Tag Archives: Harper Lee

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…

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Mockingbird and Violence: response to essay.

Explore the presentation of violence in To kill A Mockingbird.

These slides were prepared by a yr 11 class after an essay question (above).  The idea was that we would track Lee’s presentation of violence through the novel and then the students wrote paragraphs in small groups which are appended to the end of the document.  I think it is an interesting activity and the short paragraphs could be used to provoke comment and discussion in any classroom.

As ever, my starting point was: “what sort of society choice is Lee presenting here?”  In short, do we want to live in an Atticus society or a Ewell society?  From this discussion we developed thoughts about justifiable and non-justifiable violence and from there it was a relatively easy job to identify the types of violence on show.  Since so many students are keen to tell me that “it is a sin to kill a mockingbird”, I was surprised how many did not see the fact that you can “shoot all the blue jays you want” suggests that there some aspects of violence which can be tolerated.  Once this is accepted, the essay seems to fall into place!

violence in TKAM

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Approaching a “character” question in an exam.

This post has come about after marking a series of mock IGCSE English Literature papers.  For many of the boys I teach and work with, there is a reluctance to really engage with the question and the writing is really as sequence of events from the play or novel which do not consider the nature of the choices made by writers when putting a character onto the page.

My checklist would be:

  • No word is an accident and every situation has been set out for a purpose in a particular way.
  • The question will expect you to address the purpose the author has in mind when writing the character
  • You must not treat the character as a real person
  • Consider how the character in question links to the key themes of the text being studied
  • Ensure my quotations are relevant and focused on the requirements of the question.
  • 10 minutes planning.

In this case the question, from an Edexcel IGCSE paper was:  What is the significance of the characters Calpurnia and Tom Robinson in TKAM?

For many, this was an excuse to spend a deal of time explaining who they were and digressing by listing both things they do during the novel and also expressing Scout’s feelings as though these are all real people.

I would argue that the first question you need to ask is : “what was Lee trying to achieve at certain points when she wrote this character?”  After this, I would begin to outline the moments in the book I wish to use in my writing and then ensure that I have the thematic ideas covered.  At this point, the (obvious) realization that both are from the Black community in the book should enable me to make a clear thematic link between the pair.

I continue this plan in the powerpoint below:

10 min plan character

Obviously, there are as many possible ways of answering this question as there are students ready to answer it.  However, I hope that whatever examples you choose to use, or whatever specific question you are answering on any text, you will take my advice to heart and present an essay which is focused on exploring the writer’s intentions when they created the character.  Essays which are glorified summaries of the text and the plot will not attain high marks.  It is as simple as that.  English Literature is about the exploration of what you believe the writer intended when choosing specific words or situations in the text.  It is not about the regurgitation of memorized plot-lines or unexplored quotations.


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Go set a watchman: thoughts

Since I am still teaching in an IGCSE centre, To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my set texts. Even if it had been dropped by the board, I suspect I would be teaching it anyway, probably in Year 9, as I am with Of Mice and Men. Because of this I want to write a few thoughts about Harper Lee’s “new” novel: Go set a watchman.

First, let’s be clear. This is not a new novel. It is published as “a landmark new novel” on the sleeve notes. It is referred to regularly as a “sequel” to TKAM because in this book Scout is an adult, visiting Maycomb in the 1950s. The excitement generated by the idea that Lee – a notorious recluse- had written further thoughts on the racist bigotry of her home town has built expectation beyond belief. TKAM has such impact and such a following, that many seem to have forgotten that it is a work of fiction. It bears the same relationship to truth as a novel such as Copperfield – largely built on Dickens’ childhood experiences, but viewed through a lens. Because of this lack of perspective, Atticus Finch has emerged as a saintly figure: a bastion of decency and colour blindness standing firm against an army of racism and hatred. To discover that this might not be the “truth” has caused some concern and upset. It should not.

Every now and then a morsel of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven is unearthed in a cupboard. Great excitement fills the musical world since this undiscovered gem might shed light on the creative process of a genius. The work is dissected and recorded before,often, slipping back into obscurity. Likewise, whilst early versions of operas or symphonies exist, they are rarely performed in place of the accepted later, final, versions. The reason is simple – often the later version has benefitted from criticism and revision. Often the music has gained subtlety and lost a degree of rawness and naivety evident in the early version. We can still hear the developing voice of the composer, but it comes in snatches and in pre-echoes and our ears are always carrying our “knowledge” of the later version. Ultimately, with the two CDs side by side on our shelves, the younger voice is rarely listened to out of choice, other than to play the odd extract to illustrate how the composer’s ideas changed over the years as he developed.

So it is with this novel. Please be clear. This is no sequel in any sense. It was written well before TKAM and rejected, apparently with the publisher suggesting that Lee re-work the novel to focus on the young Scout and her memories. This is hardly surprising. The adult Scout is simply not interesting to read. In the 1950s, few would be interested in the meandering memoirs of a twenty-something unknown New York woman writing about a visit to her hometown in Alabama and her subsequent mortification on discovering that the whole town, including her father, were complicit in some way with the racial hatred of the day. The writing is direct, to a fault, rarely engaging the reader with any of the characters and Lee hurries through episodes that might have real resonance if explored in-depth whilst wearing her learning and erudition like a clumsy headlamp as she references authors such as Browning and Wordsworth to help to explore her feelings. They are as out-of-place in the novel as her liberal Northern views are at a meeting of the Klan.

This is a draft that should not have been seen, unless issued with a clear statement to the fact that it is the first attempt at delivering the work of greatness which followed. It has no real central thread beyond her upset that a 70-year-old should hold dearly the attitudes with which he was brought up. Atticus is a racist in this novel, seen through the lens of the late 20th century and especially when set against the fiction of TKAM. Many are saddened by this, but I think the realism is more believable than the character we love from the later work. It is clear that his driving motive for defending Tom Robinson is not a sense of bruised racial equality but a driving respect for the law, regardless of the colour of the defendant. This is not the action of a committed racist. The discussion around the Klan suggests that Atticus joined the group in his youth to see who it contained – to “know your enemy”. This sounds weak, but is plausible. Possibly the klan was as innocent in this area as a Masonic Lodge, as is suggested. Certainly, it is hard to see anyone obviously opposed to the racist views of the South attaining the professional success that Atticus obviously attained. This is human behaviour – we may not like his faults but we can acknowledge the complexity hidden within him. Sadly, the novel reveals little of this complexity. The dialogue between Scout and her father is clumsy and lacks any spark of warmth or humour. Lee writes this relationship so much more effectively when writing of the relationship of an innocent child trying to piece together the world in which she lives.

In this book Lee knows her mind and that is one of the problems. One of the joys of TKAM is the mixture of waspish asides as Lee shows her mind in conjunction with the youthful narrative of her 8-year-old self. Here there is none. All is in the open and the passages where Lee intersperses her thoughts against the real-time dialogues of coffee parties and social events are utterly lacking in subtlety, though we can see the writing of TKAM beginning to emerge.

The loss of an innocent narrator is a real problem in this book because there is no sense of experience emerging from the innocent. Both Jem and Scout allow this to be a consistent thread of TKAM. In this book Jem is already dead – Lee is writing in a clear autobiographical manner – and his replacement as Scout’s friend and guide in Maycomb is Hank. He is really rather dull and rarely does Lee invest their time together with any great charm. No wonder he was dropped for the final version. He would simply be in the way.

The events of the trial – the events which created TKAM as a world-beater and propelled Lee to international fame and fortune – exist in this book but are so prosaic as to be overlooked in the narrative of post-teenage anger and frustration with one’s roots. The trial is referenced in its, presumably, factual version. No time is spent on it and it is used to show Atticus acting from a love of law. No attempt is made to explore the event as a catalyst for Scout’s and the reader’s growth. This is partly because Robinson was acquitted in the trial. With no evident miscarriage of justice, there is little sense of anger, frustration and injustice to propel the reader. In TKAM, Atticus is fictionalised as a champion – half blind and wearing his years heavily – and given a closing speech into which Lee pours all her passion and belief. It works. It worked so well that Gregory Peck ensured that the film version of TKAM focused simply on his role as the champion of racial justice. A great novel was born which chimed precisely with the zeitgeist and which has allowed generations of school children to explore the issues of racism in a context which allows ideas to unfold naturally as we read. Lee holds a mirror to her society by pitting the “lowest” elements – the poor blacks – against the lowest elements – the white trash of Old Sarum – and allowing the referee to be the elderly white man appointed as defence attorney. Throughout the novel the black community is dignified, proud and hard-working; the white trash are slovenly, immoral and a burden on society. Scout has been protected form reality until she starts school and her lessons in life begin as soon as she stands up for the Cunningham boy in the issue over lunches. She learns and we learn along with her. All emerge wiser.

Not so in Watchman. We emerge with an understanding that a young adult has learned the “truth” about her father, her family and her hometown. She is angry and chippy. It is all so mundane in the telling. Give me the fictionalised version any day.

What we have is a draft or a sketch of a great masterpiece. I am happy to have read it, but am unlikely to return to it beyond possibly using sections to teach about drafting and the importance of getting narrative voice “right”. To call it a new novel or sequel is wrong and is misleading. No doubt many of the readers who queued all night for the first publication will have been hoping for a gem. They have received nothing of the sort. It is not even costume jewellery – it was never meant to be. The claims for the novel are unfair to Lee as well as to her readers. Sell this book as what it is, and read it in the same light.

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Mockingbird table top plans

Year 10 worked to create plans for two questions:

“Explore the significance of Heritage in the novel”

‘”The summer is going to be a hot one” – explore this quotation with particular focus on ch 12-15″

Their work is on the PDFs for them to download – -feel free to use it.

heritage essay

hot summer planning

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