Mockingbird: opening thoughts

Mockingbird Chapter 1,2,&,3

Ask any student what the first chapter of a novel is “for” and soon enough someone will pipe up with something about “wanting to make the reader read on”. Once the dust has settled and you have given the sage advice about avoiding weak generalisations, you will be faced with responding to your own question.

Below, I am going to explore Chapter 1-3 of To Kill a Mockingbird. I love this novel but have found it less satisfactory to tech than I imagined. I think this is because the first section of the novel tends to the heavily laden with contextual detail and backstory. Certainly it can be enough to put off students who have been told by so many adults how “wonderful” the book is.

Possible Themes:
Childhood innocence
Parents and lack thereof
Boo and mockingbirds.

That’s enough for anyone in the opening chapters, I think.

So Lee is setting up the novel. Like any good bildungsroman, our heroine needs to progress as she ages and Scout is given ample chance so to do.

At the opening of the novel she plunges straight into her narration – in media res – and at once the reader is faced with the double narration of the novel – child Scout and Older Scout blend seamlessly throughout. The voice is established easily, as though in conversation, as we are told about Jem’s injury. Already the reader is asking questions of the text and Lee allows us to realize that the speaker is looking back on her childhood from a position of experience – “When enough years had gone by….” This is the clue to unraveling Scout as narrator. We watch her lose her childhood innocence and become educated in life as she gains experience of the world around her. Even in the later years of her growth it is evident that the arbiter of discussion and dissent is her father: Atticus.

At this point Lee digresses to give a brief family history. This is important to notice, if not to dwell upon, since it establishes some key details about the family. They come from a long line of landowners in the South – slave owners – and although this is not stressed, the reader knows it to be true. Their land is not enormous and Simon Finch founded a dynasty and grew rich. Already the reader might enjoy the irony of the man fleeing religious persecution in England founding his new life upon slavery, yet we should not allow this first mention of Race and Discrimination to cloud what is really a contextual digression designed to highlight Atticus as a mould-breaker and a man reluctant to follow the easy path. He is the first male to leave the landing and does so to study law. He also pays for his brother to escape in a similar fashion. Atticus will not settle for the path of least resistance and Lee is giving the reader an introduction to him on this front.
The tale told at this point also provides the first lesson about Justice which will run through the text. Atticus urges his first clients to avoid the rope but they refuse and go to their deaths because “the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody”. This may well be so in the sphere of a natural justice, but not in a court of law. When we reach the Trial in the second half of the novel, this split between Natural and Legal Justice will be thrown sharply into relief. Lee paves the way for the reader in her digression. It is lightly told and much is made of Atticus’ resultant “distaste” for the law, a feeling which arises, presumably because he can see the fault-lines which are evident in this area.

Atticus also allows Lee to introduce a quirk of the novel with regards to parenting: So many single parent families! Atticus, Bob Ewing, Dill – though his father is rather mysterious in his storytelling… It is clear that Calpurnia is the surrogate mother in the Finch Household and that her rule is strong and direct: ”her hand was as hard as a bed slat and twice as hard”. Indeed she is introduced with no preamble as a “cook” and whilst some will have worked out at once that she is black, Lee never quite states it openly. The nearest she gets follows the death of Mr Radley when we are told that “Calpurnia rarely commented on the ways of white people”. I think that as we trace the segregation and discrimination which lines the novel, this is a key moment for the narrator. We know that the Finches have owned slaves and here is a black cook, employed as factotum t the household. Scout does not tell us she is black, because to her this “negro” does not warrant the name, not because Scout is “colour blind” but because this is home. She is quick enough to refer to the ways of “negro[es]” passing the Radley house and will be equally quick to pass comment about all the townsfolk – Calpurnia seems to be above that in her eyes, but we should not be quick to see Scout as a little angel without a discriminatory bone in her body. Indeed the way that she is happy to write off the Haverfords earlier in the chapter and will continue to behave in this fashion for each family in her school class suggests a young narrator who is quick to reach conclusions about character on hereditary grounds when in her innocence. Her awakening to this error regarding the Cunninghams in chapter 2 might be seen as her first really important step towards gaining the experience which she will show as the older Scout/narrator.

Certainly in her innocence she will swallow ay twaddle regarding Boo. Boo will be presented as the catalyst for much of the action of the first section of the novel. Yet we have no idea what to think of him – any more than has the young Scout. He is presented as a truly Gothic creation, but there is detail among the storyline: There is little doubt that he is a victim of a justice system followed by his father, ignoring the legal stipulations put upon him. Again justice is seen to be flawed. For being little more than a teenager, Boo is incarcerated, not be a judge but by his father. Indeed, some of the boys sent to the “industrial school” benefit hugely from the best education available. Boo, meanwhile, is shut up and treated little better than an animal. Because of this, Stephanie Crawford – the “neighbourhood scold” is given free rein to gossip and spread malicious rumours – beginning the evident discrimination against the weak or unusual in society. “According to…. Nobody knew…. Miss Stephanie Crawford said… “ help to develop a convincing story which is seized upon by Dill and Jem as they strive to outdo each other in the invention of a gothic tale to match Dracula and their other reading materials. Jem’s imagination is given full rein in a passage often read literally by students in which he creates a squirrel eating madman, chained to a bed, of immense size and scarred across the face – Frankenstein’s monster, anyone? For the children, and especially for Scout – the innocent Scout – this has to be true. Why else would he be locked away?

Although anyone who has read the novel knows that Boo will line up among the “Mockingbirds” in this novel, the chapter close is a lovely hook – the twitching curtain – a thing of fear for Scout, though, of course, the beginning of one of the most one-sided friendships in literature.

Scout’s journey has started.

Chapters 2&3 complete this first cycle of lessons and information. IN Chapter 2 Scout begins school. The novel moves from Summer to Autumn, as though to signal the closure of childhood, and lessons come thick and fast. Perhaps the most important at this stage are the sense of outrage when natural justice is seen to fail and the sense that compromise is often better than dogmatic holding to the letter of the law. Scout is enraged that Miss Caroline cannot see her accomplishments as good things. She even gets punished for her learning. Writing and reading clearly place Scout above her classmates, but her learning is utterly deficient in other areas. In the scene with Walter Cunningham, Scout shows her swift and ignorant discrimination when writing off his behaviour as down to his family background (“I though I had made things sufficiently clear… he’s a Cunningham…”) and then by embarrassing him around the family table. It is Calpurnia who delivers the reprimand at this point – “Yo’ folks might be better than the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ‘em”. Scout has noticed that Walter talks easily to Jem and also to Atticus, as though equals, but has failed to see how her behavior has embarrassed a boy who has no social graces, but a wealth of experience of the world – something that Scout is only beginning to develop. The reader also notices the comments about Walter’s “neatly mended overalls”. This is important and will set up one of the most important strands of the book – the dignity shown by the poor black community and some of the poor whites is set against the behaviour of the Ewells. The Cunninghams will come good in the trial and Lee is preparing the reader for this in the school room. When Burris is questioned by Miss Caroline, not only does he not try to fabricate excuses for his behavior, but he also swears at her and runs out of school – the message is clear for us all (and Scout): some people can rise above adversity and others allow it to blight their character. Lee sets up other pre-echoes of the events around the trial in the rather long winded discussion of the Cunningham entailment. We will once again see Atticus’ porch laden with produce from those who can least afford it, after the trial. Once again “good” white poor are being aligned with the black community whilst “trash” like the Ewells are clearly being signposted as the bad elements of this tale. This is heightened by Atticus’ discussion about compromise: it might be easier and better to allow someone like Bob Ewell some leeway in terms of the letter of the law, but his character is such (“the disgrace of Maycomb”) that he will abuse the position. Eventually action will have to be taken. In the meantime, the “law” is waived if only to offer scant protection for his children. Scout is learning that there are degrees to the application of the law. Natural Justice and the Legal Code will clash often in this story. The young narrator is struggling to come to terms with a very confusing world. Against this, Atticus offers his first great gnomic lesson: “you never really understand a person… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. Scout is too young for this advice, but it haunts her and will re-emerge from time to time as the story unfolds and she develops experience of the world. At this point Scout can relate the comment to Miss Caroline and begins to see things from her point of view; to extend the lesson to Walter or Burris is a little beyond her at this stage, let alone to see how it can relate to the apparently arbitrary application of the law.

That knowledge will come, and is evident in the voice of the older Scout/Narrator. At this stage she is comforted by her father reading to her, (and the information that he never went to school!), and turns to sleep before the next lessons begin in Chapter 4.

These early chapters can seem long and complex to students – there is simply so much information thrown at them, but they allow Lee to lay the trails for so much that will follow:

• It is better to have heritage than to have a moral compass (as seen in the response to the decision of the north Alabamans to secede from the South)
• Justice is unreliable and open to interpretation
• Innocence tends to be a condition of credulousness – Scout will gain knowledge as she gets older
• No one is immune from discriminatory attitudes in some form
• Life is a series of “spots in time” (thank you Wordsworth) which build to deliver an adult based on accumulation of experience.
• First appearances can be deceptive.

And so on…