Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is generally viewed as a coming-of age story. It focuses on the theme of racial prejudice in the American South during Great Depression. The novel is full of ambiguities which contradict this general reading. The novel is built from contradictory concepts, using stereotypes, prejudicial portrayals of scenes, and characters, which are contrary to the conventional reading. The novel’s conflicting ideas are rooted in an irreality which hangs over its plot, setting, dialogue, and dialogue. This irreality can be understood as a sort of willful naivete which places a childlike perspective on events and creates a picture of morality and society. Murray claims that many traditional criticisms of the novel are based on a superficial understanding of the text. Murray examines the evolution and contradictions of the novel to explain these themes. Murray disapproves of the notion that the novel is Scout’s coming-of-age story. Murray points out, however, that Scout doesn’t make the transition between childhood and adolescence as Jem. Scout’s maturity can only be seen through flashbacks in the story. Scout’s roots are still present in the story.
Murray notes that Scout does not go through radical transformations, does nothing to become a teenager, and doesn’t move from childhood or adolescence to adulthood. The novel, therefore, is not about her coming of aging story. Scout is an narrative device that allows the different short-stories to be integrated into the novel. This technique leads to many contradictions in the overall theme. Scout’s narrative contains contradictory visions. This is because Scout has a fantasy-experience about the world. Scout’s “coming of age” is not a proper description. This shows that Scout’s child vision remained intact as she shaped her narrative. Scout, a unreliable narrator, presents an irreal view of her memories and experiences.
Murray’s analysis focuses largely on the fact that Lee’s narrative technique is more efficient than it is elegant. Murray notes that the text contains contradictory impulses in different thematic fields, such as race, gender patriarchy and class. These contradictions, which are part of history, mark the text as certain as the repressed produces symptoms.” (Murray). Murray believes that the novel reflects the limits of Lee as a novelist who cannot think beyond racial and cultural stereotypes. The possibility that the contradictions of the novel are Scout’s faults as a narrator is more probable, and is supported by more evidence. Lee also made the conscious choice to highlight her themes of lost innocence and racial prejudice with the irreal elements of the story.
Remember that traditional interpretations are often straightforward and tend to overlook the subtle nuances that reveal the story’s deeper meaning. Dean Shackelford explains in “The Female Voice in To Kill a Mockingbird’? Narrative Strategy in Film and Novel” (1996) how the film version is different from the primarily female perspective that is intrinsic to this novel. Shackelford describes the novel as “portraying a young woman’s love of her father and brother” and a story that depicts the experiences of childhood during World War II in a society that uses superficial materialistic values to evaluate outsiders. A closer look at each assertion will reveal that Shackelford’s assumptions and conclusions are unsupported.
Even basic themes like femininity and racial equalization can be misinterpreted if the text has been closely examined. Calpurnia, for example, is often viewed as a representational of racial Integration. Her appearance in the novel makes her look like a Finch member. Murray points this out but Calpurnia really is a servant overworked. Murray states, “Calpurnia serves as the housekeeper/cook/babysitter. However, Murray does not give clear information about her work hours or the amount she is paid” (Murray). Calpurnia portrays herself as both African American and female in her novel.
Calpurnia’s role as a servant is consistent with other stereotypes embedded in the fundamental foundation of the novel. Atticus Finch is the central character and an idealized patriarchal figure. He is shown throughout the novel to be the quintessential dad who values wisdom and compassion over power and violence. To make the plot of the novel succeed, this conception of Atticus seems almost essential. Atticus is not as tolerant or practical as it seems at first glance. Murray asserts that Atticus, in reality, is an ineffectual character who adheres to narrowly defined moral principles and cannot act with any relevance nor force. Murray observes that Atticus’ strict moral principles are also a hindrance to his ability to assess danger. Murray notes that Atticus’s main theme is “it’s too early to worry now,” which he uses to reassure his kids that everything will work out in their favor. The similarities between Atticus and Calpurnia are obvious. However, the relationship between Atticus and the deeper themes of the novel can only be seen if one examines the whole thing closely.
The novel’s status as Scout’s coming-of age story is a similar example. The novel does not depict Scout’s transition into young adulthood, as previously stated. Jem is the one who goes through the transition from childhood to adulthood. Murray says that Jem’s growth is more important than Scout’s in the novel’s coming-of-age theme. Murray says that To Kill a Mockingbird can be considered a Bildungsroman. However, it is possible to find multiple examples that highlight Jem’s emotional growth. Murray concludes that Jem gives the novel multiple protagonists.
There are two main protagonists in a novel. The question is which one of them is central. Murray says that To Kill a Mockingbird does not have a clear protagonist. Murray suggests that the novel uses a dual-perspective first person narrator to tell the story. The distinction between Jem and Scout is clear. Jem is only the one who is shown the reader the transition from child into adolescent. Although it is implied that Scout will go through puberty and then mature, it is not dramatized. Scout is left in an imperceptible state, while Jem is shown being initiated into the more cynical realities of young adulthood.
Jem’s experience of Tom Robinson’s verdict is dramatic. Lee writes that Jem was left to his own devices when he saw the verdict at Tom Robinson’s trial. Scout’s innocence does not appear to have been shattered by this scene. Scout’s innocence contrasts with Jem’s in the novel’s coming to age theme. The narrative is told entirely through her voice.
Shackelford notes that Scout’s sole narrator status in the novel means that the reader sees the entire story through the eyes of a child. This statement has tremendous significance as it connects to previously discussed ambiguities, thematic contradictions, and more. Scout is the story’s sole protagonist and narrator. Scout’s view of the novel is the only one that matters. Scout’s pervasive naivete can be seen in the fact she is not told the truth about her age. The novel’s themes and ambiguities are influenced by a childlike simplification. Calpurnia’s status in slavery is hidden beneath a veneer family inclusion. Scout’s permanency innocence is expressed by this veneer.
From the above mentioned ambiguities, Scout’s naivety is evident. But there’s another, perhaps more fundamental structural detail that illustrates how this pervasive innocence feeds an irreality to the novel. Chura’s essay Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird (1994) argues that the novel combines two periods of American History. Chura contends that even though the novel’s setting is the Great Depression of 1930, many details of Tom Robinson’s fictionalized trial are derived from Emmett Till’s 1955 trial. Chura stated that To Kill a Mockingbird has “a fundamental presence” in the Emmett Till trial from 1955. The context of the novel’s best understanding is the mid-50s/early civil-rights era. This is the strange mix of eras that Lee uses to present a story rich in fantasy and irreality.
Cura also goes deeper into the historical background of the novel. Chura stated that Lee’s 1930s historical background is not sufficient to conceal the actual conditions that governed the production process of the novel between 1955 and 1959. Scout’s memory of events is in fact a manipulation of history, as she places the social themes from the mid 1950’s within a fictional setting that is based on 1930’s. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t about historical inaccuracies or thematic ambiguities. They are weaknesses in Lee and her thinking. This leaves one vulnerable to missing an important aspect. This is because the “mistakes” are meant to make the whole story look like a child’s.
Despite its inconsistencies or ambiguities, the novel actually shows a common theme through this narrative strategy. Scout expresses an implied loss to innocence, which she is able to describe in her novel. However, this is not shown to the public. The collective social denial and fantasy of racism and its crime is expressed by the pervasive sense of irreality and fantasy. Each reader, like Tom Robinson, is affected by his conviction and murder. The fantasy world built from Scout’s childhood vision is now destroyed. Jem’s painful transition to adulthood is intended as a way for us to experience the tragic, and sometimes even bitter events that occurred at Tom Robinson’s trial. Each reader will experience this loss of innocence in a different way because Scout has not “on-screen,” but it is subjective.
This narrative is complex, but the text supports it. Chapter 25 shows Scout being shocked at Jem’s inability to squash a bug. Jem is now able to kill because he has been immersed in an experience world. Scout, however, remains in a childish state of naivete, where killing “roly-polys” is not of any moral consequence. Scout confesses to being aware of Jem’s transition from young adulthood to her uninitiated stage. She says that she thinks it was part of the stage Jem was in and wishes he would get over it. (Lee 242). Scout sees it as a matter of Jem “getting through” whatever has impacted their unrestrained sense of innocence, safety and security.
Boo Radley’s fabricated threat was their only safety concern. Jem is now unable to believe in a safe and secure world. It is rejected by Jem out of anger and sadness. Scout is beginning to suspect there is something wrong, and this is mainly because Jem’s personality changes are causing her to feel threatened. Annie Kasper referred to “infinity” in her article “General Semantics, To Kill A Mockingbird,” (2006). This concept states “all things can have values at a wide range of gradations” (Kasper). Jem’s loss and acceptance of his innocence allows him the opportunity to view the world through infinity values. Scout however remains rooted in stereotypes that foster dramatic distinctions.
Kasper uses the infinity value concept to describe Boo Radley. Kasper wrote, “Boo Radley was labeled strange and creepy for never leaving his house.” Boo is viewed as strange and evil by the townspeople, which fosters prejudice against him (Kasper). This prejudice is clearly directed at Tom Robinson based on his race. Their fear fades as Scout and Jem come to know Boo Radley better. This plot arc has been cited often as evidence of the novel’s anti-discriminatory theme. Although this assertion is valid, a closer reading of Radley’s text will reveal that Radley is still largely the same person.
Murray mentions that Bradley’s association with the mockingbird is a passive one. He says that Arthur Radley’s plight is not improved by the symbolic, compassionate, but ineffective, attribution of mockingbird status. Murray says that there is no better way for him to live than in his dark shadows. Boo Radley looks strangely servile and impersonal when viewed in this way, similar to Calpurnia. It is not possible to make either character more humane by examining their daily challenges and needs. Calpurnia & Radley, however, are essentially one-dimensional idealized characters that only exist in their imaginations.
Similar to other aspects, Radley’s depiction is based on simplification. Immaturity manifests in the desire to simplify the world and create clear divisions. Scout’s infancy is a sign of America’s historical cultural blindness. Scout’s simplified world view is intended to contrast the dark events depicted in the novel. This is an important point to keep in mind. Scout’s insatiable desire to kill Tom Robinson “rolypoly” seems chilling.
Scout’s simplicity and innocence are not to be envied. It’s better to be hurt, like Jem. But, to see the truth of infinity values, it is better.
The tragic result of keeping the child’s worldview is reflected in the original Boo description that appears in Chapter 1. Jem describes Radley, a giant who “dined raw squirrels and any cats which he could catch, so that’s why he had bloodstained his hands” His appearance is synonymous with murder and bloodshed. This description not only provides a subtle hint to the novel’s conclusion, but also shows the devastating effects of ignorance and discrimination.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding To Killa Mockingbird. A Student Casebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994. Questia. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
Kasper, Annie. Analyzing the concept of general semantics in the context of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. A study of General Semantics from the year 2006 was conducted and the results were published in the journal 63.3. The review has been acclaimed for its comprehensive coverage of the subject. Questia. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. 1960.
Murray, Jennifer. “More than one way to (Miss)Read A Mockingbird.” The Southern Literary Journal 33.1 (2010): 75+. Questia. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.
Shackelford, Dean. “The Female Voice of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird: Narrative Strategies and Film and Novel.” The Mississippi Quarterly 500.1 (1996): 101+. Questia. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.