To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel of childhood, but it is not told by a child. The narrator, Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, is an adult, recalling events that occurred in the mid-1930’s, when her older brother Jem Finch was nearing his teens and she was four years younger. This narrative stance has several advantages. By using the first person, Lee gains immediacy and dramatic effect; by placing the events in the past, she can evaluate incidents that have become much clearer over the years.
The novel concerns innocence and experience, and its theme is more complicated than it might appear. Scout, Jem, and their friend from Meridian, Mississippi, Dill Harris, are not naturally cruel; however, they have not yet learned to empathize with others. To them, outsiders have no feelings. Therefore, it is all right to run up to the porch of a recluse, as a game; it is all right to rub a poor boy’s nose in the schoolyard dirt; it is all right to make a snowman in the image of a neighbor; and it is all right to make fun of crabby old ladies. Although Atticus Finch, the father of the motherless Scout and Jem, is not particularly concerned with proper clothes for them, he is concerned about teaching them to imagine themselves in the position of others, even of people who are not particularly friendly or appealing. In this sense, then, the children’s innocence, which dictates instinctive aversion, must be modified. On the other hand, Atticus hopes that his children will preserve another form of innocence—that they will not learn the prejudices that society is so willing to teach them.
Structurally, then, the novel is organized to show the development, or the moral education, of Atticus’s children. In episode after episode, the pattern is repeated. The children (or one child) will assess someone by superficial standards; then, either on their own or, more often, in a conversation with Atticus, the children discover the truth—that the person whom they condemned has hidden sorrows and, often, hidden strengths.
Since the first-person narrator is the adult who, as a child, experienced all of these revelations, Harper Lee could have had her introduce the characters in these episodes with a full description and analysis. Instead, she chooses to let the readers follow the children to their discovery of the truth. This technique not only increases suspense, it also dramatizes the process through which the children themselves are going on their way to understanding.
One of those brief but significant episodes occurs at the end of part 1 of the novel, which is divided into two parts. It begins with the narrator’s explaining the antipathy that both she and her brother feel toward Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, a woman who lives alone and whose chief pleasure seems to be sitting on her front porch and shouting criticisms and insults at passing children, especially at Jem and Scout. They cannot understand why their father behaves in so courtly a manner toward Mrs. Dubose. As far as they are concerned, she deserves their hatred.
Finally, Mrs. Dubose hurls one insult too many at the children, this time one equating their father with the black people and poor white people for whom she says Atticus works. When the children pass her house again a short time after this diatribe, Jem notices that Mrs. Dubose has retreated from the porch: In a fury, he destroys every one of her camellias.
As soon as he has done it, Jem begins to anticipate his father’s rebuke. What he does not expect is the punishment that he receives: Atticus not only makes Jem apologize, he also has him offer amends. What Mrs. Dubose decides that she needs of Jem is to have him read to her every day but Sunday for a month. Atticus finds that penalty appropriate and makes sure that Jem lives up to the contract. Even when Jem reports Mrs. Dubose’s continuing insults about Atticus helping black people, Atticus will not relent. Finally, the month is up, and Jem thinks that he is free of Mrs. Dubose.
Some time later, however, Mrs. Dubose dies; Atticus then feels free to explain to Jem why, despite her prejudice and her crankiness, he considers Mrs. Dubose one of the bravest people he has ever known. Mrs. Dubose was addicted to morphine; however, when she knew that she was dying, she was determined to break that habit, even though by doing so she would ensure herself an agonizing death. Atticus does not have to explain further to his son; Jem now knows that he will never be free of Mrs. Dubose, will never forget the lesson he has learned.
In brief episodes such as this, Lee chronicles the children’s moral development. The fact that generally she has her adult narrator move through events like the child she was when they occurred is...
(The entire section is 1950 words.)