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Historical Context Literary Criticism Narrative Voice and Structure Literary Techniques. Epigraph. ‘Lawyers I suppose were children once’ - rational, secular world of lawyers characterised by man made laws intended to guarantee justice and order in society

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historical context literary criticism narrative voice and structure literary techniques
Historical Context

Literary Criticism

Narrative Voice and Structure

Literary Techniques


‘Lawyers I suppose were children once’

-rational, secular world of lawyers characterised by man made laws intended to guarantee justice and order in society

-a universe of children characterised by instinctively perceived moral and spiritual realities

Robert Butler on Harper Lee’s Religious Vision in TKAM

comparisons and contrasts
Comparisons and contrasts

The narrative is full of comparisons and contrasts. Here are some examples:

  • Past and present
  • Old people and young people
  • Male and female characteristics
  • Justice and injustice
  • Progress and tradition
  • Reality and imagination
  • Innocence and experience
  • Good and evil
  • Light and shade

If you think this list is missing something, then add it.

Choose the five most important areas of comparison or contrast and explain how they work in the novel.

narrative voice
Narrative Voice
  • Scout Finch is not only the most important character in the novel, she is also the narrator. Everything that happens is seen through her eyes. However, unlike most first-person narratives, she does not confine the narrative to things that she has directly experienced - for example she recounts stories from the history of Simon Finch, and repeats what other people tell her, so that we see other viewpoints as people speak, making it possible for the reader to compare them.
  • The author's decision to use a child to tell the story is a very important element in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout had no comprehension of the complex web of sexual fears and racial prejudice that made so many white Southerners recoil in horror at the very idea of sexual contact between a white woman and a black man. It is not even clear that Scout ever understands what rape is, even though she claims to understand.

“In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.”

Joseph Crespino

In 1991 the Library of Congress conducted a survey of book readers. Readers were asked to cite books that had made a difference in their lives. One of the books most often cited was Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The only book ranked higher by readers was the Bible.

literary criticism
Literary Criticism

Since the 1960s, as the discourse around race and justice in America has become more complex and multi-faceted, To Kill a Mockingbird has come under strong criticism for the fundamental values it puts forth.


“Perhaps the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denial of the historical agency of Black people. They are robbed of their roles as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation. … The novel and its supporters deny that Black people have been the central actors in their movement for liberation and justice.”

Isaac Saney

atticus the role model
Atticus the role model?

“Finch never attempts to change the racism and sexism that permeates the life of Maycomb […] On the contrary, he lives his own life as the passive participant in that pervasive injustice. And that is not my idea of a role model for young lawyers.”

Monroe Freedman

“You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind” (p.98)

  • Bildungsroman
    • Transition from innocence to experience
    • Onset of puberty
themes and motifs
Themes and Motifs

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts and literary devices that can help to inform and develop the text’s major themes


Gothic elements

  • Superstitions about Boo
  • Unnatural snowfall
  • Fire at Miss Maudie’s house
  • Mad dog
  • Halloween night

A long episodic novel can easily lose its way, but Harper Lee has a very organic sense of a single story with a unifying or central theme (the mockingbird theme) which is illustrated by the examples of Arthur Radley and Tom Robinson.

How many readers recall, by the end of the novel, the first sentence (“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow”)? This statement is soon forgotten, amidst a mass of narrative detail, but this incident, which Scout does not see and Jem cannot recall, is the defining moment or climax of the entire story.

The first part of the novel is an account of Scout’s early years, taking her first days at school as a starting point. Most of this section is about the search for Arthur “Boo” Radley. The second part shows Scout becoming more able to understand the adult world, which is mirrored by the more serious events that occur at this point in her life.

In the conclusion, however, Harper Lee brings the two narratives together – the stories are not separate. While Scout and Jem have been thinking more about the trial and less about Boo Radley, Arthur has not forgotten them. His appearance in the final chapters is almost miraculous – it is plausible (believable in its context) because it is so understated. There is no direct account of Arthur Radley’s attack on Bob Ewell. It is inferred from the sounds Scout hears and what Heck Tate discovers at the scene.


Standard and non-standard forms

To Kill a Mockingbird is a conventional literary novel. This means, among other things that it:

  • is written in a form of standard English which has a wide-ranging lexicon (vocabulary),
  • includes references to art and culture which the author expects the reader to know (or find out)
  • relates principal events mostly in the past tense

The narrative contains some distinctively American lexis (vocabulary) so, to take one chapter (11) as a random example, we find “sassiest”, “mutts” and “playing hooky”.

In some cases you will find a form which is standard in both UK and US English, but with a different meaning. So when Jem leaves his “pants” (trousers) on the Radley fence, this is not as alarming as it might seem to English readers. On the other hand, when he stands “in his shorts (underpants or boxer shorts) before God and everybody”, this is perhaps more alarming.

In the account of the visit to First Purchase, Scout records the distinctive speech of the coloured people noting with particular interest the way Calpurnia switches into this non-standard variety.

literary techniques
Literary techniques
  • Figurative Language
  • Allusions
  • Idioms
  • Dialogue
  • Southern colloquialisms and dialect
figurative language
Figurative Language
  • The Radley place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings it drew him as the moon draws water.
  • Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
  • nothing to fear but fear itself (6): an allusion to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first Inaugural Address
  • Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin (8): King Arthur's adviser, prophet and magician
  • stump hole whiskey (10): illegally made and sold whiskey that would be hidden in the holes of tree stumps
  • bread lines in the cities grew longer(128): during the Great Depression, thousands of people relied on charitable organizations for meals and would line up for simple meals often of bread and soup
  • Mrs Roosevelt-just plain lost her mind coming down to Birmingham and tryin’ to sit with ‘em (258): in 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended a meeting for the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama where she defied state authorities by sitting in the centre aisle, between whites and blacks, after police told her she was violating segregation laws by sitting with black people.
  • as sure as eggs: Something that is bound to happen; just as chickens are sure to lay eggs
  • set my teeth permanently on edge: to annoy someone or make them feel nervous the way in which Aunt Alexandra tends to annoy Scout
  • travelled in state: To travelin state is to do so in the position of a person of great wealth and rank
  • he had seen the light: In this case to have seen the light means to have become religious
  • blind spots: a prejudice or area of ignorance that someone has but is unaware of. Mr Cunningham's blind spot is his prejudice against Tom Robinson
  • guests of the county: on public assistance or welfare
  • into the limelight: in theatre, the limelight is an intense light thrown on stage in order to highlight an actor, etc. To be in the limelight is to be put in prominent position before the public
depicting racism through dialogue
Depicting racism through dialogue
  • The novel is set in the 1930s but was written in the late 1950s. The dialogue is marked by frequent use of the word "nigger". This is a convenient way to indicate to the reader the racist attitudes of various characters. When she wishes to refer to African-Americans, Harper Lee uses the term "coloured". It is not only racist whites who say use the term "nigger", however - at First Purchase church, Calpurnia addresses Lula as "nigger".
  • Since the novel was published, attitudes have changed about what is acceptable to speak and write. In the trial of O.J. Simpson, the word "nigger" was considered too offensive to repeat in court, and was described as the "N-word".
southern colloquialisms and dialect
Southern colloquialisms and dialect

The USA is a vast country, and Harper Lee makes use of many regional expressions, local to the southern (former Confederate) states or to Alabama more specifically, like “cootie”, “haint”, “scuppernongs” and “whistled bob-white”.

the author
The author

As you read this story, how conscious are you of the author? What are her purposes, in your view?

Is this story written to entertain, to earn money, to warn, to frighten, to teach, to amuse, none of these, all of these?

What do you think is the author's reason for writing?


In the broadest sense, a novel reflects the viewpoints of the author. The depiction of African-Americans of the 1930s in To Kill a Mockingbird, although sensitive to the rank injustices they experienced, is nevertheless a view put forth by a Caucasian who could "get inside of their skin" only vicariously, through empathy.

attitudes behind the text
Attitudes behind the text

If you study the text closely, you may have a sense of assumptions the author makes about the world, or of an outlook on life, which affects the way, she tells the story.

What are these attitudes or assumptions? If you find this question hard to answer, try this test. With which of the following statements do you agree or disagree?

Harper Lee

  • dislikes coloured people
  • thinks you can learn more out of school than at school
  • is critical of women
  • prefers trousers to dresses
  • thinks children should obey their elders
  • supports traditional values
  • approves of Hitler
  • thinks Maycomb is a wonderful place in which to live
  • is really the same person as Scout (apart from the name change)

Arrange these statements in order of probability. The first one should be the one you think most likely to be true. Give reasons for your view. At the end will be the statements you think least likely to be true. And in the middle may be some about which you lack the information to make up your mind.

  • Scout (narrator)
    • Reader sees events through her eyes
    • Is she a ‘reliable narrator’?
  • Atticus (central protagonist)
    • Catalyst for dramatic events in the novel
    • Moral centre of the novel
  • Jem
    • Embodies the ‘coming of age’ thread of the narrative
    • Juxtaposition of his maturation with childlike sensitivity to injustice
the mockingbird metaphor personified in characters
The ‘mockingbird metaphor’ personified in characters

Boo Radley

  • The target of sustained persecution and alienation because of his difference
  • Example of a Southern Gothic character

Tom Robinson

  • A martyr for the cause of protecting the innocent
  • A representative for segregated and disenfranchised African-Americans
historical context
Historical Context

The 1930s-Over 25% of labor force unemployed during worst years of the Great Depression.-Franklin D. Roosevelt wins presidency with promise of his "New Deal," 1932.-The Scottsboro Boys trials last from 1931 to 1937. Harper Lee is four years old when they begin.

The 1940s-Jackie Robinson signs baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947.-President Truman ends segregation in the military and discrimination in federal hiring.-Harper Lee moves to New York City to become a writer.

historical context1
Historical Context

The 1950s-Brown vs. Board of Education rules school segregation unconstitutional.-Rosa Parks refuses to surrender her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955.-Harper Lee accompanies Truman Capote to Kansas as "researcher" for his book In Cold Blood.

historical context2
Historical Context

The early 1960s-To Kill a Mockingbird published on July 11, 1960.-The film follows in 1962 and wins Oscars for best actor, screenwriter, and set design.-Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers I Have a Dream speech on August 28, 1963. King wins the Nobel Prize in 1964.

The mid-1960s-Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforcing the constitutional right to vote.-Malcolm X is assassinated, 1965.

Despite rumors of a second Southern novel, Lee never finishes another book.

minor characters
Minor Characters

Mayella Ewell

  • Throughout the book there’s a tension between what Mayella is (a Ewell) and what she needs to be to justify the condemnation of Tom Robinson (the flower of “Southern womanhood,” an idea that itself is, according to Atticus, a “polite fiction” [15.39]).
  • In order to convict Tom, the jury has to believe in, or at least pretend to believe in, the fragile, helpless girl who gets taken advantage of by Tom, rather than the desperate, lonely woman who actively desires him. It’s not just ideals of what women are that’s at stake, but also of men, as Mayella’s challenge to the court makes clear.
  • Despite Mayella’s trash status as a Ewell, in accusing a black man she’s able to access the privileges of white Southern womanhood – namely, the chivalrous protection of men, no questions asked.
minor characters1
Minor Characters

Walter Cunningham

  • Walter is almost as old as Jem but is in Scout’s class at school. On the first day of first grade he lacks both shoes and a lunch, but it’s clear he’s a step up from Burris Ewell, since Walter at least has clean clothes. Scout tries to explain Walter’s lack of a lunch and refusal of a loan to the teacher since Walter himself can’t or won’t, but Walter’s situation (too poor to pay back a quarter) is simply beyond Miss Caroline’s ability to understand.
  • Scout’s own ability to understand is exceeded when Walter pours molasses all over his lunch at the Finches, and she learns from Cal that just because someone’s different doesn’t mean she gets to judge them. Scout gets a lesson in the other direction when she wants to hang out with Walter but Aunt Alexandra squashes that idea because the Cunninghams, in her eyes, are trash.
  • Walter, as a Cunningham at Scout’s age level, serves as her gateway into the complex world of white class relations in Maycomb.
minor characters2
Minor Characters


  • For Scout and Jem, summer means Dill, and Dill’s imagination: "Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies" (1.39). While the Finch kids, despite their imaginative flights of fancy, are firmly entrenched in the reality of Maycomb, Dill’s outsider status causes him to see the Maycomb community from a different perspective.
  • This becomes most clear at Tom Robinson’s trial. While Scout accepts Mr. Gilmer’s rude treatment of Tom on the witness stand as normal, Dill starts crying uncontrollably at the injustice of Tom’s being treated so differently from the white witnesses. He can’t quite explain his feelings, but Mr. Raymond can.WalterCunningham
minor characters3
Minor Characters

Miss Maudie

  • Miss Maudie uses her sharp tongue to counter meanness rather than to perpetrate it. When Miss Stephanie tries to spread tales of Boo’s fearsomeness, Miss Maudie doesn’t just refuse to listen, or even just smile and nod and forget.
  • Jemand Scout count Miss Maudie as a friend because, unlike most adults, she treats them with respect
  • And Miss Maudie’s equal-opportunity respect extends to African-Americans, too. When Aunt Alexandra is depressed and bitter over the townspeople’s leaving Atticus to do the right thing all by his lonesome, Miss Maudie speaks up for the small group of like-minded people in Maycomb.
  • Like Atticus’s constant advice to Scout to put herself in the other person’s shoes, Miss Maudie’s respect for others is based on sympathy. Unlike Atticus, she can’t be a lawyer or face down a lynch mob (or maybe she could), but perhaps her local influence is still potent despite being exercised in tea parties rather than courtrooms, and provides an example to Scout of how being a lady doesn’t necessarily mean having your selfhood diminished.
minor characters4
Minor Characters


-While everyone in the novel is filtered through Scout’s perception – she is, after all, the narrator – Calpurnia in particular appears for a long time more as Scout’s idea of her than as a real person.

-Scout at first sees Calpurnia less as a human being than as a force of nature that she runs up against all too often.

-By taking the Finch kids with her to First Purchase Church, Calpurnia shows them a different side of her character. In this new setting of Maycomb’s African-American community, Calpurnia surprises Jem and Scout by speaking in a voice they’d never heard her use before.

-While Scout does learn to see Calpurnia as a real person over the course of the novel, the question remains open of to what extent the novel gives Calpurnia an identity separate from her role as the Finch kids’ Giver of Life Lessons

minor characters5
Minor Characters

Aunt Alexandra

  • Aunt Alexandra is so different from her easy-going brothers Atticus and Jack that Scout wonders if she was switched at birth with another family’s baby. She’s the kind of woman who wears a corset even under her bathrobe. Scout compares her to Mount Everest: “throughout my early life, she was cold and there” (9.36).
  • Besides instilling the Finch kids with a sense of their own importance in being Finches, Aunt Alexandra’s other mission is to make sure Scout grows up into a nice young lady. She sets to work trying to quash Scout’s tomboyish tendencies and to prepare her for a life of docile domesticity.
  • Ironically, Aunt Alexandra’s concern for Family causes her to go head to head with her brother Atticus, whose defence of Tom Robinson, Aunt Alexandra thinks, might endanger the Finch reputation. In the end, however, it’s family affection that looms largest for Aunt Alexandra. After Tom is shot trying to escape, Alexandra tells Miss Maudie, "I can't say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he's my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end. […] It tears him to pieces” (24.76).
  • http://www.universalteacher.org.uk/prose/tokillamockingbird.pdf
  • http://www.enotes.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird-essays/kill-mockingbird-harper-lee
  • http://www.shmoop.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird/characterization.html
  • http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Belmont_HS/tkm/