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Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird: A Literary Analysis

It is difficult to give this book a label, since any one could conceivably fit. It could be a romance – the magic and innocence of childhood and all that. It has its funny moments, such as their torment of Boo Radley and Scout’s fight with her cousin, Francis, but the trial of Tom Robinson is made of much more serious stuff. By the same token, it’s too funny to be a drama. I would say it is a historical novel. The events that take place could very well have happened (and possibly did), and the main characters all act in believable ways.

Synopsis

The novel begins with Jem and Scout Finch meeting their summer playmate, Dill. Part One focuses mainly on their exploits, the most important being their fun with Boo Radley, such as sneaking him letters and receiving gifts from a tree. We also meet the other characters, such as Miss Maudie and Miss Stephanie. Atticus begins his representation of Tom Robinson.

Part Two deals predominantly with the trial and the events leading up to it. Atticus and the kids stave off a lynch mob, and Jem and Scout start to get an idea of what their long-time neighbors think of Atticus for defending Robinson. During the trial, Atticus establishes that Mr. Ewell routinely abuses his daughter and has forced her to falsely accuse Robinson of rape. The jury still finds Robinson guilty, and Jem and Scout learn what kind of justice blacks receive from white juries. Ewell vows revenge on Atticus. Robinson is shot and killed trying to escape from prison.

At the end, Ewell attacks the children as they walk home from a Halloween festival at school, but Boo Radley saves them by killing Ewell. The resolution is very tidy as it ties up the two story lines.

 Why the novel has been praised

The advertising blurb on the front cover proclaims the book a “timeless classic of growing up and the human dignity that unites us all.” The advertising blurb on the back cover declares that the book “takes readers to the roots of human behavior-to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.” While the language is somewhat overblown, it is accurate.

Not only that, but the book has something for everyone-romance, humor, a dramatic trial, an unlikely hero (Boo Radley). What’s not to like?

What a potential reader could gain

First of all, the reader would be entertained – it’s a humorous, easy-to-read story. A reader could also gain an understanding of life in the South for a black man wrongly accused of a crime against a white woman. Finally, a reader could relive the magic and innocence of childhood through three (Jem, Scout and Dill) likeable and rambunctious children.

Character Analysis

Boo Radley was the town bogeyman, the mythical childhood legend who never came out of his house, except at night, when he spied into windows and ate cats. Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill tried everything they could to get him outside, but nothing worked.

Boo Radley lived with his parents at the Radley Place, next door to the Finches. It was a run-down, beat-up old house. According to myth, Boo (his real name was Arthur) ran with a gang of punks in high school. One night, these youths locked the old town constable, Mr. Conner, into the outhouse. The judge sentenced the boys to an industrial school, but Mr. Radley would have none of that, and instead vowed that his son would never be any trouble again.

Boo wasn’t seen for another fifteen years, when he supposedly stabbed his father in the leg with scissors. The judge wanted to send him to an asylum, but again, Mr. Radley refused. He wasn’t crazy and he wasn’t a criminal, either. So the town locked him in the county basement until Mr. Radley again took him home, where he lived as a total recluse.

Jem, Dill and Scout try various methods to get him outside – banging on the door, passing notes, using his life story as a play. Nothing works, but they periodically find little gifts stashed in an oak tree by the Radley Place, such as a stick of gum, two pennies, gray twine, two carved soap figures (who look like Jem and Scout), and a watch. One day, though, Mr. Radley fills up the hole in the tree with cement, so that ends that. Lee doesn’t tell us this, but it is strongly implied that Boo has left these gifts for the children.

Shortly afterward, Miss Maudie’s house burns down, and Boo Radley places a blanket over an oblivious Scout as she watches the house burn, demonstrating that he isn’t a total recluse and is capable of affection. 

After this, Boo disappears until the end, when he saves Jem and Scout from being killed by Bob Ewell. Jem breaks his arm, though, so Boo carries him home. We discover that he is skinny and pale, with thinning hair and gray, colorless eyes.

Boo says little while at the Finches, and he is obviously uncomfortable – he coughs into his handkerchief and his moves are “uncertain.” However, he goes in to Jem and softly pats his head, then asks if Scout will take him home. She never sees Boo Radley again.

Boo is an intriguing character. The nature of his seclusion is unclear. Has his father forced him to stay inside all these years? Why doesn’t he want to come outside? Is he really a monster, as portrayed in the beginning of the novel? The end provides us with the answer to the last question. He is fond of Scout and Jem, and performs an act of heroism.

I think Boo is the mirror opposite of the town. In the beginning, he is the monster while the town is good. At the end, the roles seem reversed. The town convicts an innocent man because he is black, and Radley saves two lives. The author seems to be setting Boo apart as a contrast to the town. Of course, Boo also demonstrates that people aren’t always what they appear to be. It strikes me that Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are similar characters – they are both convicted of being something they are not (Radley a monster, Robinson a rapist). They both reveal the ugly underbelly of Maycomb County.

Literary Elements

Plot – There are two different plots here, and they both converge nicely at the end. The first plot is the adventures of Jem and Scout, especially their interaction with Boo Radley, which proves so important at the end. This plot also consists of episodes between the kids and their relatives and neighbors. I think these were used primarily to introduce us to the other characters and get to know them better, which is also important in the context of the other plot, the trial of Tom Robinson. It is by getting to know these neighbors that we understand how they can convict an innocent man.

Point of View – The point of view is Scout’s, which made for a very entertaining read. It did stretch credulity at times, though, when she related so many facts and background about everyone in the town. I wouldn’t expect a six to ten-year old to know so much about so many other people. But that’s a minor quibble.

Setting – Obviously, the setting was vital to this story. While such a trial could happen anywhere, it was much more believable to place it in the Deep South.

Style – The style was conversational and light, since the narrator was a little girl. At times, it was downright funny, since Scout made some of the wittiest observations (for example, she described talking to her cousin as “the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean.”).

Symbolism – This book is loaded with symbolism. Jem and Scout symbolize innocence, Atticus symbolizes decency and goodness while protecting innocence, Tom Robinson is the symbol of oppression, the town is the symbol of white bigotry, Radley the symbol of the misunderstood “weirdo.”

Theme

The primary theme of the novel, in the context of modern fiction, is civil rights. What happens to Tom Robinson is an injustice, and could only happen to a black man in the South during the 1930s (some would argue it still happens today). It could even be said that the predominantly white justice system killed Tom Robinson. These are all very powerful elements in modern fiction.

By dwelling solely on that one issue, though, is to miss the larger theme of the novel: the loss of innocence. Jem and Scout are idealistic kids who, overall, think Maycomb is a great place to live and populated with decent, honorable people. This applies especially to Jem. After Atticus finishes his cross-examination of Mr. Ewell, Jem whispers fiercely, “We got him.” In fact, he’s sure the jury will acquit Robinson. The evidence is plain as day! Scout’s a little more skeptical, but no more disillusioned at the jury’s decision. They suddenly realize their fellow neighbors aren’t quite as decent and honorable as they seem. If that’s true, maybe Maycomb isn’t so swell, either. Or the country. Or the world.

However, at the end, we get the notion that the kids’ faith in their fellow man may be restored. Boo Radley, the town bogeyman, saves their lives. Maybe Boo isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the town isn’t so bad, either.

My Response

I can understand why this is considered a classic, since, as I stated above, it has something for everyone. It is modern fiction, but then again, it isn’t. The civil rights angle certainly makes it modern, but the timeless themes of childhood and innocence are just that: timeless. Harper Lee skillfully ensures that it isn’t merely a political message. I am glad she did, because otherwise it wouldn’t be as enjoyable or powerful. Many political novels tend to be one-dimensional and flat. To Kill a Mockingbird avoids that.

I found the novel difficult to get into, though. The various escapades of the children were amusing and entertaining, but they seemed pointless and scattered. I soon realized that Lee was introducing us to the townspeople, but that didn’t increase my interest much. I understand that we had to get to know them, because otherwise the Tom Robinson verdict would not have been such a tragedy, because we would have assumed that the town was just made up of bigots and racists, reducing the people to cardboard cutouts. However, Lee fleshes them out and makes them real to us, which only deepens the tragedy. After all, if basically decent people are capable of such a thing, aren’t we all? Still, maybe some of the Jem and Scout adventures could have been more closely related to the central plot. That may have moved the novel along faster.

The novel really hooked me with the lynch mob scene. This was drama at its best, even if somewhat clichéd. The intervention of the children added a heightened sense of danger while diffusing a volatile situation. It also demonstrated the depth of Atticus’ love for his children, when, after it was over, “produced his handkerchief, gave his face a going-over and blew his nose violently.” He may have been reacting to the stress and fear of the situation, but I don’t think so.

The trial itself was absorbing. I read it straight through without stopping. I’ve always enjoyed courtroom dramas, and this was one of the best I’ve encountered. Atticus skillfully yet gently pointed out the obvious – Bob Ewell abused his daughter, not Tom Robinson – in the face of hostile and uncooperative witnesses. Robinson’s testimony was no less gripping. Lee could have made the prosecutor an evil Klan type, but again correctly refrained. That would have been too easy. She also very nicely let the dim-witted reader know what was going on through the dialogue between Jem and Scout.

I think the novel lagged again between the end of the trial and Ewell’s attack on the children. Lee could have gotten to the climax much quicker without sacrificing the story. Once the climax arrived, though, it was exciting and frightful. Lee made the assault much more suspenseful by blinding Scout with her costume. Since she didn’t know what was going on, we didn’t either. It was very well done.

The appearance of Boo Radley was probably meant as a surprise, but it was actually fairly predictable, although no less satisfying. As I stated above, it nicely tied the two plots together. I think Radley served two purposes: he was a contrast to the behavior of the townspeople, and he may have helped Scout regain some trust in her neighbors.

As a middle child (“the sandwich meat”) with an older brother and younger sister, I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Jem and Scout. As Jem grows older, he wishes to spend less and less time with Scout. He doesn’t want to be seen with her in public, and he doesn’t want to play with her anymore. This is all very normal, but not to Scout, who wonders if something is wrong with Jem. That tiny little sub-plot was very charming.

In summary, I enjoyed the novel for its humor, its endearing characters, and riveting trial. I can understand why it’s a classic, and I hope it doesn’t fall victim to political correctness and get banned from schools, as Mark Twain has, because it contains the n***er word. That would indeed be a tragedy.

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