For a novel that deals with human tragedy and the loss of innocence, To Kill a Mockingbird is remarkably humorous. Until the tone shifts in Part II and grows increasingly more serious, it’s hard to open the book to a page without a passage or an anecdote that evokes amusement or a laugh-out-loud response. The novel is often amusing, and sometimes it’s downright funny. Written in the retrospective point of view with the adult Scout telling the story, the humor emanates mostly from two sources: Jem, Scout, and Dill’s adventures growing up in Maycomb before they are exposed to the hatred inherent in racism, and the tone of Scout’s voice as narrator.
Looking back, Scout is often amused by her childhood and the culture in which she grew up. As she narrates the novel, she shares her amusement in anecdotes and a tone of voice that reflect her pleasure in remembering them. Sometimes humor is found in exaggeration or understatement as she describes herself and her experiences; some passages in the novel are gently satirical in describing the culture of Maycomb. Most of the humor is found in Scout’s recalling the numerous challenges she and Jem presented to their father when they were children. As Miss Maudie teases Atticus while looking at Jem and Scout’s “morphodite” snowman, “Atticus, you’ll never raise them!” Atticus does raise them, and very well, but his job, according to Scout, wasn’t easy.
During their summers together in Maycomb, Jem, Scout, and Dill spend their days playing while Calpurnia keeps an eye on them. Cal can’t watch them every minute, though, and left to their own devices, they create some of the funniest incidents in the novel. Rolling downhill in a tire on the sidewalk in front of the Finch house is a favorite pastime—until Scout is crammed inside the tire, it goes out of control, and she is deposited, head spinning and knees shaking, in the front yard of the fearful Radley house where the even more frightening Boo Radley lives.
The children’s early obsession with Boo is innocent and naïve, and their conception of him is hilarious, one that could only be born in the creativity of a child’s imagination. Scout remembers Jem’s “reasonable” description of Boo, as delivered to Dill:
Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.
Never doubting the accuracy of Jem’s description, Dill immediately wants to see Boo for himself. If Dill wanted to “get himself killed,” Jem advises, “all he had to do was go up and knock on the [Radleys'] front door.”
The children’s growing obsession with Boo leads to other humorous incidents, two of which get them into trouble with Atticus, who has told them to leave Boo alone. They “play Boo Radley,” acting out the gossip they have heard about him and his parents. They embellish the stories about Boo, creating quite a script to perform with stage props pilfered from the Finch household. Scout recalls that “[o]ne day we were so busy playing Chapter XXV, Book II of One Man’s Family, we did not see Atticus standing on the sidewalk looking at us, slapping a rolled magazine against his knee.” Atticus’s irritation is obvious, but it does not deter them.
Jem, Scout, and Dill are soon in trouble again when Atticus sees Jem trying to deliver a note to Boo by attaching it to the end of a fishing pole and shoving it through a shutter on the Radley house. Scout recalls that Jem’s plan to make sure Atticus didn’t catch him in the act seemed foolproof. Scout and Dill would stand guard, and if Atticus were sighted, Dill would ring a bell in warning. Dill, as Scout remembers, was armed with her mother’s silver dinner-bell, and when Jem’s plan went awry, “I saw Dill ringing the bell with all his might in Atticus’s face.” In the tone of Scout’s voice as she relates these childhood antics, readers can hear the amusement that infuses much of the novel.
Scout’s amusement is also evident when she relates memories of her skirmishes with Calpurnia, some of her battles with Alexandra, and her relationship with school. Especially entertaining is Scout’s campaign to avoid going to school, one phase of which was cussing: “I was proceeding on the dim theory, aside from the innate attractiveness of such words, that if Atticus discovered I had picked them up from school he wouldn’t make me go.” Scout’s asking her Uncle Jack “to pass the damn ham, please” at Christmas dinner may be one of the funniest passages in the book.
The culture of Maycomb, Alabama, is also reviewed in a humorous tone from time to time. For instance, Scout relates that when Atticus began practicing law, his first two clients were Haverfords, “in Maycomb County, a name synonymous with jackass.” After killing a blacksmith over a horse and being “imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses,” the Haverfords rejected Atticus’s advice to take a plea and “insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody.” It wasn’t.
Scout also touches humorously on the culture of Maycomb when she describes how her first-grade class reacted when their new teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, informed them she was from Winston County in North Alabama:
The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.
Rural Maycomb County obviously had no use for its cousin to the north. What it did value, Scout recalls, was its own history and a large variety of Maycomb County’s agricultural products, both of which were celebrated in a school pageant written by Mrs. Grace Merriweather. Given “Mrs. Merriweather’s imagination and the supply of children” to dress in meat and vegetable costumes, the pageant would have been impressive, Scout remembers, had she not fallen asleep in her ham costume, missed her cue, and woke up just in time to race on stage and ruin Mrs. Merriweather’s grand finale with the state flag.
Scout’s description of the pageant is the last instance of humor in To Kill A Mockingbird, for it takes place immediately before Bob Ewell’s savage attack on Jem and Scout and the moving conclusion of the novel. The end of the pageant must have been hilarious, though, because after Scout’s disastrous debut as a ham, “Judge Taylor went out behind the auditorium and stood there slapping his knees so hard Mrs. Taylor brought him a glass of water and one of his pills.” The little girl dressed up as a ham certainly didn’t think the incident was funny, but through the retrospective point of view, Scout as narrator enjoys remembering it. It is through these anecdotes and Scout’s amusing retrospective assessments of Maycomb that the novel is often very humorous and irresistibly charming.