Studying The Novel To Kill A Mockingbird English Literature Essay

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In Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, the third and youngest daughter, Nelle Harper Lee, was born to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee (Hijuelos and McGinley 1900-1901). The small southwestern town of Monroeville was where Harper Lee would spend most of her life growing up. In 1950 Lee entered law school to follow in her father's footsteps. Lee's father was a lawyer who also served on the state legislature from 1926-38 (Cavoto 418-421). After one year she abandoned law and moved to New York City to pursue her writing career. The character of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird is from Lee's young childhood. The young Truman Capote was her neighbor and schoolmate (Werlock, Abby H.P. 761). She enjoyed their friendship, and would remain so their entire lives (Werlock, Abby H.P. 761). In To Kill A Mockingbird Capote provides the basis of the character of Dill (Cavoto 418-421).

Lee published her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960 (Werlock, Abby H.P. 761). Once banned in some schools because of racial segregation and discrimination, it is still banned in many today. In others it has become a standard in education over the last fifty years. Teachers assign it yearly and close to one million copies are sold annually (Cheers, Imani). In writing the novel, Lee delved into her own experiences as a young girl in Monroeville. The novel was intended to show the life of any small town in the Deep South. In 1961 Lee published "Love in Other Words" in Vogue and "Christmas to Me" in McCall's magazines (Hijuelos and McGinley 1900-1901).

In March 1931 in Scottsboro, Alabama, a group of white males, black males and two white women were arrested (Flynt). One woman was a prostitute and the other a minor. The group was on a train from Tennessee to Alabama. When they got off they were immediately arrested with the charge of vagrancy. The older woman claimed the group of black men raped her. This claim was to deflect any charges against her for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purpose of prostitution (Cavoto 420). An all-white jury found the men guilty. Medical testimony proved that the women had not been raped (Cavoto 419). Even with that evidence all the men were sentenced to death. In trying to appeal the case, subsequent trials took over six years and saw most of these convictions repealed. Eight were released in 1940 and the ninth in 1950. This left a deep impression on Lee, and she would use the Scottsboro case as a rough basis for her novel To Kill A Mockingbird. The course of the book covers three summers (Marshall Cavendish). Lee is reflecting on her childhood and her coming-of-age in the South during Segregation and the Depression (Werlock, Abby H.P. 761).

To Kill A Mockingbird is narrated by Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, who happens to also be the main character. Jem is her brother and four years older than she. A lawyer named Atticus Finch is Scout and Jem's father. Calpurnia is the housekeeper for the Finches because their mother passed away from a heart attack when Scout was only two. Dill is from Mississippi, but he spends his summers in Maycomb with his aunt, Miss Rachel. Boo Radley is a neighbor of Scout and Jem. The children's imaginations are that Boo is huge and ugly; a freakish monster that eats raw squirrels, and has rotten yellowing teeth and bulging eyes. Scout, Jem and their friend Dill are intrigued by this and try every summer long to see Boo. Boo never leaves his house, and is never seen, so the children try to persuade him out in many different ways. They would run and bang on the screen door, peek in the windows and more. One of the stories about Boo is that he once stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors while cutting out clippings from the newspaper for his scrapbook. "According to Miss Stephanie, as Mr. Radley passed by, Boo drove the scissors into his parent's leg, pulled them out, wiped them on his pants, and resumed his activities."(Lee 17)

More mysterious happenings come about the children. "Two live oaks stood at the edge of the Radley lot; their roots reached out into the side-road and made it bumpy. Something about one of the trees attracted my attention. Some tinfoil was sticking in a knot-hole just above my eye level (Lee 40)." Little presents of tinfoil are often left for them, such as "Indian-headed pennies," "Wrigley's Double-Mint" chewing gum (Lee 40-41), and soap carved figures of a little boy and girl who bear a striking resemblance to Scout and Jem (Lee 67). Scout and Jem have no idea where these gifts are coming from. A few weeks later when the children try to leave a note to the gift giver, they find that Mr. Nathan Radley had filled the hole with cement (Lee 70). Another time of kindness displayed by Boo was when Miss Maudie's house burned down one cold winter night. Boo covered Scout with a blanket as she watched the house burn. After being told to say "Thank You," Scout says, "Thank who?" Atticus answers, "Boo Radley, you were so busy looking at the fire you didn't know it when he put the blanket around you (Lee 80)."

Tom Robinson is a black man who is being accused of raping a very poor white woman named Mayella Ewell. Atticus decides to take the case to defend Tom Robinson. Mayella Ewell is a member of the notorious Ewell family. The Ewell family is a family that belongs to the layer of Maycomb's society that is referred to as trash. Atticus knows Tom is innocent and knowing he will probably lose, decides to defend him anyway. Atticus does this: "Because I could never ask you to mind me again. Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one's mine, I guess (Lee 83)." Atticus knows that he will lose; "Atticus, are we going to win it? No, honey. Then why? Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us to try to win (Lee 84)."

Scout and Jem are picked on and teased throughout the time leading up to the trial. The reason the kids are teased is because Atticus is defending a black man. Scout almost gets into a fight with Cecil Jacobs because he was telling everyone at school that "Scout Finch's daddy defended niggers (Lee 82)." At a family Christmas gathering, Scout splits her knuckle to the bone on her cloying relative's Francis's teeth (Lee 92). Scout does this because Francis accuses Atticus of ruining the family name by being a "nigger-lover" (Lee 92). Jem also is a victim of the teasing when Mrs. Dubose states: "Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for niggers (Lee 110)!" Jem then takes Scout's baton and cuts the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned (Lee 111). As punishment, Jem has to read out loud to her every day after school and on Saturdays for two hours (Lee 114). Jem unknowingly, until after she dies, realizes he helped her break her morphine addiction (Lee 120).

Days before the trial a mob of people lead by Mr. Cunningham go to the Maycomb jail in an attempt to lynch Tom Robinson. But Atticus is sitting there guarding the jail. Mr. Underwood was also there with his double-barreled shotgun helping Atticus (Lee 166). Jem, Scout and Dill decide to try to find Atticus and see if he is unharmed. They find him sitting outside the jail. The children try to help when, Scout recognizes Mr. Cunningham and reminds him about the time he brought them some hickory nuts. Scout also points out are that she goes to school with his son Walter and he came home with her for dinner one time (Lee 164). Mr. Cunningham took Scout by the shoulders and said: "I'll tell him you said hey, little lady (Lee 165)." After Scout's talk with Mr. Cunningham he instructs the mob to disperse.

The trial puts the Ewell family's evidence against Tom Robinson's evidence. According to Mayella Ewell she asked Tom to do some work for her while her father Bob Ewell was out. Mayella said: "I said come here, nigger, and bust up this chiffarobe for me, I gotta nickel for you (Lee 191)." Mayella says that she went to get the nickel Tom ran up behind her, grabbed her around the neck, cussed at her and beat her again and again (Lee 192). "He chunked me on the floor an' choked me'n took advantage of me (Lee 192)" stated Mayella. Tom's statements are that Mayella "hugged me round the waist then she reached up an' kissed me 'side of th' face (Lee 206)." Mr. Ewell walked in to see this, and according to Tom says: "you goddamn whore; I'll kill ya (Lee 206)." That is when Tom ran away in fright. Despite evidence that shows Tom did not rape and beat Mayella, and proof that her own father Bob beat her, the jury finds Tom guilty of all charges (Lee 223). Atticus was hoping to appeal, but Tom tries to escape from jail, and is shot dead.

After being humiliated, Mr. Ewell threatens Atticus. "He spat in his face and says he would get him if it took the rest of his life (Lee 229)." Mr. Ewell would get his revenge one night. Scout says, "Thus began our longest journey together (Lee 267)." Walking home after the Halloween pageant, Jem and Scout are attacked by Bob Ewell. Scout is wearing her ham costume and cannot see the scuffle between the men. During the attack Jem breaks his arm, and is knocked unconscious. Boo Radley had stabbed Mr. Ewell with the kitchen knife that Bob Ewell was intending to hurt the children with. It is then, in Jem's room after the attack, that Scout meets Boo for the first time. Mr. Tate, the sheriff of Maycomb says "draggin' him with his shy ways into the limelight-to me that's a sin. Bob Ewell fell on his knife (Lee 290)," saving the real hero and killer of Bob Ewell, Boo.

It is my belief that racism is the central issue in To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee shows that no matter what one's skin color, one can be discriminated against. Tom Robinson is accused of rape simply because he is black. While Boo Radley is discriminated against because he is different. Both are innocent in a society that rejects, punishes, and even kills those who do not fit in with the rest of society.

Another issue that touches me is justice. Atticus talks about the fact that although not all people are created equal in ability, they should be judged equal in law. Tom does not receive justice from a jury of white men, but does through another victim, Boo Radley, when he kills Bob Ewell.

The main theme to me is the most touching of all. Atticus had given Scout and Jem air rifles and told them it would be a sin to harm a mockingbird. Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are both as innocent as a mockingbird, but they are caged, accused, and trapped by crimes they never committed. Boo, instead of going to a state industrial school, after a childhood incident, was condemned to living in his house by his father, never living a normal life. Tom Robinson having been accused of rape, proved to be innocent, yet ultimately paying with his life. Both never harming anyone, but paying a heavy price.

Below are the following criticisms the author received about the book that I agree strongly with. Richard Sullivan writes how the book offers no way of fixing the social discrimination and racisms that exist in the world. I agree with that, To Kill A Mockingbird simply is a story about these issues and leaves the reader to decide for themselves.

Richard Sullivan writes:

This is in no way a sociological novel. It underlines no cause. It answers no questions. It offers no solutions. It proposes no programs. It is simply an excellent piece of storytelling, which on the way along suggests that there are in Maycomb, Ala., persons of good will in whom love and generous loyalty supersede law, and others in whom meanness-along with envy and fear-breeds lying persecution, under law…

To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel of strong contemporary national significance. And it deserves serious consideration. But first of all it is a story so admirably done that it must be called both honorable and engrossing. (Gale Research Company 340)

I also agree with Edwin Bruell that Miss Lee paints Scout in warm tones and makes Scout, Jem, Atticus, Tom Robinson, and even the scary Boo Radley very likable. In my opinion it is hard to read To Kill A Mockingbird and find most of the characters not likable. The only character I find to be dislikable is Bob Ewell.

Edwin Bruell writes:

Miss Lee does write like a woman. She paints Scout in warm tones, and we like the child. Miss Lee uses high and telling humor when she depicts the myopic do-gooders of the local missionary circle who alternately squealed and sighed over the remote plight of the Mrunas who were safely distant in the dark continent, the while they stirred up a falsely labeled "Christian" hell for the racially different in their home town. Yes, and there was cutting irony and blanched white sarcasm too when the authoress seemingly reaches the outer limits of her fine sense of tolerance even for the bigoted. (Gale Research Company 342-343)