Thursday, March 20, 2014

World's Last English Teacher to Read To Kill a Mockingbird

[Reflections on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  (New York: Grand Central Publishing, mass market edition,1982)]

[Photo: Characters Jem, Atticus, and Scout confront the mob at the jail.]
Personal Note: Now I Know
Raise your hand if you haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird.  Just as I thought:  I'm the world's last English teacher to read itMy vivid memories of the movie on TV in 1967 were enough, I thought.       

Now I know why everyone else has rated it so highly all these years, and why Harper Lee never wrote another novel.   What's left for her to write since she has created literature's most admired role model since Jesus?  Besides the character of Atticus Finch, she captures the feelings of childhood, in a book that vividly preserves small-town America of the Depression.  Writing in the year of the first student sit-ins, when Martin Luther King, Jr. first promoted non-violent resistance to racial discrimination, while the memory of the Emmett Till trial was fresh, Harper Lee made a book for our time, too.

Now I know other reasons why English teachers love the book.  We can point out the gentle irony achieved when events are screened through the wondering eyes of young Scout Finch, but narrated by her sophisticated adult self Jean Louise Finch.  Because Scout often witnesses the events from behind fences, trees, and actual screens, Harper Lee can let the reader know more about what's going on than her young witness does, for even more ironic effect.  To teach story construction, we can note how the first three sentences of the book about Jem's broken arm and the Ewell family foreshadow climactic action in the novel.

To model for my students how analysis of a single passage can help us all to appreciate Lee's novel, I continue below with a brief analytical essay about a passage from the last pages of chapter 22.

At 13 years of age, Jem Finch has lost his faith in the goodness of his hometown Maycomb, Alabama.  In court the day before, while Jem heard his father Atticus defend a black man, Tom Robinson, from the lies of Mayella Ewell and her father Bob, Jem whispered gleefully to his younger sister Scout, "We've got him" (238).   But, despite clear evidence, an all-white jury returned a verdict of guilty.  Jem cried "angry tears" as he walked home through the "cheerful" crowd of white townspeople (284).

Overview of p. 288
The next morning, the Finches' kindly neighbor Miss Maudie has invited Jem, Scout, and their little friend Dill to her kitchen for some cake to show that "nothing had changed" (288).  She wants Jem to understand that she admires his father for being one of those men who have to do the "unpleasant things" in this world.  She means how Atticus stood up against all the odds to argue for the truth, even though he must have known that the jury would not accept a black man's word over the lies of a white man. But Jem will have none of it:  he leaves the cake half-eaten and he tells Miss Maudie how he has been disillusioned by his home town.  

Detailed Analysis of p. 288
"It's like bein' a caterpillar in a cocoon," Jem says.  At first, he isn't clear what he means by "it" in his simile, but his next words make clear that he doesn't mean anything about insects or butterflies.  He's trying to capture the feeling of being "somethin' asleep, wrapped up in a warm place."   He makes the experience sound pleasant, being asleep, being protected, being warm.  But "it" is the shock of waking up from that warm and comfortable place to a cold, unpleasant real world, as Jem makes clear when he explains the metaphor in plainer language:  "I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world," he says.  When he adds, "least that's what they seemed like,"  he implies that it was all a lie.

Miss Maudie tries to cheer Jem up, pointing out that she, the sheriff, the judge, and all of Tom Robinson's friends are on the side of Atticus; but Jem rightly counters that "no Christian judges an' lawyers make up for heathen juries" (289).  He seems to win the argument.

Broader context
Jem's simile of emerging from a cocoon could be a good description of the entire novel.  In the first chapter, Harper Lee's narrator sets the safe "summertime boundaries" of the Finch's neighborhood, where the children Jem, Scout, and their new friend Dill will play their games (7).  On the north is mean old Mrs. DuBose's home; south, there's the home of the mysterious Boo Radley.  But as Part One of the novel ends, Mrs. DuBose has died, and Jem has realized that Boo is no menace. Early in Part Two, the world outside that safe neighborhood intrudes on the lives of the children, as Atticus leaves town for the capitol, the maid Calpurnia takes the kids on an excursion to her church among the African American community, and the case of Tom Robinson pulls the kids into conflicts with people of the town. 

While Jem feels angry at emerging from his "cocoon," Harper Lee emphasizes Jem's growth as a strong, honest, courageous young man, a young Atticus.  Part Two begins with the announcement that "Jem was twelve" and getting "moody" (153).  Calpurnia now refers to him as "Mister Jem."  In the chapters that follow, Jem "breaks the remaining code" of childhood by informing the proper adults when Dill shows up on the lam from his guardian in Mississippi (187), and he stands firm when Atticus is facing down a dangerous mob, reminding Scout of grown-up Atticus despite his boyish hair and features ( 203).  On the way home from that incident, when Scout expects Atticus to be angry, their father instead pats Jem's head, "his one gesture of affection"(207).

His maturity is tested at the climactic event of the novel. When he and Scout are in mortal danger, Jem speaks calmly, says he isn't scared, and almost reaches safety when the assailant attacks him.  He fights a foe larger, stronger, and armed.  Later, sleeping sedated at home, he misses the dialogue that might restore his faith in the goodness of people in the world.  The doctor, the sheriff, and the mysterious Boo Radley have all conspired to take care of him, and to serve justice.

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