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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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What sensory details does the narrator use to build suspense during the scene when the children try to look in the Radleys' window in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

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In Chapter Six of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the author makes excellent use of imagery, especially in the form of sensory details, to create suspense and foreboding when the Finch children and Dill try to look in the Radleys' window.

As the children enter the yard, descriptions heighten a feeling of anxiety for the children's safety, making this one of the story's most exciting chapters.

At the rear of the property where "we stood less chance of being seen," there is "a narrow wooden outhouse." The kids have to wiggle under the wired fence. "It was a tight squeeze for [Jem]." In these descriptions, we have a sense of trying not to be caught, but there is also the sense of confined spaces, something that frightens many people.

When Jem warns, "Don't get in a row of collards whatever you do, they'll wake the dead," Scout moves cautiously and, obviously much too slowly, for as she looks up, she "saw Jem far ahead beckoning in the moonlight." This brings to mind a ghost, especially with the words "beckoning" and "moonlight."

When the kids arrive at the gate that separates the yard from the garden, "the gate squeaked" when Jem touches it.

As they move forward, Scout complains.

"You've got us in a box, Jem," I muttered. "We can't get out of here so easy."

A description of the house is given:

The back of the Radley house was less inviting than the front: a ramshackle porch ran the width of the house; there were two doors and two dark windows between the doors.

Above a Franklin stove, "a hat-rack mirror caught the moon and shone eerily."

Creeping to the side of the house, there is a "hanging shutter." While it may only be a sign of disrepair, it brings to mind a haunted house. As they try to raise Jem up to look in the window, he says,

Hurry. . . we can't last much longer.

Time is running out. A need for speed creates tension.

When the boys decide to try the back window, Scout's fear is palpable.

When Jem put his foot on the bottom step, the step squeaked. He stood still and tried his weight by degrees. . . He crawled to the window, raised his head and looked in.

In a split second, the entire mood of the scene changes:

Then I saw 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. . . put his hands to his face. . . Jem saw it. He put his arms over his head and went rigid.

At that point, the kids dive off of the porch. Scout explains,

As I tripped the roar of a shotgun shattered the neighborhood.

The reason that sensory details are so effective is because they appeal to our senses, which are very sensitive. When the author appeals to the senses, words on a page come to life. The senses in this chapter are mostly of sight, sound, and touch: visual, auditory, and perceptual.


Whether general imagery is used that evokes mental pictures or feelings that cause fear and suspense, or the specific use of sensory details are employed, Lee has a true gift to be able to transport the reader into that dark backyard, on a hot summer's night—when kids are apt to be up to something thrilling—and frightening—in Maycomb, Alabama.

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