How does Harper Lee use language to create atmosphere in Chapter 15 of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The atmosphere of a book is called the mood, or the emotional landscape of the story.  Authors carefully choose their words in order to create the mood they want to convey in the section.  The author’s tone, or attitude, helps create the mood and atmosphere.

The mood begins to turn in Part II from the triumphs and hardships of childhood to the life and death seriousness of the trial.  The mood of Chapter 15 is foreshadowed by references to Dill as the “defendant” in the beginning paragraph and Scout wondering who had died when the men conversed in the yard, as they only did for “death and politics.”

The atmosphere is reinforced by the fact that it is dark, and the men are collected in the front yard to discuss the situation.  Although Scout does not know what is going on, she is aware that something unusual is happening.

There was a murmur among the group of men, made more ominous when Atticus moved back to the bottom front step and the men drew nearer to him. (Ch. 15)

Words like “murmur” and “ominous” create an atmosphere of secrecy and dread as the men talk about the potential of violence toward Tom Robinson.  There is suspicion that someone might try to go after him and put justice into their own hands.  In Maycomb’s mind, Robinson is already guilty.

The heavy mood is broken when Jem yells that the telephone is ringing and Atticus yells at him to answer it.  It breaks the tension, and re-inserts the childish innocence.  This also foreshadows Scout’s diffusion of a very tense situation later when she tries to have a friendly conversation with Mr. Cunningham, not completely aware that she is in the presence of a lynch mob.

The description of the scene leading up to this incident helps create the atmosphere of tension.  It’s dark, and Atticus sits outside the jail, which is described as “venerable and hideous.”  A light shines on Atticus.

In the light from its bare bulb, Atticus was sitting propped against the front door. He was sitting in one of his office chairs, and he was reading, oblivious of the nightbugs dancing over his head. (Ch. 15)

This is a serene scene, contrasted with the danger to come.  Scout soon realizes what is wrong.  The men are “strangers,” and their intentions are not good.  When one of them men threatens Jem, she kicks him.  It is not childish silliness that motivates this—it is genuine concern.  When Scout sees someone she does know, Mr. Cunningham, she is relieved.  Talking to him makes him realize the true gravity of what he is doing, and the mob breaks up.

The atmosphere of Chapter 15 is very important, because it serves as a transition from the innocent adventures of the first part of the book to the serious nature of the trial.  Just as the events usher the reader into a new phase of Scout’s life, the careful word choice lets us know that things are taking a turn.

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