It’s always hard to write about a novel you are currently reading for the first time and haven’t finished. I’m reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s certainly enjoyable enough. But here I am almost a third of the way through, and the main storyline—or what I think is the main storyline since perhaps I don’t know—has only come up in a suggestion, the innuendo that Atticus Finch, attorney, will be defending a “nigger” in court. So what are these first hundred pages all about if it’s not the storyline and why am I enjoying it?
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part, which I’ve now read, deals with the life in the southern town of Maycomb, Alabama as seen through the eyes of a six to seven year old girl, nicknamed Scout. Except for the narrative section of trying to get a reclusive named Boo Radley to come out of his home, the stories are parallel anecdotes. They could have been individual short stories.
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was o where to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
That last sentence is a clever way of situating the time to 1933, the year President Franklyn Roosevelt took office and used that famous line. I’m not going to give you a summary, but just to make the point there are a series of anecdotes involving Scout, her older brother Jem, and a childhood friend, Dill. We get anecdotes of school, Miss Caroline the teacher, Miss Maudie the neighbor, the Radleys, also neighbors, her father Atticus, his siblings, a rabid dog that threatens the neighborhood, a fire that burnt down Miss Maudie’s home, and the passing of a cantankerous old woman, Mrs. Dubose. What’s important here is that Lee is creating the world of a southern town in the early part of the twentieth century: family oriented, neighborly, but also racist. Also of importance is the delineation of Scout’s character, a tomboy trying to fit into her world. Here’s an interesting anecdote at the beginning of the third chapter.
Catching Walter Cunningham in the schoolyard gave me some pleasure, but whn I was rubbing his nose in the dirt Jem came by and told me to stop. “You’re bigger’n he is,” he said.
“He’s as old as you, nearly,” I said. “He’s made me start off on the wrong foot.”
“Let him go, Scout. Why?”
“He didn’t have any lunch,” I said, and explained my involvement in Walter’s dietary affairs.
Walter had picked himself up and was standing quietly listening to Jem and me. His fists were half cocked, as if expecting an onslaught from both of us. I stomped at him to chase him away, but Jem put out his hand and stopped me. He examined Walter with an air of speculation. “Your daddy Mr. Walter Cunningham from Old Sarum?” he asked, and Walter knodded.
Walter looked as if he had been raised on fish food: his eyes, as blue as Dill Harris’s, were red-rimmed and watery. There was no color in his face except at the tip of his nose, which was mostly pink. He fingered the straps of his overalls, nervously picking at the metal hooks.
Jem suddenly grinned at him. “Come on home to dinner with us Walter,” he said. “We’d be glad to have you.”
Walter’s face brightened, then darkened.
Jem said, “Our daddy’s a friend of your daddy’s. Scout here, she’s crazy—she won’t fight you any more.
“I wouldn’t be too certain of that,” I said. Jem’s free dispensation of my pledge irked me, but precious noontime minutes were ticking away. “Yeah Walter, I won’t jump yuou again. Don’t you like butterbeans? Our Cal’s a real good cook.”
Walter stood where he was, biting his lip. Jem and I gave up, and we were nearly to the Radley Place when Walter called, “Hey, I’m comin’!”
This little scene captures in a microcosm the themes of the book: fairness, justice, friendliness, and a religious obligation, suggested by the diction “free dispensation,” which alludes to the theological dispensation of grace.
At this point in my reading, I just don’t understand the significance of Boo Radley. So why is the first third of the novel outside the main storyline? Shouldn’t a writer put the reader in media res? If you conceptualize the storyline to be Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson at his trial, then the novel is incorrectly plotted, and perhaps even Scout’s first person point of view is badly chosen. But you have to give the novelist her due. The main storyline is not the trial but the education of Jean Louise Finch, her moral development, and the blossoming of her femininity. The trial is in service of Scout’s development, not the other way around. When the trial is first brought up, at the beginning of chapter nine, it is tied to Atticus educating Scout.
“You can just take that back, boy!”
This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly. Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more; I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon fogot.
Cecil Jacobs made me forget. He in the schoolyard the day before that Scout Finch
S daddy defended niggers. I denied it, but told Jem.
“What’d he mean sayin’ that? I asked.
“Nothing,” Jem said. “Ask Atticus, he’ll tell you.”
“Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” I asked him that evening.
“Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.”
“’s what everybody at school says.”
“From now on it’ll be everybody less one—“
“Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin’ that way, why do you send me to school?”
My father looked at me mildly, amusement in his eyes. Despite our compromise, my campaign to avoid school had continued in one form or another since my first day’s dose of it: the beginning of last September had brought on sinking spells, dizziness, and mild gastric complaints. I went so far as to pay a nickel for the privilege of rubbing my head against of rubbing my head against the head of Miss Rachel’s cook’s son, who was afflicted with a tremendous ringworm. It didn’t take.
But I was worrying another bone. “Do all lawyers defend n-Negroes, Atticus?
“Of course they do, Scout.”
“Then why did Cecil say you defended niggers? He made it sound like you were runnin’ a still.”
Atticus sighed. “I’m simply defending a Negro—his name’s Tom Robinson. He lives in that little settlement beyond the town dump. He’s member of Calpurnia’s church, and Cal knows his family well. She says they’re clean living folks. Scout, you aren’t old enough to understand some things yet, but there’s been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man. It’s a peculiar case—it won’t come tio trial until summer session. John Taylor was kind enough to give us a postponement…”
Here Scout is taught about vulgar talk, the dehumanization of people, justice, and even the “childishness” of fighting. A novel about the development of the central character is called a Bildunsroman. Childishness will eventually turn to maturity.