Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Start Free Trial

What examples of dramatic irony (tragedy, comedy, suspense, or horror) can we find in To Kill A Mockingbird, and what are their effect(s)?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Finch children's innocence of the ways of the world allows for a good deal of dramatic irony. There are lots of things that we know that they do not.

One such thing would be the fate of Tom Robinson. We know that Tom, as an African-American man charged with the rape of a white woman, has absolutely no chance whatsoever of being acquitted. In this part of the world a mere accusation in such cases is tantamount to a conviction. Yet Scout and Jem—and indeed Dill, for that matter—believe that justice will somehow prevail and that Tom will be a free man. This explains why children are all so incredibly upset by Tom's conviction.

In the aftermath of this blatant miscarriage of justice, Jem says he always believed that Maycomb folk were the best people in the world. But us readers knew long before he did that that really wasn't the case. Long before the trial of Tom Robinson, we knew all about the rampant racial prejudice that most people in this small Southern town displayed with such abandon. In this case, dramatic irony serves as a necessary prelude to the Finch children's maturation in this classic coming-of-age story.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience of a play or the reader of a work of literature knows something a character does not.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee plays on the slippage between Scout's limited and childish view of Boo Radley and her readers' more sophisticated understanding that he is not the fearful monster and bogeyman that Scout, Jem, and Dill believe. Lee does not come out and directly tell us that Boo is not a monster, but she conveys it to us through his actions. Dramatic irony comes into play in the difference between how we view Boo's actions (kindhearted and benign) and how Scout does (fearfully).

One example of this occurs during the fire that burns down Miss Maudie's house. It is a cold night, but Scout is too riveted by the excitement of the event to notice. It is only after she comes home that she—and we—learn that Boo Radley slipped out of his house and placed the brown blanket over her shoulders. We know without a doubt that this is a kind act, but Scout reacts with fear when Jem does an imaginative re-enacting of the scene:

My stomach turned to water and I nearly threw up when Jem held out the blanket and crept toward me. “He sneaked out of the house—turn ‘round—sneaked up, an’ went like this!”

Scout takes literally what Jem is enacting, because she believes Boo is a scary figure, while we know he is not.

In this instance, the dramatic irony is played for comic effect.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dramatic irony, of course, is when the reader knows something that the character does not know.  There are numerous examples of dramatic irony in To Kill a Mockingbird, but let me get you started with a few arranged in order of importance. 

First, and probably the least significant but an example of dramatic irony just the same, is when Uncle Jack tells Scout a funny story as she fusses and frets about a big splinter under her skin.  The readers know that Uncle Jack is trying to take her mind off of the pain, so that the splinter can be removed.  However, that fact surprises Scout.  The effect of this particular instance of dramatic irony is humor. 

Second, there is the tense scene during which Scout asks about rape.  The readers of the book all know exactly what rape is.  Scout, being the innocent in To Kill a Mockinbird, does not.  Therefore, this time Lee's use of dramatic irony creates a bit of suspense.

Third, there is the amazing scene where Atticus saves the town by shooting a rabid dog with one quick shot to the head.  By the middle of the incident, as Heck Tate talks with Atticus, the audience knows that it is Atticus who is the best shot in town, but it isn't until the shot is fired that both Scout and Jem understand this.  Not only does this create suspense, but also adds a lot to Atticus' characterization (proving that he is a brave enough man to keep a murderous skill like marksmanship to himself).

Finally, there is the scene when Scout shows up at the jail, showing great loyalty to Atticus.  When Scout arrives, she immediately sees Mr. Cunningham and asks how his "entailment" is coming along.  Mr. Cunningham, who has come to the jail to do possible injury to Atticus, is thrown off-guard by Scout's innocent and caring question.  We understand this, but Scout does not.  Scout, through dramatic irony, deflects the angry mob at the jail.  The effect here is all suspense related.

Lee, then, is a master of dramatic irony, as it permiates the book and creates numerous effects with a single literary device.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team