To Kill a Mockingbird


The narrative is very tough, because [Lee] has to both be a kid on the street and aware of the mad dogs and the spooky houses, and have this beautiful vision of how justice works and all the creaking mechanisms of the courthouse. Part of the beauty is that she... trusts the visual to lead her, and the sensory.

—Allan Gurganus[33]

The strongest element of style noted by critics and reviewers is Lee's talent for narration, which in an early review in Time was called "tactile brilliance".[34] Writing a decade later, another scholar noted, "Harper Lee has a remarkable gift of story-telling. Her art is visual, and with cinematographic fluidity and subtlety we see a scene melting into another scene without jolts of transition."[35] Lee combines the narrator's voice of a child observing her surroundings with a grown woman's reflecting on her childhood, using the ambiguity of this voice combined with the narrative technique of flashback to play intricately with perspectives.[36] This narrative method allows Lee to tell a "delightfully deceptive" story that mixes the simplicity of childhood observation with adult situations complicated by hidden motivations and unquestioned tradition.[37] However, at times the blending causes reviewers to question Scout's preternatural vocabulary and depth of understanding.[38] Both Harding LeMay and the novelist and literary critic Granville Hicks expressed doubt that children as sheltered as Scout and Jem could understand the complexities and horrors involved in the trial for Tom Robinson's life.[39][40]

Writing about Lee's style and use of humor in a tragic story, scholar Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin states: "Laughter ... [exposes] the gangrene under the beautiful surface but also by demeaning it; one can hardly ... be controlled by what one is able to laugh at."[41] Scout's precocious observations about her neighbors and behavior inspire National Endowment of the Arts director David Kipen to call her "hysterically funny".[42] To address complex issues, however, Tavernier-Courbin notes that Lee uses parody, satire, and irony effectively by using a child's perspective. After Dill promises to marry her, then spends too much time with Jem, Scout reasons the best way to get him to pay attention to her is to beat him up, which she does several times.[43] Scout's first day in school is a satirical treatment of education; her teacher says she must undo the damage Atticus has wrought in teaching her to read and write, and forbids Atticus from teaching her further.[44] Lee treats the most unfunny situations with irony, however, as Jem and Scout try to understand how Maycomb embraces racism and still tries sincerely to remain a decent society. Satire and irony are used to such an extent that Tavernier-Courbin suggests one interpretation for the book's title: Lee is doing the mocking—of education, the justice system, and her own society by using them as subjects of her humorous disapproval.[41]

Critics also note the entertaining methods used to drive the plot.[45] When Atticus is out of town, Jem locks a Sunday school classmate in the church basement with the furnace during a game of Shadrach. This prompts their black housekeeper Calpurnia to escort Scout and Jem to her church, which allows the children a glimpse into her personal life, as well as Tom Robinson's.[46] Scout falls asleep during the Halloween pageant and makes a tardy entrance onstage, causing the audience to laugh uproariously. She is so distracted and embarrassed that she prefers to go home in her ham costume, which saves her life.[47]


Scholars have characterized To Kill a Mockingbird as both a Southern Gothic and coming-of-age or Bildungsroman novel. The grotesque and near-supernatural qualities of Boo Radley and his house, and the element of racial injustice involving Tom Robinson contribute to the aura of the Gothic in the novel.[48][49] Lee used the term "Gothic" to describe the architecture of Maycomb's courthouse and in regard to Dill's exaggeratedly morbid performances as Boo Radley.[50] Outsiders are also an important element of Southern Gothic texts and Scout and Jem's questions about the hierarchy in the town cause scholars to compare the novel to Catcher in the Rye and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.[51] Despite challenging the town's systems, Scout reveres Atticus as an authority above all others, because he believes that following one's conscience is the highest priority, even when the result is social ostracism.[52] However, scholars debate about the Southern Gothic classification, noting that Boo Radley is in fact human, protective, and benevolent. Furthermore, in addressing themes such as alcoholism, incest, rape, and racial violence, Lee wrote about her small town realistically rather than melodramatically. She portrays the problems of individual characters as universal underlying issues in every society.[49]

As children coming of age, Scout and Jem face hard realities and learn from them. Lee seems to examine Jem's sense of loss about how his neighbors have disappointed him more than Scout's. Jem says to their neighbor Miss Maudie the day after the trial, "It's like bein' a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon ... I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that's what they seemed like".[53] This leads him to struggle with understanding the separations of race and class. Just as the novel is an illustration of the changes Jem faces, it is also an exploration of the realities Scout must face as an atypical girl on the verge of womanhood. As one scholar writes, "To Kill a Mockingbird can be read as a feminist Bildungsroman, for Scout emerges from her childhood experiences with a clear sense of her place in her community and an awareness of her potential power as the woman she will one day be."[54]

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