia
shows them a different side of her character. In this new setting of
Maycomb’s African-American community, Calpurnia surprises Jem and
Scout by speaking in a voice they’d never heard her use before.
-While Scout does learn to see Calpurnia as a real person over the
course of the novel, the question remains open of to what extent the
novel gives Calpurnia an identity separate from her role as the Finch
kids’ Giver of Life Lessons
– Aunt Alexandra is so different from her easy-going brothers Atticus
and Jack that Scout wonders if she was switched at birth with another
family’s baby. She’s the kind of woman who wears a corset even under
her bathrobe. Scout compares her to Mount Everest: “throughout my
early life, she was cold and there” (9.36).
– Besides instilling the Finch kids with a sense of their own importance
in being Finches, Aunt Alexandra’s other mission is to make sure Scout
grows up into a nice young lady. She sets to work trying to quash
Scout’s tomboyish tendencies and to prepare her for a life of docile
– Ironically, Aunt Alexandra’s concern for Family causes her to go head
to head with her brother Atticus, whose defence of Tom Robinson,
Aunt Alexandra thinks, might endanger the Finch reputation. In the
end, however, it’s family affection that looms largest for Aunt
Alexandra. After Tom is shot trying to escape, Alexandra tells Miss
Maudie, "I can't say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he's
my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end. […] It
tears him to pieces” (24.76).