Throughout ‘‘To Kill a Mockingbird’’ Harper Lee has achieved a strong sense of right and wrong through her narrative of a few years in a poor town, Maycomb, from the perspective of a young girl called Jean Louise Finch. Throughout the novel the themes growing up, education, stereotyping and most prominently racism and prejudice are central as Harper Lee writes about a time in America, the 1930’s, when black segregation was still a huge problem. These themes are all raised from the very first chapter, where we are introduced to many characters, such as the imaginative Dill and the mysterious Boo Radley, both who play a key part in the events of the stories to come. At this very early stage of the novel Harper Lee also begins to set the scene of Maycomb town which is an old and struggling from the Depression allowing the reader to understand the attitudes that some of the citizens have and the idea that it’s a community where there are no secrets.
The very first sentence is very important to the structure of the novel. From this first sentence we learn that the narrator has a brother called Jem and he broke his arm when he was nearly thirteen. This early mention of an injury provides a sense of mystery because the reader immediately wants to know how Jem’s arm was broken. However Harper Lee doesn’t give us an explanation until the very end of the novel, in the last chapter after Scout and Jem have been attacked by Mr Ewell giving the novel a cyclic structure. The story begins where it ends. This enables Harper Lee to explain the events leading up to the accident in the following paragraphs so she can establish the history of the Finch family, which at this point doesn’t seem of great importance to the reader but as the novel continues provides explanations to the neighbours attitudes towards Scout, her brother and her father Atticus as the Finch family is well respected in Maycomb.
Scout describes her brothers healed left arm as ‘somewhat shorter than his right’ illustrating that even after mending it wasn’t perfect. Harper Lee informs us early on of this imperfection that Jem will have for the rest of his life. In chapter nineteen at the trial we learn of another man who has a bad arm, Tom Robinson, a negro who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell had ‘a rubber-like left hand’, giving the impression of a useless, limp hand. Jem and Tom Robinson have a similarity which Harper Lee has cleverly added as it connects the two characters who socially shouldn’t mix as one is white and the other black. By doing this Harper Lee prepares us to be appalled by the unfair verdict of the trial because as a reader it is clear that Tom was unable to commit the crime since his left hand was useless and him being black meant that he was accused.
Harper Lee’s description of Maycomb sets the scene for the rest of the novel. The novel itself is not at a fast pace and covers a few years of Scout’s life. This slow pace is reflected in the description of the town ‘there was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy for there was no money to buy it with’. The tri colon exaggerates the slow pace of life in Maycomb and the structured life that everyone within it lived with little variation. From the first description it appears to be a place where everyone knows everyone. Throughout the novel Scout explains the traits of certain families and their reputations. In the first chapter we learn that the Haverfords were a troublesome family and in Maycomb it was ‘a name synonymous with jackass’.
Again Harper Lee demonstrates the theme of family reputation in chapter two when Scout tries to explain to her teacher that Walter Cunningham wouldn’t be able to pay Miss Caroline Fisher back her quarter she justifies it with ‘he’s a Cunningham’. To Scout and all her classmates it is obvious that a Cunningham’s are poor and have the reputation that they ‘never took something they can’t pay back’ but to an outsider of Maycomb it isn’t understandable. Scout takes for granted that she knows all the families which is emphasised by her reaction to Miss Fisher’s confusion that she ‘thought she made things sufficiently clear’. By showing us Scout’s familiarity with the families of Maycomb-even at the age of five- Harper Lee conveys that Maycomb is a tight-knit community. This prepares us for later descriptions of the Ewell’s so we believe Scout when she explains that the Ewell had a bad reputation in Maycomb and live on a garbage dump.
Harper Lee introduces characters in a very clever way. They are only mentioned through conversation rather than long winded introductions, an example of this is Dill. The first instance where we hear of Dill is the second paragraph nevertheless we are given no clue to his character except that he has an influence on Jem and Scout because he ‘first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.’ From this Harper Lee has already connected Dill and Boo Radley together preparing for Dill’s fascination with him throughout his summer’s spent at Miss Rachel’s. The next time we are introduced to him is not long after. Harper Lee uses a short sentence to introduce him that is separated from the rest, ‘That was the summer Dill came to us.’
The fact that it stands alone shows the importance of his character and the significance he has to the story. Dill’s ‘blue eyes would lighten and darken’ as he told stories giving the sense he had a strong imagination and leading him to invent the ‘Boo Radley game’ which is the source of the children’s many fears of Boo. Harper Lee has cleverly included Dill’s presence as he is the reason that Jem and Scout start to really become interested in Boo, the ‘insane’ person living across the street who has been locked away for years. Without Dill we are given the impression that they would go on life wondering about Boo but leave him be like the rest of their neighbours. However Dill causes them to also be captivated by the Radley house. Harper Lee has also used to Dill to provoke the reader into having a naive childlike attitude towards Boo like the children. This enables her to depict Boo as a phantom who never comes out so that we do not trust him when really we learn later on that he is actually a lonely and shy man. Therefore Harper Lee makes us feel regret for judging boo on Maycomb gossip and provides an important lesson.
Furthermore the mysterious character of Boo Radley is absolutely key to ‘‘To Kill a Mockingbird’’. The description that Jem gives of Boo to Dill reveals the town’s attitude towards him and how his appearance has been comprised from many rumours from over the years. We learn throughout the novel that he is a powerful symbol of goodness from incidents such as him saving the children’s lives when they are attacked by Mr Ewell and before he has just been misunderstood and kept in a shroud of eeriness due to Maycomb rumours. The children see him as a phantom and someone who dines on ‘raw squirrels and cats he could catch’ so initially we believe him to be an insane man. By making Boo the subject of the children’s games and their constant taunting Harper Lee highlights the theme of prejudice as people are inclined to believe the rumours taunting him. He is also one of Harper Lee’s ‘mockingbirds’, a good person injured by the evil of mankind, when Scout finally meets him face to face he had ‘sickly white hands’ and ‘cheeks were thin to hollowness’ she realises he is a lonely and shy man, who was subject to his father’s evil.
In addition the assumptions that are made of Boo Radley from gossip by all the Maycomb’s citizens fits in with Harper Lee’s theme of growing up. The main reason for people fearing Boo is due to the fact that no-one ever sees him since he is locked away in his house which is because of his father, Mr Radley.
When Boo was a teenager ‘he became acquainted with some of the Cunninghams’ and we soon learn that the Cunningham’s are not a privileged or wealthy family maybe explaining their reason for forming a gang as they don’t lead exciting lives. In Maycomb we get the impression not much happens in terms of youth as ‘they formed the nearest thing to a gang’ so when the boys start causing some trouble it is blown out of proportion. To emphasise Maycomb’s attitude towards their trouble making Harper Lee uses a very long sentence separated by semicolons and colons. This listing gives the sense that older Scout believes that the seriousness of the crimes was exaggerated. Harper Lee also uses humour in this explanation of why Boo was locked up: when Mr Conner charges them with ‘using abusive and profane language in the presence and hearing of a female’ which is humorous as there were no females in their presence so emphasises the fact they must have been extremely loud, therefore meaning a female must have heard them.
Atticus plays a very important role in his children’s life and very much raises them on the philosophy you ‘can’t understand a person until you consider things from his point of view’. Harper Lee has used empathy to reveal that Atticus is a very fair man. He doesn’t have the ‘typical’ parental role in Jem and Scout’s life at first glance he seems to be more detached from his children but as the novel continues it becomes clear that he can be very affectionate towards them.
Most noticeably Scout calls her father by his first name ‘Atticus’ which again seems detached however it could signify that they respect him and he treats them like adults. This is shown in Chapter two when we learn that Scout is an extremely capable reader and writer and Atticus reads to them from his magazines. In chapter one Scout describes her father as ‘satisfactory’ which suggests she finds her father very exciting but he’s good enough. By doing this Harper Lee is able to show their changing attitudes as they get older, for example when Miss Maudie tells them ‘he was the deadest shot in Maycomb county’ they begin to realise there is more to their father than they know. Most of the time Atticus treats Jem and Scout like adults, nevertheless from time to time Atticus strokes the top of Jem’s head and Scout ‘crawls’ into his lap when she’s upset. This affection prepares us for times when Atticus doesn’t sympathise with his children like when Jem ruins Mrs Dubose’s flowers informing the reader that he isn’t cruel.
Finally an important part of the style of the novel is that it switches between a young an adult Scout. This dual narrative has the effect of creating the idea of hindsight so the impression is given that an adult Scout is looking back on a situation and revealing her previous naivety. Harper Lee also uses it to fill in the gaps about Maycomb’s history and the Finch’s history which are details that a six year old is not likely to know. When Scout begins telling us about the Finch family it is clear that it is an adult reflecting from the use of legal language, such as ‘persecution’ and ‘liberal brethen’. These words are far too sophisticated for a six year old. From this use of language Harper Lee also is able to show that Atticus influences his children, as he is a lawyer.
To conclude Harper Lee has filled the first chapter with information about the place where Scout-the heroine- lives which sets the scene for the rest of the novel. The description of Maycomb being a slow town enables the reader to understand the attitudes of the citizens later on, for example in the courthouse. As well as setting the scene the first chapter also provides clues for the rest of the novel. Learning about Jem breaking his arm in the first paragraph is particularly important because when you have finished reading the novel it is all tied together. Harper Lee has achieved this through her writing style: writing in a cyclic nature. It also introduces us to many characters, the main ones being, Jem, Dill, Boo Radley and Atticus which provides a hint as to what is to come. The arrival of Dill is key to drama that surrounds Boo Radley as he is fascinated by the Radley House which rubs off on Jem and Scout. Dill will also influence Jem in later parts of the novel a fair bit because Jem feels like he has to prove himself on several occasions keeping the connection between Boo and the three of them alive.