How does the life of the author (Harper Lee) shape the meaning of her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Though Harper Lee has repeatedly denied that her novel To Kill a Mockingbird is not autobiographical, it is hard to ignore the comparisons.

The narrator of the novel is a young, tomboyish girl named Scout. Her father, Atticus, is a lawyer, and she lives in a small town in Alabama. This is all also true of Harper Lee. When she was young, Lee and her brother spent their summers having adventures with a young, mischievous neighbor boy (Truman Capote), just as Scout and her brother Jem spend their summers with Dill. Lee was born in 1926, which closely matches the time frame for Scout, who is eight or so in the novel, which is set in the 1930s.

The similarities between the novel and the author's life are clear, and Harper Lee's experiences obviously helped shape the novel by giving it authenticity. She knew what it was like to grow up in a small southern town in the 1930s: the gossip, the prejudice, the class distinctions, the education, the eccentricities, and the characters. She also spent her summers in creative adventures with a couple of boys and knew what it was like to be left out of the club, so to speak. For example, her voice of personal experience is unmistakable in this passage:

Dill was becoming something of a trial anyway, following Jem about. He had asked me earlier in the summer to marry him, then he promptly forgot about it. He staked me out, marked as his property, said I was the only girl he would ever love, then he neglected me. I beat him up twice but it did no good, he only grew closer to Jem. They spent days together in the treehouse plotting
and planning, calling me only when they needed a third party. But I kept aloof from their more foolhardy schemes for a while, and on pain of being called a girl, I spent most of the remaining twilights that summer sitting with Miss Maudie Atkinson on her front porch.

As a young girl, Lee undoubtedly experienced the confusion of good people, her friends and neighbors, who did not act rationally about race; in fact, she probably had some personal confusion about racial issues, as well. As a lawyer's daughter, Lee must have developed a clear understanding of the racial injustices that existed in her growing-up years, perhaps motivating her choice to study law.

Harper Lee's novel emulated some aspects of her life; this connection shaped the novel by giving it an authentic voice, a realistic perspective, and a believable narrative.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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