This essay will explore the significance of the first two chapters in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I will be studying the narrative style, different themes within the book, the mockingbird symbol, and how social context is portrayed.
The novel begins with Scout reciting her genealogy. This is significant, because it not only introduces us to the history of Maycomb, but also gives us an insight into the Maycomb society without allowing us to become part of their community; we are treated as outsiders. “If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t?” This quote uses many literary devices, including stream of consciousness and a rhetoric question. Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that presents the thoughts and feelings of a character as they pass through the mind; the thoughts are not crafted nor considered, they are continuous. Stream of consciousness is effective because it allows you to truly understand the narrator – you are literally reading their minds. Scout uses this device to confuse us; she is speaking about people we don’t know. This method of narration combined with a rhetorical question is very effective. It shows that Scout expects us to know her family history, as everyone in Maycomb would, and because we don’t, she is proving that we are outsiders; we are not welcome in the Maycomb society; this immediately tells us that we will be judged.
The book is written by Scout as an adult reflecting on her childhood, and writing about her defining moments. This is known as a retrospective narrative. As a result of this, her narrative voice varies from a child’s point of view and an adult voice. Scout’s perspective as a child heavily influences the central plot. This allows the reader to understand events in a way that the young Scout does not. However, the narrative also digresses into descriptions and accounts that presented retrospectively. An example of this is Scout’s description of Maycomb is the first chapter: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.” This language shows an adult’s recollection rather than a girl’s experience. It uses the past tense, and refers to ‘when’ she knew it, and not how she knows it – she is nostalgic by remembering the place from whence she came.
The narrative is significant in both the first two chapters, and the novel itself. This is because we are only given a biased view on the events in the book, and so we are absorbed into her narration. An example of this is her first description of Calpurnia. “She was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard.” By describing her as nearsighted and squinted, Scout makes her out to be sinister and mean. This gives us a negative view of Calpurnia. Scout also describes her hand as ‘wide as a bed slat and twice as hard.’ This is effective the imagery is vivid and allows us to visualize Calpurnia’s unpleasant features and traits. Describing her hand as a ‘bed slat’ relates to Calpurnia hitting Scout – she is being portrayed as a cruel.
However, this is merely the first impression. You soon realise that Atticus, Scout’s father, always defends Calpurnia. “Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side.” This shows that Atticus trusts her wholly and unconditionally, and that he invests in her the upbringing of his children; he entrusts the moral learning of the children in her hand. We then learn towards the end of the first chapter that Calpurnia is black. “We looked at her in surprise, for Calpurnia rarely commented on the ways of white people.” This shows that Atticus is the touchstone of what is true, just and moral in the novel; he is not bigoted, and is unable to abide the town’s ingrained racial prejudice. Scout’s narration is of pivotal importance, because she is passing on her negative opinions of Calpurnia, and we believe her. We put faith in what she says, because she is the narrator, and it is her story.
The novel is set in the mid-1930’s. “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.” This quotation, near the beginning of Chapter 1, introduces us to Maycomb. This description situates Maycomb as a sleepy Southern town with traditional values and little money. The description provides important clues about the story’s contextual setting: in addition to now-outdated elements such as mule-driven Hoover carts and dirt roads, it also makes reference to the widespread poverty of the town, implying that Maycomb is in the midst of the Great Depression.
“Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.” In March 1933, Roosevelt made his first inaugural speech, after the presidential election of 1932. This tells us the point in history the novel is set. This allows us to understand the meaning behind the themes, symbols, and motifs in the book, and the significance of them at the time the novel was set.
Whilst in the deep throes of the Great Depression, Roosevelt wanted to reassure American citizens that the only way they could return to success was independence. Lee, the author, set the story at a time that, despite Roosevelt’s assurance, was rife with fears. Racial prejudice, an obvious yet important theme in the book, compounded these fears, and caused an escalation in racial tensions.
Prejudice is an obvious yet prevalent and significant theme in the book. Prejudice is the human manifestation of evil, and it is the by-product of fear and ignorance. “…But they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass.” This shows that prejudice creates a hierarchy, and gives people an air of superiority. The hierarchical society in Maycomb makes it closed, immobile, and unmovable; the inhabitants of Maycomb have a pathological inability to change. Whist boosting the egos of some, prejudice also suppresses the rights and opportunities of others. Prejudice denies people their freedom. They are denied the ability to improve themselves, and are therefore denied a future. Prejudice shatters basic human rights, and negates what is right and moral. Bigoted opinions and prejudices are inculcated by the inhabitants of Maycomb in the form of gossip, rumours, and myths. In Maycomb, you are defined by your parents and your past. The people of Maycomb are inculcated with an attitude of bigotry. They instil the ideas of prejudice.
Hypocrisy rules in Maycomb. The people of Maycomb claim to be good, true practicing Christians, and yet they are unable to forgive the failure of Boo Radley. His life is rendered useless, because of mistakes he made when he was young. His life is devoid of love, acceptance, and kindness; his life is devoid of normality. He is defined by gossip, hearsay and sensationalism. This perpetuates the myths and prejudices surrounding the Radley House. The Radley house is a metaphor for prejudice. “Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom.” The inhabitants of Maycomb have created false superstitions regarding Boo Radley. Superstition is an underlying cause for the prejudices in Maycomb. Rumours, fear, and superstition drive the society of Maycomb. These lead to default pessimism and causes people to expect the worst. They then fear the things they do not understand; prejudice is a by-product of fear. This ends up as a vicious, never-ending cycle: a cycle of ignorance. Therefore, the inhabitants of Maycomb perpetuate prejudice.
Boo Radley is an eponymous character. An eponym is when a title bears the name of a person; Boo Radley is a mockingbird. The mockingbird symbol represents the idea of innocence. Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. The title of To Kill a Mockingbird has little connection to the plot, but has significant symbolic meaning in the book. To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of innocents that are destroyed by evil, the “mockingbird” comes to represent the idea of innocence. Boo Radley can be identified as one of many mockingbirds — innocents who have been destroyed because of evil.