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To Kill a Mockingbird Essay

22 Aug 2016Literature Essays

Literary Criticism of Harper Lee’s- To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill, a Mockingbird holds a unique position in America’s literary canon. It is both one of the most widely read novels of the last century, winning the Pulitzer in the year of its publication. However, for about thirty years after its publication, it received minimum critical attention and was largely considered to be a pleasant read rather than a profound statement on America’s social history. After that, however, it started to attract a large amount of critical attention, both praise and derision, till it was rated as a book that was ‘most cited as making a difference in people’s life’, second only to the Bible. (Johnson 14) This is the only novel by Harper Lee, and she usually refrained from talking about her work apart from some rare interviews. The work, according to many has deep autobiographical elements inspired from real life settings and incidents. The novel addresses the issue of racism in the Far South and is considered to be a strong statement against racism. On a purely moral front, Atticus Finch has become a sort of role model for a generation: a veritable symbol of a man standing by his own ideals and beliefs despite widespread social opposition. Some ethnicities have criticized the book for its use of specific language and terms that, in an inverted way, actually re-establishes racism in a subtle way. The book, despite dealing with these rather serious issues, is garbed in a diction that is replete with irony and humor, making the book a unique contribution to the American literary canon.

The Autobiographical Element in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

The autobiographical elements in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ were a major source of controversy during the book’s release. Although Lee has insistently denied any direct autobiographical inspiration behind the characters of her novel, yet parallels have been drawn and strains of autobiography have been revealed by critics and friends over the years. Atticus Finch is based largely on Lee’s father Amasa Coleman Lee, an attorney who was a champion of civil rights and an advocate of racial equality. Although he was not as radical and avowed reformist as Finch in the novel, yet he did fight for African American causes. Amasa Lee once defended two black men who were accused of murder. The trial left such a lasting impression on him that he never fought a case after the convicts were accused, hanged and mutilated. Amasa Lee grew more liberal with growing years on the question of racial equality and often voiced his opinions in the Monroeville newspaper, which he edited and to which he regularly contributed. Maycomb, the fictional Southern town where Lee sets her novel bear's close resemblance to her hometown, Monroeville. (Gloria 76) The racial question was very much central to the society of her native Monroeville, even after segregation was officially denounced.

Parallels have also been drawn between the central character of Scout And Harper Lee herself, who according to Marianne M. Moates, was ‘a rough ‘n’ ready tomboy…she had cropped hair, wore coveralls, went barefoot, and could talk mean like a boy’. (Moates…)We find more references to her actual life from the writings of Truman Capote, who lived long at Monroeville, and was close to Lee. Together they referred to each other as the ‘apart people’, typing works on an old Underwood typewriter. It is speculated that Truman Capote himself could be the model for Dill, Scout and James’ ‘summer’ friend.

One of the biggest controversies were woven around the character of Tom Robinson. Various attempts have been made to locate his identity, and the character can have its origins in the local history of Monroeville. A white woman accused Walter Lee, a black man for raping her: an incident that was covered in the newspaper of her father when she was 10. (Matthew A3) Although the charges were found to be false, the convict died of tuberculosis in jail. The incidents may also be passively influenced by the scandal surrounding the notorious Scottsboro Boys. Emmett Till, one of the biggest immediate reasons behind the outbreak of the Civil Rights movement was also probably one of the immediate inspirations behind the character.

Central Issues in To Kill a Mockingbird

Probably the greatest reason behind the popularity of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is its topicality and its deft handling of issues that were not only burning ones at her time but are of great relevance even today. The first part of the book is almost completely devoted towards analyzing the life of the children in the Southern town. The fascination of the children towards their neighbor Boo Ridley, who was secretive and even a shadowy character lurking like an unidentified presence in their vicinity, pervades the first part of the novel. The importance is given to Boo Ridley and his shadowy presence, as well as the detailing of his house, has encouraged some critics to categorize the novel as a Gothic fiction, complicating the question of generic categorization that the novel has always attracted. It has been often observed that it is not the characters who lead the novel in the first half, but the spirit of the American South. The Deep South comes across like a being with almost a palpable presence, guiding characters into acting in the way they do. It is, therefore, no surprise that much of the novel’s early attraction grew from a sense of mystery associated with life in the South: its racial questions, its wilderness, its peculiar social customs including the obsession with families and individual genealogies, leading to an over-active caste system.

However, this exotic charm of the first half of the novel leads to a deeper and more grave race question in the second part of the novel. Today, around fifty years after its publication, the novel is seen to be ostensibly a work on racial injustice. To complicate the issue, the novel is set at a time of socio-economic transition of the South, when new relationships were being worked out among antagonistic factions of the society. Such a process of transition usually leads to regimentation, a desperate attempt to fit in already established categories of one’s ideological belonging, which becomes racial in this case. The constant use of prototypes is noteworthy in the novel. The blacks are almost dehumanized by the whites and are presented more as types than as individuals. They are almost always ‘stupid, pathetic, defenseless, and dependent upon the fair dealing of the whites, rather than his own intelligence to save him’. (Siegel 133) When Atticus Finch stands up to fight for Tom Robinson, a sequence of events happens that bring this racial anxiety and even fear to the fore. The attack on Scout and the general opposition to Atticus’ action of defending Robinson are some of the incidents.

Atticus Finch’s commitment can be seen to be basically to break the myth of evil, immature, stupid, and sexually voracious black man. It is not just the accuser in microcosm and the white prejudices in macrocosm that he is fighting against, he is fighting against a stereotype: a stereotype that developed in the South for over years, and took the most intense form during the time of a socio-economic transition.

However, it must be remembered at this point that Lee’s treatment of the process of racial injustice is more in-depth, rigorous and problematic than a monolithic painting of characters in black and white. What makes To Kill a Mockingbird particularly rich, is the way the racial question is intrinsically connected to questions of class and gender. Lee’s treatment of the issue of class in Southern society has often inspired critics to identify her, at a very basic level, with Jane Austen. It cannot be denied that the concerns shared by the two were quite similar. Jean Blackwell clearly spells out the similarities between the two when she says that for both Austen and Lee, the primary objective was ‘affirmation of order in society, obedience, courtesy, and respect for the individual without regard for status’. (Blackwell) The easily distinguishable tone of satire and irony is another common ground between the two.

Individuals from all across the class spectrum are brought into play in the novel. The fact that she places the first person narrator in the middle-class position, helps her cause as it allows her to look at society from both above and below. Characters like Calpurnia, the black cook of the Finch household; Walter Cunningham and Aunt Alexandra display various class attitudes that were prevalent in the Southern society at the time of the Great Depression and immediately after it. Similarly, the novel betrays gender concerns at great depth. The strong-willed Calpurnia and Miss Maudie, as well as Mayella Ewell, provide examples of female independence of spirit working within a largely patriarchal setting. Scout also challenges gender stereotypes in her ways of dressing, actions and her commitment towards here faith in human equality. Dean Shackleford elucidates the problem of this gender question in the following terms:

‘Lee gradually demonstrates that Scout id becoming a feminist in the South, for with the use of first-person narration, she indicates that Scout/ Jean Louise still maintains the ambivalence about being a Southern lady she possessed as a child’. (Shackleford 101)

The mothers in the novel are absent and the fathers are typically abusive- this forms another major issue of Lee’s novel. This is highly responsible for the society to go astray and builds up the traditional patriarchal society with the complete absence of the mothers.

Atticus Finch: The Hero and the Model

One of the biggest causes of the popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird is the integrity and adherence to one’s principles as depicted by the character of Atticus Finch. Finch has transcended from being a major character in a novel to become almost a symbol of moral strength in a legal circuit. Whatever be the reason behind the immense popularity of Atticus Finch, one cannot deny from a critical point of view that the greatest source of the character’s attraction is his moral ambivalence.

Atticus Finch has transcended spatiotemporal boundaries to be counted as a role model in the legal profession in particular, and humanity at large. However, Atticus is firmly rooted in his time. Despite being a champion of equal rights and harvesting a strong dissent against the racial prototypes those were prevalent in his time, Atticus works from within the legal circuit to fight the evils. There are two sides to this response and adds to the character’s richness. First, it foregrounds order as it shows a noble attempt to address deep-rooted racist questions from within the institutionalized system of law. On the other hand, this very approach has drawn criticism, because critics state that despite his radical view towards racism, Finch works from well within the sexist and the racial institutions that were operative during that time.

Symbolism in - To Kill a Mockingbird

The very title, To Kill a Mockingbird itself has lots of symbolic connotation, which is used in the building up of the plot. The destruction of the innocence by the evil forces and social vices represents the idea mentioned in the title of the novel. The mockingbird is symbolic of the innocence and thus, to kill a mockingbird corresponds to the death of the innocence. It is probably for this reason that a child narrator is used who looks at the social vices of the time. Innocence ceases to exist in the characters of the Dill, Jem, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson and Mr. Robinson with the development of the plot.  These characters are identified as the mockingbirds, which lose their innocence with time. When Mr. Underwood describes the untimely death of Tom Robinson as “the senseless slaughter of songbirds”, then probably, he is referring to the title of the novel. Again, the mention of Scout that it would be like “shootin' a mockingbird” hurting Boo Radley brings out the theme of Lee’s novel. Afraid of the racial injustice and the endangered innocence, Miss Maudie says to Scout that “Mockingbirds don't do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” There is an oblique hint at the justification of the title of the novel in the last name of the family- Finch.  Mockingbird, the symbol of innocence, first appears in the novel when Atticus presents the air rifles of the children for shooting. He warns the children that if they wish they can kill the bluejays but they should keep in mind not “to kill a mockingbird” as it is a sin to do so. To kill a mockingbird simply means the death of the harmless and the innocence. To make any moral statement, Lee is seen to refer back time and again to the symbol of the mockingbird, which represents kindness, peace, and innocence.

Again the killing of the innocence and the childhood harshly is developed through the progress of To Kill a mockingbird. The transition from the childlike innocence to the adult perspective is brought out very deftly with the changing attitude of the children toward Boo Radley. The innocent Boo in the beginning of the novel grows up to a developed and fully human towards the end of the novel. Boo’s innocence is ruined by the behavior of his cruel father. Boo is the most significant symbol, which represents the guiltless mockingbirds and the existence of the good within the evil within the heart of the human beings. In spite of the sufferings of Boo, he still listens to his heart while intermingling with the children. He is the ultimate symbol of good that still lingers amidst the vices in of grown up world.

Through the various symbols and imageries introduced in the novel, Lee brings out the ethical character of the human beings. The good and evil are juxtaposed and at the same time is balanced properly. To deal with the different themes of the novel, symbolization plays a great role and makes To Kill a Mockingbird a great success.

Narrative Style of - To Kill a Mockingbird

The storytelling method, which was adopted by Lee, elevates this novel to a superior work. The gifted art of storytelling makes Harper Lee one of the most prominent authors of her age. The visual form of art and the subtlety with which she handles her characters and plot binds her work as a complete whole. She uses a child narrator and a grown up woman to see things from different points of view. The voice of the child narrator makes a close observation on the things and the happenings, while the woman’s nostalgic reflection on her childhood memories creates a kind of aura in the novel. The proper blending of the adult world and the world of the innocence accounts for the huge popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel traces the recession of both the world which is wrapped in hidden motivations. The choice of vocabulary and the language creates the world, which is very own of Lee.

Lee very dexterously blends humor within the tragic plot of the novel. This is supported by the view of the eminent scholar named Jacqueline Tavernier-Corbin, who says: "Laughter ... [exposes] the gangrene under the beautiful surface but also by demeaning it; one can hardly ... be controlled by what one is able to laugh at." (Tavernier-Courbin, 2007) There are several areas that provide humor within the story line. There is subtle humor in the mentioning of the Scout’s behavior with the boys and her strong dislike for putting on a dress.

The irony, parody, and satire in To Kill a Mockingbird are used by Lee to deal with the complex issues within the novel. The usage of the narration by the child builds up the complexities. Scouts way of attracting Dill towards her by asking him to beat her up really gives way to the complex issues in the novel. The satirical touch used in the description of Scout’s first day in school is surely the result of the creative mind of Lee, which is open to the hardcore real situations.

The irony, the major weapon of Lee in dealing with the theme of the class, gender and racism puts her to among the superior class of writers. While mentioning about Maycomb’s likeness for racism but still maintaining some kind of decency in the society, Lee uses irony with great care. In choosing the very title To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee carefully introduces irony and satire. She points finger at the educational system, justice structure and societal pattern of her time but at the same time adds humor while dealing with it. She carefully handles the social vices with the proper use of satire, irony, and humor. The introduced humor also, at times, paves the ground for lots of entertainment.

References:

  1. Johnson, Claudia Durst. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. New York: Twayne, 1994.
  2. Moates. A Bridge of Childhood: Truman Capote’s Southern Years.
  3. Gloria, Steinem. ‘Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything (And So she Did): An Interview with Truman Capote. McCalls.
  4. Matthew, Bigg. Novel Still Stirs Pride, Debate: Mockingbird Draws Tourists to Coming to Grips with its Past. The Washington Post: 09.23.2007 Shields,
  5. Erisman, Fred. ‘The Romantic Regionalism of Harper Lee’. The Alabama Review XXVI, April: 1973.
  6. Siegel, Roslyn. The Black Man and the Macabre in American Literature’. Black American Literature Forum 10: 1976.
  7. Blackwell, Jean. ‘Valorizing the Commonplace: Harper Lee’s Response to Jane Austen’ in Alice Petry ed. On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections. University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
  8. Shackleford, Dean. ‘The Female Voice in To Kill a Mockingbird: Narrative Strategies in Film and Novel’. Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 50: (Winter 1996-1997)
  9. Bloom, Harold. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird: Harper Lee. Los Angeles: Chelsea House, 2006.
  10. Tavernier-Corbin, Jacqueline.  Humor and Humanity in To Kill a Mockingbird in Alice Petry (ed.): On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections. Memphis: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.

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