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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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Narrative Voice and Structure
‘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
The narrative is full of comparisons and contrasts. Here are some examples:
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
“You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind” (p.98)
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
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:
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
-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