In her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," why did the Harper Lee choose the word "meditative?"

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Twice in her classic of American literature To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee used variations of the word "meditate," meaning deeply thoughtful or deeply felt, or to be in a state of deep mindfulness. The first instance, quoted below, occurs in the opening chapter:

“'There goes the meanest man ever God blew breath into,' murmured Calpurnia, and she spat meditatively into the yard. We looked at her in surprise, for Calpurnia rarely commented on the ways of white people."

The second instance of Lee's employing a variation of the word "meditate" occurs in Chapter Seven, which occurs within the context of Mr. Radley's having filled the hole in the tree that was used by Boo Radley and by the children as a means of human interaction that would otherwise not occur:

“'Tree’s dying. You plug ‘em with cement when they’re sick. You ought to know that, Jem.'

"Jem said nothing more about it until late afternoon. When we passed our tree he gave it a meditative pat on its cement, and remained deep in thought. He seemed to be working himself into a bad humor, so I kept my distance." [Emphasis added in both examples]

Only Lee knows with absolute certainty why she chose to use this word, not once but twice, in her narrative. What we can presume, however, based upon our knowledge of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the context in which the word is used in each instance, is that the author chose it precisely because she wanted to convey the sense to the reader that these characters, Calpurnia and Jem, are expressing deeply-felt sentiments. In the first example, Calpurnia, the Finch family's African American housekeeper, and a sort of surrogate mother for Jem and Scout, utters her contemptuous comment as the remains of the now-deceased Arthur Radley are transported past the Finch's home -- a curious comment as the previous discussion of the Radley family gave no indication, save the irresponsible rumor-mongering that inevitably surrounded the somewhat mysterious and reclusive family, that Mr. Radley was anything other than a little eccentric and protective of his family. Lee's use of the "meditatively" in this context suggests that Calpurnia believes the unfounded rumors and has harbored a deep fear and loathing of a man she probably barely knew.

The second example of Lee's use of the word "meditate" occurs, as noted, within a specific context as well. The tree in question held a special meaning for Jem, Scout and Dill. It was the tree inside of which Boo Radley hid small gifts for the children, whose fascination with the elusive figure spawned one of their favorite summertime games. Jem's "meditative pat" of the cement that now filled the hole in which the gifts were hidden suggests a mournful passing of a special time in his life. The tree symbolized the innocence of summer and the connection to a human being whose presence, up to now, could only be felt in a spiritual sense.

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