How does imagery in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird affect the novel?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Writers use imagery to create mental pictures in a reader's mind. Since imagery creates pictures, imagery is specifically made up of words related to the five senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, and scent. Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee uses imagery as one device to develop her themes.

One example of the use of imagery can be seen in her descriptions of the courtroom and courtroom proceedings, beginning in Chapter 16. Lee specifically uses imagery to describe the informalities and weaknesses of a small Southern county's court system, which helps develop her theme of injustice.

One weakness of a Southern county's court system concerns the jury, and Lee uses vivid imagery to portray the social and educational status of the men serving on Tom Robinson's jury. According to Scout's description, all of the men on the jury were "[s]unburned, lanky, they seemed to be all farmers ... One or two of the jury looked vaguely like dressed-up Cunninghams" (Ch. 16). Since we can see a sunburn, see lankiness, meaning boniness, and see attire farmers wear that usually make it obvious they are farmers, we know that Scout's description is full of sight images.
At one point in the book, Atticus explains that only county people served on juries, never town people, because county people are far enough removed from issues being dealt with in the courtroom. Town people have too much personal stake in the outcomes of the trials to be trusted to make objective decisions. However, a problem with a jury made up of only county people, specifically farmers, is that they are guaranteed to be all uneducated men, just like the Cunninghams. And, as we saw in the earlier mob scene led by Walter Cunningham, uneducated men are more likely to make judgements based solely on their instincts. Hence, Lee is using the vivid description of the jury, filled with images of being sunburned, lanky, and dressed like farmers, to emphasize weaknesses of the judicial system and develop her theme of injustice.

Scout further uses sight images to describe Judge Taylor, especially to describe the fact that he was known to oversee his court with an "alarming informality" (Ch. 16). For example, Scout describes that Judge Taylor often "propped his feet up ... cleaned his fingernails with his pocket knife ... [and] gave the impression of dozing" (Ch. 16). Since we can see all of the above, we know these are again perfect examples of sight images. More importantly, they make the reader question Judge Taylor's professionalism, which further calls into question the justice of the court proceedings. Therefore, Lee is using her description of Judge Taylor to develop her theme of injustice.

bandmanjoe eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The use of imagery in Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" is put to skillful use in capturing the reader's interest and bringing the book itself to life.  Imagery is the descriptive use of words, describing something in words so as to give it a visual sense.  It has often been said "A picture is worth a thousand words."  Imagery is a useful literary tool that puts that saying into practice.  "The window frames were black against a vivid, orange center..."  is an example of imagery, describing the intensity of the fire that consumed Miss Maudie's house when it burned.  "She was a widow, a chameleon lady who worked in her flowerbeds with and old straw hat and men's coveralls..." is another use of imagery used to describe the character known as Miss Maudie, who delighted in being an outdoor spirit, working in her flower garden and admiring nature in general.  Imagery is a useful tool when trying to get your point across to a reading public who is trying to "see" what your words are trying to say.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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