Harper Lee Analysis: To Kill a Mockingbird

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Analysis: To Kill a Mockingbird

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Harper Lee set her novel in a very isolated locale, which she calls Maycomb, in an era when her notion of crossing racial and social boundaries does not always seem imminently attainable, the world of 1960, when To Kill a Mockingbird appeared, was radically different. The Civil Rights movement had begun: The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled against school segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and there had been a successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955-1956, which brought activist Martin Luther King, Jr., to public attention. Finally, people who believed in the importance of applying law fairly and breaking racial boundaries (as does her character, Atticus Finch) were being heard.

Most literary critics have written of To Kill a Mockingbird in glowing terms. One critic has suggested that Atticus is the symbol of the future, of the “new” South that will arise when it takes into account all human experience, discarding the old romantic notions of an isolated regionalism in favor of a wider Emersonian view of the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird has gained stature over the years, as readers began to think of it as more than merely a skillful depiction of small-town southern life during the 1930’s with a coming-of-age theme. Claudia Durst Johnson, who has published two books of analysis on To Kill a Mockingbird, suggests that the novel is universally compelling because Lee’s overall theme of “threatening boundaries” covers a wide spectrum, from law to social standing, from childhood innocence to racism.

The narrator of the book is Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, who is discussing childhood events with her adult brother, Jem, as the story begins. She then slips effortlessly into the role of the six-year-old tomboy who matures over the three years of the book’s action. In the first half of the novel, Scout and Jem, along with their childhood companion, Dill, are fascinated by their mysterious neighbor, Boo (Arthur) Radley. Because no one has seen Boo in many years, the youngsters construct a gothic stereotype of him, imagining him as huge and ugly, a monster who dines on raw squirrels, sports a jagged scar, and has rotten yellowing teeth and bulging eyes. They make plans to lure Boo from his “castle” (in reality the dark, shuttered Radley house), but in the course of their attempts to breach the boundaries of his life, they begin to discover the real Boo, an extremely shy man who has attempted to reach out to the children in a number of ways, and who, in the final chapters of the book, saves their lives.

The second half of the book is principally concerned with the trial of Tom Robinson, a young African American unfairly accused of raping a white woman. Racial tensions in the neighborhood explode; Scout and Jem are shocked to find that not only their peers but also adults they have known their whole lives are harshly critical of their father, Atticus, who provides the legal defense for the innocent man.

Throughout both sections of To Kill a Mockingbird , Lee skillfully shows other divisions among people and how these barriers are threatened. Obviously, it is not a matter of race alone that sets societal patterns in this provincial Alabama town. For example, when Atticus’s sister, Alexandria, visits the family, she makes it clear that she is displeased by Scout’s tomboyish appearance, since she feels a future “southern belle” should be interested in more ladylike clothing and more feminine behavior. Furthermore, as Jem tells Scout later, there is a strict caste system in Maycomb, with each group threatened by any possible abridgments of the social order. As Jem suggests, there are the “old” families—the gentry, who are usually educated, frequently professional, but, given the era, often cash-poor. On the next level down are the “poor but proud” people, such as the Cunninghams. They are country folk who pay their bills with crops and adamantly refuse all charity. Beneath them is...

(The entire section is 1,470 words.)