How does Harper Lee use language to create atmosphere in Chapter 12 of To Kill A Mockingbird?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 12 is the beginning of Part Two of the book.  As such, Lee treated it as a transitional chapter to illustrate the growth and maturation of Jem and Scout and the slow pace of change with respect to the looming trial of Tom Robinson.  Lee establishes the atmosphere for what follows by opening this section of her novel with Scout’s reminiscences regarding Jem’s changes from child and friend of Scout’s to growing, maturing young man.  Through Scout’s narration, Lee provides incremental bits of information that both reflect the changes to Jem:

“This change in Jem had come about in a matter of weeks. Mrs. Dubose was not cold in her grave—Jem had seemed grateful enough for my company when he went to read to her. Overnight, it seemed, Jem had acquired an alien set of values and was trying to impose them on me . . .”

and, that illuminate the changes gripping the Deep South during the Great Depression:

“As if that were not enough, the state legislature was called into emergency session and Atticus left us for two weeks. The Governor was eager to scrape a few barnacles off the ship of state; there were sit-down strikes in Birmingham; bread lines in the cities grew longer, people in the country grew poorer. But these were events remote from the world of Jem and me.”

We know it is summer, as part of the transition the characters are experiencing involves activities that would normally occur during that season, especially the annual arrival of Dill, who Scout informs us cannot make his usual trip because he has to remain in Meridian.  Scout identifies Dill with the onset of summer, and his absence represents just another example of how the times are changing. 

Chapter 12 is also the part of the novel when Jem and Scout become aware of the crime to which Tom Robinson has been accused: rape of a white girl.  More significantly, it is the phase of the novel when the Finch children began to understand the distinctions between races as established by a history of prejudicial treatment of African-Americans.  Much of this chapter involves Jem and Scout’s attendance at a black church, where they observe Calpurnia adopting an African-American ghetto diction when addressing Lula.  The maturing of Atticus’s children includes their growing awareness of the disparate cultures in which they are increasingly immersed.

Lee uses Chapter 12 to set the stage for the climactic developments yet to come.  She established the atmosphere through Scout’s reminiscences regarding Jem’s maturation, Dill’s inability to visit, and Cal’s decision to take the children to the all-black church.

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