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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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How does Harper Lee use imagery to describe life in the town of Maycomb in To Kill A Mockingbird?

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Imagery is description that uses the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Lee uses a good deal of imagery to make the town of Maycomb come alive for the reader, building a picture of it as a real place. She has a talent for finding images that stick in a reader's mind, such as when she sets the scene of the slow, hot summer in Depression-era Maycomb by providing such detail as the following:

Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

This conveys how hot it is in Maycomb in summer—the ladies bathe twice—as well as how slow life moves there—the ladies have time to bathe twice a day. It also communicates how soft these ladies are, inside and out, probably a bit overweight and also not prone to have been toughened up morally, when she compares them to "soft teacakes."

Lee uses sparer imagery to help characterize Atticus when she describes his office as follows:

Atticus’s office in the courthouse contained little more than a hat rack, a spittoon, a checkerboard and an unsullied Code of Alabama.

This suggests much about how Atticus might practice law. It just might be more important for him to build relationships over a checkerboard (which also suggests he isn't overburdened with work) than read the law code of Alabama (which is "unsullied" or little touched).

As you read, keep an eye out for other ways Lee uses imagery to build a layered picture of Maycomb life and to tell us more about her characters.

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One way that Harper Lee allows the community and history of Maycomb to come alive in To Kill a Mockingbird is through the use of imagery.

Imagery is the careful use of words and phrases to create mental images in the reader's mind.

In describing Maycomb, Lee writes:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.

The use of the word "tired" conveys a great deal. "Old town" brings to mind a historical location. However, "tired old town" evokes the mental image of a town that is stuck in the past, has not seen change in a very long time and has no desire to be any different than it is—despite what may be happening in other parts of the country. 

Lee uses words to masterfully create images of people we will never know and a way of life few remember:

Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day... Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

 When Jem, Dill and Scout go to the Radley's house after dark, Harper Lee's imagery creates a sense of fear in the children that is palpable to the reader. 

Then I saw...

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the shadow. It was the shadow of a man with a hat on. At first I thought it was a tree, but there was no wind blowing, and tree-trunks never walked. The back porch was bathed in moonlight, and the shadow, crisp as toast, moved across the porch toward Jem.

Dill saw it next. He put his hands to his face.

The presence of such strong moonlight allows the "shadow of a man" to appear as "crisp as toast." There is no wind so the movement cannot be explained away: it has to be a man moving closer to Jem.

Maycomb is a place where nothing happens unless the children use their imaginations (which are alive and thriving in all three of them). The fear the children have of the Radley place is common to all the youngsters living in the area. Scout runs past the house everyday from school; one of their friends takes the long way to and from school so as not to have to pass the Radley home. These perceptions are artfully conjured through Harper Lee's brilliant imagery.

While the town of Maycomb is old and tired, eliciting a response in Scout of the never changing face of her birthplace, the Radley's house seems to take on a life of its own, presented as one of the most frightening places in Maycomb. All of this is accomplished through the author's ability to create vivid pictures in the mind of the reader.

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