Born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, Nelle Harper Lee is the youngest of three children of Amassa Coleman Lee and Francis Lee. Before his death, Miss Lee’s father and her older sister, Alice, practiced law together in Monroeville. When one considers the theme of honor that runs throughout Miss Lee’s novel, it is perhaps significant to note that her family is related to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a man especially noted for his devotion to that virtue.
Miss Lee received her early education in the Monroeville public schools. Following this, she entered the University of Alabama to study law. She left there to spend a year in England as an exchange student. Returning to the university, she continued her studies, but left in 1950 without having completed the requirements for her law degree. She moved to New York and worked as an airline reservation clerk.
It is said that Miss Lee personally resembles the tomboy she describes in the character of Scout. Her dark straight hair is worn cut in a short style. Her main interests, she says, are “collecting the memoirs of nineteenth century clergymen, golf, crime, and music.” She is a Whig in political thought and believes in “Catholic emancipation and the repeal of the corn laws.”
Sources Of To Kill A Mockingbird
Among the sources for Miss Lee’s novel are the following:
(1) National events: This novel focuses on the role of the Negro in Southern life, a life with which Miss Lee has been intimately associated. Although it does not deal with civil rights as such – for example, the right to vote – it is greatly concerned with the problem of human dignity – dignity based on individual merit, not racial origin. The bigotry of the characters in this novel greatly resembles that of the people in the South today, where the fictional Maycomb County is located.
(2) Specific Persons: Atticus Finch is the principal character in this novel. He bears a close resemblance to Harper Lee’s father, whose middle name was Finch. In addition to both being lawyers, they are similar in character and personality – humble, intelligent and hard-working.
(3) Personal Experience: Boo Radley’s house has an aura of fantasy, superstition, and curiosity for the Finch children. There was a similar house in Harper Lee’s childhood. Furthermore, Miss Lee grew up amid the Negro prejudice and violence in Alabama. In addition, she studied law and visited her father’s law offices as a child, just as Scout visits Atticus’ office and briefly considers a career as a lawyer.
Harper Lee began to develop an interest in writing at the age of seven. Her law studies proved to be good training for a writing career: they promote logical thinking, and legal cases are an excellent source of story ideas. After she came to New York, she approached a literary agent with a manuscript of two essays and three short stories. Miss Lee followed his suggestion that she expand one of the stories into a novel. This eventually became To Kill A Mockingbird.
After the success of her first novel, Miss Lee returned to Monroeville to begin work on a second one. She learned quickly that privacy was not one of the prizes of a best-selling novelist. “These southern people are southern people,” she said, “and if they know you are working at home, they think nothing of walking in for coffee.” Miss Lee also has said that her second novel will be about the South, for she is convinced that her section of the country is “the refuge of genuine eccentrics.”
Miss Lee thinks of herself as a journeyman writer, and of writing as the most difficult work in the world. Her workday begins at noon and continues until early evening. At the end of this time, she may have completed a page or two. Before rewriting, she always allows some time to elapse, for a fresh viewpoint on what she has done.
Besides her prize-winning novel, Miss Lee has had several essays published. For example, “Christmas to Me” appeared in the December, 1961, issue of McCalls, and “Love – In other Words” appeared in the April 15, 1961, edition of Vogue. These essays display the same easy, sympathetic style of her novel.
Success Of To Kill A Mockingbird
The success of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, can be assessed from its appearance on the bestseller lists for a period of over eighty weeks. Also the book was chosen as a Literary Guild selection; a Book-of-the-Month book; and a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. It was also published in paperback by Popular Library. In April, 1961, Miss Lee was awarded the Alabama Library Association Award. In May, 1961, she was the first woman since 1942 to win the $500.00 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In addition to its acclaim in the United States, To Kill A Mockingbird has received awards in foreign countries. For example, in Britain it was selected British Book Society Top Book of the Year. It remained on the British book lists as a top seller for many months. Besides this, it has been translated into several foreign languages. This is an unusual amount of honor to be conferred on any novel; that an author’s first work should receive such recognition is truly extraordinary.
Background Of The Novel
In order to appreciate To Kill A Mockingbird fully, the reader should be familiar with some of the background of its setting. The South in the colonial times grew into an area with large cotton plantations and small cities. Because of the necessity for cheap labor to pick and seed the cotton, Negro slavery took a strong hold there. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, there were over 500,000 slaves in this country, with by far the greatest number in the South. As time passed, plantation owners formed a landed aristocracy. The Negroes, though slaves, gained a measure of economic security. On the perimeter of this were the poorer white farmers who either owned small pieces of land or worked as sharecroppers.
With the invention of machines like the cotton gin, that could do the work of many men, the need for slaves began to decrease. The profitability of slavery also decreased, and plantation owners often treated Negroes with less kindness. There were two extremes. A few Southerners gave their slaves freedom, while others totally disregarded them. The Civil War brought slavery to an end, but created other, worse problems. The carpetbaggers who streamed into the South for political and economic gain aggravated the wounds which the war had opened. The Negro was caught in the middle. On the one hand, the Northerners claimed to be working for his benefit, but were really doing little. On the other, the Southerners began to take out their bitterness for the Yankees on the Negroes. The colored man represented two things to the Southerner. First, he was a slave who was now forcibly being given equal rights with his former master. Second, he was the symbol of defeat, and a reminder of what the North had done to the South. Therefore, he became an outcast, a scapegoat to be subjugated and mistreated.
Post Civil War
As time passed and new methods for farming and cotton production were developed, many people in Southern rural areas became extremely poor. Some moved to the city; others stayed on the land to try to get whatever was possible out of it. Then, in 1929, the Great Depression hit the United States. The farmers seemed to suffer most because they depended entirely upon their land for a living. Their crops rotted, and they had little or no money for seed. But, in 1932, a new era was ushered into American political and economic life. With Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government began to take an active interest in the workingman. Laws regulating farm production, labor unions, and social security became a part of the American way of life. A new social consciousness was arousing many people in the nation.
Novel In Its Setting
To Kill A Mockingbird is set against this background of 1930 Southern life. The Finches are a family who once had a large, successful plantation. Their ancestors had been aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of the South. Now they have been reduced to gentile poverty. They are better off by far than the Cunninghams, for example, who have nothing but their land. Atticus Finch has his law career, and Alexandra is still able to make a living at Finch’s Landing. Actually, the extremes of poverty are illustrated in the Ewells and the Negroes. The Ewells are poor, but they don’t want to do anything about it. The Negroes are poor because nobody will let them do anything about it. The Ewells won’t work even when they can. The Negroes will work, but the only jobs available to them are the menial, low-paying ones.
Scout (Jean Louise) Finch narrates the story, beginning with a brief family history. Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary journeyed from England to Alabama, establishing the family which made its living from cotton on Simon’s homestead, Finch’s Landing. The Civil War left the family only its land, which was the source of family incomes until the twentieth century when Atticus Finch (Scout’s father) and his brother Jack left the land for careers in law and medicine. Atticus settled in Maycomb, the county seat of Maycomb County, with a reasonably successful law practice about twenty miles from Finch’s Landing, where his sister Alexandra still lived.
Scout describes Maycomb as a lethargic, hot, colorless, narrow-minded town where she lives with her father, brother Jem (four years older) and the family cook, Calpurnia. Scout’s mother had died when she was two.
When she was five, Scout and Jem found a new friend, Dill Harris (“Goin’ on seven”), next door in Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. Dill was Miss Rachel’s nephew from Meridian, Mississippi, who spent summers in Maycomb.
In the summertime, Jem, Scout and Dill usually played within the boundaries of Mrs. Henry Dubose’s house (two doors north) and the Radley place (three doors south). The Radley place fascinated the children, because it was a popular subject of gossip and superstition in Maycomb. Arthur Radley had gotten into trouble with the law when he was a boy. Instead of being sent to the state industrial school, his father took custody of him within their house. He was not seen again for fifteen years. Many legends grew up about the Radley house and about what went on inside. Miss Stephanie Crawford, a neighborhood gossip, added fuel to the fire – a fire which included stories of crime, mutilation, curses and insanity.
Dill was fascinated by these stories, and gave Scout and Jem the idea of making Boo Radley come out of seclusion. When Dill, always eager for some new adventure, dared Jem to run up to the house and touch it, Jem thought things over for a few days. Finally, filled with fear, he accepted the dare. He ran up, touched the house, and ran back. As the three children stared at the old house, they thought they saw an inside shutter move.
Many themes and plot-themes emerge in Chapter 1. Great emphasis is placed on the world of Scout, Jem, and Dill – a small world bounded by a few houses and composed of only a few people. From the limited knowledge of this small childish world at the novel’s opening, Jem and Scout broaden with the passing of years and events. By the time the novel reaches its conclusion, they will have learned much more about human nature. Also, Miss Lee emphasizes the Radley family. They are the focal point for the development of numerous themes to come. For example, when old Mr. Radley died, Calpurnia did something she had never been known to do before. She spoke evil about a white man when she said, “There goes the meanest man ever God blew breath into.” Finally, there are the themes relating to family and the Maycomb setting. They increase in importance from chapter to chapter.
Chapters 2 and 3
Scout At School
Dill returned to Mississippi at the end of the summer. Although she was looking forward to school more than anything in her life, Scout’s first day at school was a disappointment. When Miss Caroline tried to teach reading, Scout was bored. Much to Miss Caroline’s dismay, Scout was already accomplished at reading and writing. She told Scout to tell her father not to teach her anything more, because it would interfere with her reading. Later, at lunch time, Walter Cunningham had no food with him. When the teacher tried to give him a quarter, the boy would not take it. Scout made the mistake of trying to explain the reason to Miss Caroline. The Cunninghams were poor country folks who had been hit hard by the Depression and were too proud to accept charity. For her trouble, Scout got her fingers cracked. Thinking that Walter Cunningham was the cause of her difficulty, Scout tried to beat him up. Jem would not let her. Instead, he invited the boy to lunch at their house.
That afternoon, Miss Caroline saw a cootie crawl out of Burris Ewell’s hair. She was shocked by this and told the boy to go home and wash his hair. The boy really did not care, however, and became abusive, since he was in school only because the truant officer had made him come. He did not plan to return. That night Scout had a talk with her father. She said she hoped that Atticus would allow her to stay home from school like Burris Ewell. However, he explained to her that the Ewells were a different kind of people. They did not care about learning and had been a disgrace to Maycomb for generations. Then Atticus made a bargain with his daughter. He told Scout that he would continue to read to her every night provided she would go back to school and promise not to tell her teacher about it.
Comment These two chapters can be considered together for they contain the story of Scout’s first experience away from her narrow world at home. The reader must remember that although she was bright for her age, Scout was only six. Whatever she had learned thus far, she had learned at home from her father, her brother, Calpurnia, and a few neighbors. Therefore, she had much to learn from and about the rest of the world. For example, Scout was a town girl and not a farm girl like many of the other children in the class. Miss Caroline, the teacher, was not from Maycomb, and could not be expected to know or to understand the peculiarities of the people of Maycomb. The little girl could not comprehend why Miss Caroline did not have a better understanding. With her limited experience, Scout thought that people were alike everywhere. Therefore, she thought that her teacher should automatically know that the Cunninghams were poor. Also she thought that her teacher should understand that the Cunninghams, and other people of Maycomb, were too proud to accept anything that they could not pay back. But Maycomb was farm country, and farmers were a “set breed of men,” prizing independence more than a full stomach. Miss Caroline was from the city; Scout learned that city people were different.
Miss Caroline: Note, however, that Miss Caroline seemed to have learned something that first day at school too. In the morning, she became disturbed when Scout tried to tell her about Walter Cunningham. In the afternoon she was quite willing to listen to one of the older children when he explained to her about Burris Ewell. Thus the reader will find this entire novel is a series of experiences in which one character will gain new insights from his association with the others.
New Names: There are two important new names introduced in these chapter – Walter Cunningham and Burris Ewell. Both are from the poor, rural section of the county. However, the reader should notice the difference in their characters. Walter is proud and independent; he won’t accept charity. He apologizes for still being in the first grade. At lunch Atticus speaks to him about farming as though he were a grown man. On the other hand, Burris Ewell is surly. He dares Miss Caroline to make him do anything. Here, therefore, the author presents the reader with the first series of character contrasts. These will be important to the reader throughout the entire novel, especially if he expects to be able to understand fully the theme of the story.
Chapters 4, 5 and 6
Radley’s Oak Tree
Because Scout was in the first grade, she got out of school thirty minutes earlier than her brother. This meant a walk home alone past the dreaded Radley house. Usually she would run by it. There were two giant oaks on the Radley property. One day as Scout was running past, she noticed something shiny in a knothole of one of the trees. Examining it, she found two pieces of chewing gum. When she decided they were all right to eat, she put them into her mouth. When Jem came home, he made her spit out the gum. Anything found on the Radley place might be poison. On the last day of school the children found a box with two pennies in it. They did not know what to make of the situation, but they decided to keep the pennies.
Two days later Dill arrived. As usual he was full of wild stories and anxious to play games of make-believe. The group decided to play a game modeled on the life of Boo Radley. One of the stories about him was that he had stabbed his father with a pair of scissors, so the children began to act this out every day. They continued until Atticus caught them and took away the scissors.
While the two boys played a scissorless version of their Boo Radley game, Scout became friendly with Miss Maudie Atkinson, a benevolent neighbor who had grown up with Atticus’ brother Jack. The two of them would sit on Miss Maudie’s porch and talk. One day they had a talk about Boo Radley and Miss Maudie tried to explain the mystery of the Radley family. Recalling that Arthur had been nice to her as a boy, she called the Radley house a sad place. She denied the rumors about Boo as “three-fourth colored folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford.” The next morning Jem and Dill decided they would try to drop a note into the Radley house by using a fishing pole. While they were doing this, Atticus came by and once more warned them about bothering the Radleys.
On the last night before Dill had to return home to Mississippi, the boys hatched a plot. They decided to sneak through the back of the Radley property and take a peak through one of the windows. While doing this, they saw the shadow of a man pass by. As they ran toward the back fence, a shotgun blast went off. The three of them hurried even more and managed to escape. However, when they got home, Jem realized that he had lost his pants. He had had to squirm out of them while crawling under the Radley fence. Thus he found himself faced with another problem. That night, after everyone had gone to bed, he went back after his pants. Luckily, they were still there.
These chapters reveal the children’s reactionto the Radley place, and to the Radleys themselves. It is a typically childish viewpoint. For example, Scout could not eat the gum because anything found on the Radley place might be poison. Also in these chapters there is childish imitation. The life which the Radleys led was very unusual. The family remained almost constantly in the house. The children, with a natural inclination to imitate the unusual in the adult world, wanted to play the Radley game. The Radley game was their Maycomb substitute for playing cowboys and Indians. With a typical childlike love of adventure and a curiosity to discover the unknown, Scout, Jem and Dill longed to discover the answer to the Radley mystery. They could not understand it as Atticus or Miss Maudie did. They had to try to find out for themselves what went on inside the secretive home. Thus the incident of the note on the end of the fishing pole and the night visit. Notice, however, that although the children are curious, they are not foolishly brave. For example, they have the length of the fishing pole between them and the house. Also they chose the darkness of night to sneak up to the window.
School started again. “The second grade was as bad as the first, only worse.” One afternoon, Jem told Scout that when he returned to get his pants, they were hanging over the fence. Some one had mended the tear – “Not like a lady sewed ‘em, . . . All crooked.” After this, the children began to find more things in the tree. First a ball of twine; then two soap dolls; and finally an old watch. They decided they should write a thank-you note to whoever was giving them these things. However, when they went to put the note into the knothole, Jem and Scout found that it had been filled in with cement. Nathan Radley, Boo’s brother, said he had done this because the tree was dying and this was the way to save it. Atticus home from work and told Jem, “That tree’s as healthy as you are.” Scout noticed that Jem had been crying when he came in that night.
Hear – Second Grade was Bad as the First: The second grade was as bad as the first, only worse.
In this chapter the children begin to stop taking things for granted. They try to figure out how the articles in the tree got there. When they conclude that it is probably Boo Radley who is putting them there, they do the logical thing. They write a note which they intend to put into the tree. There is a difference, however, in the way in which each one reacts to the cement. Scout is still very young. She knows that Nathan Radley is being mean, but it does not affect her personally. On the other hand, the older Jem is more sensitive and feels things more deeply. He cries not for himself but for Boo Radley. He cannot comprehend how one man can be deliberately cruel to another. In his childlike way, Jem realizes that Boo Radley must have enjoyed putting those articles into the tree for them. Jem also realizes that the man was very considerate to sew his pants. Because of his youth, he does not know how to fight adult cruelty. Thus he cries.
Usually Maycomb had hot summers and mild winters. When snow fell one night, Scout thought it was the end of the world. She had never seen it before. Because of this unexpected cold weather, everyone had fires going at home. During the night, Miss Maudie’s house caught fire. Since all the houses were old wooden ones, everyone had to go out into the cold night. While Scout was watching the firemen at work, someone slipped a blanket around her shoulders. Later, first Jem and then Atticus realize that Boo Radley must have done this. Jem is afraid to return the blanket; he is afraid of what Nathan may do to Boo. Atticus agrees that they should keep the blanket and the incident to themselves.
Kindness is a prominent theme in this chapter. There is the unexpected kindness of Boo Radley. An air of mystery pervades the blanket incident because no one realizes at the time that the action is being taken. The effect on Scout is typical. She is all right until it dawns on her what has happened. Then she is sick with fright at the thought that Boo Radley stood right behind her and touched her. On the other hand, Jem reacts differently again. His first concern is Boo. In a babbling attempt to defend him, Jem blurts out the story of his pants to Atticus. His compassion is genuine. He is afraid of what Nathan may do to Boo. As soon as his fear for Boo is relieved, however, he relaxes and makes a joke at Scout’s expense – he re-enacts the scene for her benefit, frightening her terribly.
Courage is also an important theme, embodied in Miss Maudie’s character. The day after her house burned down, she did not wallow in self-pity. She laughed and said that she was glad that the whole thing had happened. Now she would be able to build a smaller house, take in roomers, and have more room for the plants which she loved so dearly. The children were perplexed by her unexpected good humor, but they admired her good-natured bravery in the face of personal tragedy.
Chapter 9 introduces the reader to the main action of the story – Atticus Finch’s defense of the Negro Tom Robinson. “Maycomb’s usual disease,” as Atticus calls it, begins to show itself. The narrow-minded bigotry of the townspeople and of the Finch family is hard for Scout to cope with. First there was Cecil Jacobs who announced in the schoolyard that Scout’s daddy defended “niggers.” Scout denied it, but ran home to get an explanation. Atticus told her that he was going to defend Tom Robinson, a member of Calpurnia’s church. He explains that the case is very important to him personally, and requests that Jem and Scout try to ignore the talk they will hear around town. Next day, Scout is ready to fight Cecil Jacobs again, but remembers Atticus’ request and walks away from a fight for the first time in her life.
Some time later they left for Finch’s Landing for the customary family Christmas celebration with Uncle Jack, Aunt Alexandra and cousin Francis. Francis taunts Scout by calling Atticus a “nigger-lover,” saying that “he’s ruinin’ the family.” Scout flies to her father’s defense with fists and “bathroom invective,” but gets a spanking from Uncle Jack. Later he apologizes when he hears her side of the story, and promises not to tell Atticus what Scout and Francis really fought about.
This chapter is very important if the reader is going to understand the full meaning of this novel. Atticus has been appointed to defend a Negro. Scout is ridiculed by one of her schoolmates because of this. Here is shown the attitude of the townspeople toward the Negroes. Then on Christmas Scout hears the same talk from her cousin Francis. This shows the attitude of the Finch family itself about the problem. Both Cecil Jacobs and Francis are, of course, echoing what they have heard the adults say on the subject. Obviously, to both family and townspeople it seems that Atticus Finch is making a mistake. How does Scout act about this matter: She wants to fight with her fists. But she soon learns that this is not the way to combat a dispute over ideas. Uncle Jack spanks her, but in her mind he has been unfair. Uncle Jack had not listened to her side of the story. When she can tell him about it in the quiet of her room, he says that he is sorry.
Scout And The Adults
What then is the picture of the world in the mind of this child, and how does it foreshadow the future events of the story? At first Scout fights with her fists because she does not know how to fight any other way. Then she sees adult injustice applied to her by Uncle Jack, some one whom she loves. She begins to realize that lack of knowledge and lack of forethought often lead people to do things that they might not otherwise do. Later, when Scout sees the injustice performed by the people against the Negro Tom Robinson, she is going to be able to have just a little bit better understanding of the reasons for it.
The first nine chapters give us a picture of Atticus Finch as a kind and understanding man. He is also an upright man who is trying to raise his children properly. In this chapter we get a clearer picture of him. First we see him through the eyes of his children. To them he is old and feeble because he can’t play football. Then an event occurs to change this picture. A mad dog comes down the street. It is Atticus who is called upon to do the shooting. His children see him now as a brave man. Scout wants to brag about this to all her friends, but Jem tells her not to.
To the reader this chapter might seem out of place. It appears to be an unrelated incident. However, it serves to help prepare the reader for what is to follow. In a sense, it sums up the character of Atticus Finch. Thus far we have seen him as a very quiet and serious person. Now the author shows another side of his character. He is brave but in a different way. He does the day-to-day actions so well that when he is called upon to do an extraordinary action, its performance comes naturally to him.
Scout Vs. Jem
Again we see a contrast in the attitude of the two children. The younger Scout still cannot understand why things should or should not be done. For example, she cannot understand why Atticus never told his children about his ability to shoot. On the other hand, Jem, the older child, is beginning to have a sense of values. He realizes that being a man, and more importantly, a gentleman, is not just in acting and talking.