What is the function of relating the Finch family history at the outset of the novel in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?
Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird depicts the small-town depression-era south through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, Scout Finch. To give the reader the full flavor of this setting, Lee describes in some detail the how the Finch family came from England and settled in the United States. Then she traces her lineage down through her father, Atticus Finch. This family characterization helps the reader get to know the various Finch family characters.
The family patriarch, at least their American patriarch, is Simon Finch, the first Finch to come to America. In the following passage, the narrator, Scout Finch tells the reader how Simon became established in the South. Note the satirical tone of her observations:
Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not tor the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens.
Much of the charm of To Kill a Mockingbird derives from the narrator’s perspective. Early in the novel, as we read her account of the family’s history in America, we get our first taste Harper Lee’s writing style. The reader gets the story from a grown-up Scout Finch, but she describes the events in the story through the eyes of six-year-old Scout Finch. The contrast between adult-Scout’s considerable writing and observational skills with child-Scout’s view of the world and place in society create the novel’s humorous and sometimes bitingly sarcastic tone. The world often does not make sense to young Scout, and the reader has to admit that in many cases, she’s right—there’s a lot of nonsense in our lives that could stand some improving.
Lee uses this opportunity early in the story to tell the reader what the Finch family is like, and to introduce us to the narrator’s tone, which she will maintain throughout the story.