To Kill a Mockingbird – critical review

To Kill a Mockingbird is set during the 1930’s in a small, isolated town in Maycomb County, Alabama. The 1930’s was a period of great change with new ideas coming to the forefront of the Western world. America was fast becoming one of the most powerful countries in the world and therefore its ideas and ways of living were being copied in every far corner of the western world. Economically America was not quite so sound. Only a year earlier America had sustained a massive crash in share prices that had affected the whole nation from the richest to the poorest everybody was facing bankruptcy and poverty.

In the early 1930’s racism was a large factor in the way that everyone lived their lives. A true reflection of this came on March 25th 1931; it was the day of a trial of nine black teenagers who were accused of the alleged rape of two young white women; Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. It took place in a small, isolated town (much like the one in Maycomb County) in Scottsboro, Ala. The trial was significant because it was the sign of recognition from the white population that racism was not right. Eight of the boys were sentenced to death while another was sentenced to life imprisonment.

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The nine black teenagers were tried in conjunction with the Jim Crow Laws. The Jim Crow Laws were legal punishments on people consorting with members of another race. The most common laws forbade inter-marriage and sexual relations between two people of different races. The laws also ordered business owners and public institutions to keep members of separate races separated. Examples of this included separate drinking fountains, separate toilets and separate eating opportunities.

This relates to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in that the black community of Maycomb live in a small area on the edge of the town and generally aren’t allowed to socialise with the white member of the town. But the small town isn’t two extreme as black people aren’t beaten or murdered in the streets as like what was happening elsewhere in America (Klu Klux Klan) and it isn’t made to obvious in the novel that black people have to eat separately and go to separate public buildings. The novel in more concentrated on the corrupt legal system of the 1930’s.

In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Scout is the narrator, the novel is written in adult style despite the fact that she is only six at the start; this is because she is recounting the memories of her childhood. Despite this the novel is still written through a child’s eyes rather than that of an adult. This gives the effect of innocence and ignorance. The reader can easily understand what is happening in the novel because it is written for a child to understand, but the reader must also try to distinguish and understand certain things that Scout being a child can’t.

Scout is a bit of a tomboy she prefers to quite boyish activities. She is influenced in her activities by her brother Jem and her best friend Dill (Charles Baker Harris). In their spare time the trio enjoy acting out rather exaggerated events of Maycomb County. Their favourite story is that of Boo (Arthur) Radley who is rumoured to have attacked his father with a pair of scissors and is now locked away in the cellar of the Radley house. The children get their stories from a Miss Stephanie Crawford who lives down their road.

“According to Miss Stephanie, Boo was sitting in the living-room cutting some items out of the Maycomb Tribune…As Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his fathers leg.

Jem is Scouts older brother and is ten at the beginning. He is very protective of Scout but their relationship is left at the school gates as Jem finds his little sister embarrassing.

“Jem was careful to explain that during school hours I was not to bother him…embarrass him with references to his private life or tag along behind him at recess.”

The novel shows Jem approaching adolescence. At the beginning of the novel Jem enjoys normal childhood pursuits such as playing football, having numerous toys and inventing games like that of “the adventures of Boo Radley”.

Dill is a friend of both Scout and Jem and comes to visit in the summer holidays with his Aunt Rachel, a close neighbour of the Finches. It was Dill that thought up “the adventures of Boo Radley” and this is probably the reason for his popularity with Scout and Jem.

The novel starts in the summer of 1933; Scout is set to start school after the summer break, Jem has just turned ten and Dill has just arrived to visit from Meridian. The children’s summer begins by passing in routine contentment, which consisted of improving their tree house, running through their list of dramas based on the work of Oliver Optic, Victor Appleton and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Scout was pleased to have Dill around because he would play the parts formerly thrust upon herself – the ape in Tarzan, Mr Crabtree in The Rover Boys and Mr Damon in Tom Swift. Dill brought a new sense of inspiration to the dramas. Scout makes this clear when she says:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings and quaint fancies”

When Scout describes Dill as a “pocket Merlin” she is saying that Dill is like magic when the trio are performing their dramas. This is backed up when she describes Dills head as “Teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings and quaint fancies” suggesting that it is Dill that comes up with all the ideas for the dramas. This is reiterated later when she further explains that it was Dill who came up with the idea of making Boo Radley come out of his house. She describes Dills fascination with the Radley house by saying:

“The Radley place fascinated Dill…it drew him as the moon draws water…”

Harper Lee uses the simile of the way the gravity of the moon pulls water to compare the idea of the Radley place drawing Dill. Despite his fascination with the Radley house Dill still doesn’t have the nerve to go near it, Scout and Jem don’t like going near it either and would always run past when on their own. Scout shows Dill’s fear of the house when she says:

“…but drew him no nearer than the light-pole on the corner”

Scout is saying that despite having a wild sense of adventure and a massive desire to explore the house. Dill was still terrified because of the rumours surrounding Boo’s existence. Boo is described as;

“Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom…people said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in the windows. When peoples azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them.”

This quote shows that the three children are very easily influenced and don’t quite understand the way stories can be manipulated as they pass around the rumour mill. The idea of a malevolent phantom gives a sense of mystery, that in turn creates a sense of excitement for the children which is conveyed to the reader, in a rather exaggerated way.

Although Jem is the oldest he is still susceptible to extravagant ideas. His wild description of Boo Radley is an example of this:

“Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall…he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch…there was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped and he drooled most of the time.

The description Jem gives is one that you are more likely to find in a 1980’s horror movie than in a small town in the 1930’s. The picture he draws is widely exaggerated and is probably the cause of an over active imagination.

When Scout finds a “wad” of chewing in the knothole of an oak tree that jutted out of the Radley place she is immediately inclined to take it, but she also shows a recognition of the concept of stealing;

“…hastily looked around once more”

The way Harper Lee describes her, as hastily looking around shows that she doesn’t want to get caught so won’t rush what she is doing but is still impatient to get the chewing gum into her mouth and the fact that she is looking around for a second time once more shows that she is scared of the consequences that come from stealing. Jem shows the same fear of consequences when he and Scout find their second trinket in the old oak.

“Jem looked around…and gingerly pocketed a tiny shiny package”

Harper Lee describes Jem as gingerly pocketing the package this shows that he is cautious so as to not get caught. He also displays the same cautious act looking around to check for witnesses.

The children decided to try and get a look at Boo Radley. Their plan seemed safe enough through the eyes of Jem and Dill, which shows that they do not always realise the consequences of their actions. Jem shows his innocence when he says:

“…were simply going to peep in the window…”

The way he says simply shows the very simplicity of his grasp on the rights and wrongs in the mind of an adult. This is because to simply peep in the window is a serious criminal offence; not just another one of his childlike games. Their plan does not actually go to plan and the trio are nearly killed when Mr. Radley starts firing his shotgun, as they clamber over one another to get out of his garden Jem loses his trousers on a fence and lacks an excuse when facing five adults in his shorts. Dill’s quick wit saves the day in the end but in the strictly religious atmosphere the adult’s reaction is somewhat perplexing to Scout;

“The neighbours seemed satisfied, they all stiffened”

Scout’s innocence makes her think that the adults are satisfied with Dill’s outrageous explanation, but she is yet to possess the ability to understand the reactions of adults. In fact the adults are appalled by such goings on by children of such a young age.

Later that night Jem returns to get his trousers but he finds them mended and hanging on the fence that he caught them in. This makes him suspect Boo Radley of both mending his trousers but and leaving the gifts in the oak tree. Jem feels his suspicions are confirmed when Boo’s brother Nathan cements up the oak tree so as to stop any communication between Boo and the Finches. This shows that Jem is more perceptive than Scout, and his perception has improved since the beginning of the novel whilst Scout’s perception of events is still that of a young child yet; the older Scout, the narrator, is able to convey Jem’s understanding of events.

The fact that Jem cries when he discovers Nathan Radley’s plan to stop his relationship with Boo shows that despite he is always acting maturily his is still a child and still has the emotions of a child. This shows that his intellect isn’t as great as he makes out as he is still in adolescence and is not the man he tries to make out he is.

Its not long before the children have a new adventure to be enthralled in and talk about for many weeks after. The Finches neighbour Miss Maudie Atkinson’s house burns down. As the children stand and watch a blanket is wrapped around Scout without her noticing and it is not till later when all the excitement has gone down that she notices it and wonders where it had come from. It is Jem that first realises that it was Boo that had wrapped the blanket around Scouts shoulders but it takes Scout a while to work this out. This is another sign that Scout’s ability to perceive the goings on around her is not yet fully matured. The idea that Boo is menacing and evil is one that the children have come to believe, but his actions tend to point to a more friendly caring man. This is the children’s first contact with idea of prejudice.

Over the next year the children begin to learn a lot by watching the build up to the trial and they almost certainly forget about Boo. One of the main reasons for this is that Jem has grown up and does not want to play childish games or hang out with Scout at all for that matter. This shows that Jem sees Boo more as a childhood fantasy than a real person.

The children’s next encounter with Boo comes nearer the end of the novel. The children are dressing up to go to the Halloween pageant and it is decided that they will attend unaccompanied. During the pageant Scout misses her cue and is so embarrassed that she wants to wait for everybody to go home before she and Jem leave. This shows that Scout still has a very ‘foolish’ embarrassment.

On the way home the two of them are attacked by Bob Ewell who has a vendetta against Atticus. Jem shows that he sees himself old enough to fight to protect Scout but is badly hurt whilst Scout, who is still in her costume, is knocked to the floor and unable to get up or see anything, but she does sense a fourth person on the scene and can hear a struggle between the mystery person and Bob Ewell. Not long after she wakes up in her house and finds Jem in bed badly hurt. Outside Atticus and Heck Tate (the Sheriff) are talking. Scout wanders out to find out what had happened and discovers that it was Boo Radley that had saved them. Scout finally gets her chance to meet him and see whom he really is and what he’s really like.

Throughout the novel Jem, Scout and Dill learn a lot about judging people and seeing things through their eyes. Atticus gives a good a example of this when eh says to Scout:

“You can’t truly understand someone unless you put on their shoes and walk around in their skin.

Although it is not possible for Scout to actually do this, it does get the message across, that you can’t judge a person before you know everything about them. This helps Scout in her relationship with Boo Radley. Throughout the novel Scout tries to dissect the feelings and emotions that Boo has. She does this through a child like mind, so the reader does not get the full picture. But although Scout does never does realise the true implications of Boo Radley being a mockingbird symbol is does become clear to the reader as the novel progresses. Boo is a good symbol of a mockingbird because Boo doesn’t do anything wrong all he does is play by himself, this links to a mockingbird because all a mockingbird does is sing beautiful songs and never harms anyone. Despite this both the mockingbird and Boo are persecuted, the mockingbird by keen shooters and Boo by the town gossipers.

This novel has an amazing analytical interpretation of how life was for people in the 1930’s. Not only does it give a wonderful insight onto the way young children lived their lives and how they learnt and developed intellectually in 1930’s but it also gives a wonderful insight into many different worlds and the different life’s people led in the 1930’s. There are so many different ways to interpret this novel that is surely one of the best in all history. The novel is relevant even to day, as we look at how the children in our society learn and who influences them. The idea of a mockingbird and Atticus’s idea of wearing another mans skin are still so relevant today it amazes me.

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