Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest child of Amasa C. and Frances Finch Lee, she attended public school in Monroeville before entering the University of Alabama to study law. After spending a year as an exchange student at Oxford University in England, Lee returned to school in Alabama but left in 1950 without completing her degree. She moved to New York City, where she worked as an airline reservation clerk and also wrote essays and short stories; at the urging of a literary agent, she soon quit her job to write full-time. Although Lee submitted a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird to a publisher as early as 1957, she worked on revisions of the story until its publication in 1960. In 1961 the novel received a Pulitzer Prize, and it was also awarded the Alabama Library Association award (1961), the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1961), and the Bestsellers’ paperback of the year award (1962).
To Kill a Mockingbird is at once a powerful indictment of racial injustice and a tender story about growing up. Narrated in the first person by the adult voice of Scout, who is almost six years old when the novel begins, the story weaves together two interrelated plots about life in Maycomb County, Alabama, in the 1930s. One story line involves the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman; the other follows the adventures of Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill, as they try to investigate the mysterious legend of the eerie Radley Place, which houses a “malevolent phantom” nicknamed Boo Radley. Lee juxtaposes the innocence and curiosity of the children with the ignorance and hostility of many of the adults, using the character of Atticus Finch-the children’s father and a respected attorney who defends Tom Robinson-as a standard of reason, compassion, and fairness. Atticus helps the children leave behind their world of make-believe and come closer to understanding the mystery behind the Radley Place, just as he pushes the town of Maycomb County toward its own confrontation with bigotry and injustice. Combining dry humor with an evocative description of the various social groups, economic problems, and political issues of the time, Lee creates in To Kill a Mockingbird a poignant tale of small-town southern life.
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the 1930s in Maycomb, Alabama, a town so small and insular that, according to Scout, her father is “related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.” Scout devotes the very beginning of her narrative to a description of her southern heritage, revealing that her English ancestor, Simon Finch, a slave-holding, enterprising skinflint, founded Finch’s Landing, a cotton plantation where generations of Finches, including Atticus, grew up. Twenty miles east of Finch’s Landing, Maycomb is home to old southern families whose roots, traditions, and biases run deep. Each family name carries its own accepted identity in town: the Haverfords, for example, have “a name synonymous with jackass”; the Cunninghams are considered poor but very proud; and the Ewells are cruel and lazy.
The central Characters of To Kill a Mockingbird are Jean Louise (Scout), Jeremy Atticus (Jem), and Atticus Finch. Scout, precocious and outspoken, possesses a quick mind and a hot temper; her persistent desire to learn about and participate in the world around her frequently gets her into trouble at home and at school. When Walter Cunningham, a poor classmate of Scout’s, is invited to lunch at the Finches’, Scout watches in horror as Walter, unaccustomed to the formality of the Finches’ noon-time meal, drowns his food in maple syrup. Without realizing her rudeness, Scout asks Walter what the “sam hill” he thinks he is doing; she receives a stern lecture from Calpurnia on the meaning of hospitality and good manners. Later, when her spoiled cousin Francis taunts her by criticizing Atticus, Scout-who has been trying to curb her combative tendencies-punches Francis in the mouth and is promptly punished. At school, when Scout tries to be helpful and educate Miss Caroline, her nervous, inexperienced first-grade teacher, about Maycomb County protocol, Miss Caroline disciplines her for impudence. Still, Scout remains a spunky, inquisitive, and loyal child whose love for her father and brother is evident throughout the story; as the novel progresses, she develops the sensitivity and self-control that characterize the voice of the adult Scout who narrates the story.
Lee neatly structures her novel around a dual plot and dual Themes; the novel is evenly divided into two parts. In her graceful, understated style, Lee weaves together a story about two children growing up in a small southern town, and a story about the children’s father, a white attorney who defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Because both stories involve Jem, Scout, and Atticus, Scout’s first-person narration, with its focus on the development of these three Characters, unifies the different story lines.
To Kill a Mockingbird is about two deeply disturbing subjects: r-a-p-e and racism. Lee addresses both subjects with grave sensitivity. The details regarding Mayella Ewell’s alleged rape come to light during the trial scenes, with Atticus gently guiding the proceedings. Although these details are not explicitly described, there is the suggestion of incest-that Bob Ewell not only beat his daughter but raped her as well. Since the story is being filtered through Scout, all of this information is related subtly and succinctly.
1. Scout describes her father’s first law case in this way: “His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail…The Haverfords had dispatched Maycomb’s leading blacksmith in a misunderstanding…were imprudent enough to do it in front of three witnesses…They persisted in pleading Not Guilty to first-degree murder, so there was nothing much Atticus could do for his clients except be present at their departure, an occasion that was probably the beginning of my father’s profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.” How is this passage an example of Scout’s style as a narrator? How would you describe this style? Find other examples of passages that illustrate her way of telling a story.
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. When Aunt Alexandria forbids Scout to associate with Walter Cunningham because she considers him “trash,” Scout and Jem have a discussion about family background and what makes one type of family different from another in Maycomb. Jem tells Scout: “There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes…Background doesn’t make Old Family…I think it’s how long your family’s been readin’ and writin’.” Scout disagrees with him, saying, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Which character do you think is expressing the author’s point of view, Scout or Jem? Cite examples from the book.