Tag Archives: To Kill a Mockingbird

Mayella and Boo: Thoughts

Mayella and Boo: Class notes

After a discussion in y11 around an essay which asked for ‘children who suffer’ in the novel to be compared, we developed this list. I suggest that students find evidence to support these statements and to extend them.

Mayella Boo
Single parent family Single parent family
Abusive father (sexually) Abusive father (neglect)
Uneducated (choice of family) Uneducated beyond a teen years (father)
Mother figure to siblings No siblings but seems to wish to care for the children
Coward in the trial (moral) Brave at end (physical)
Tries to improve life for children: geraniums Gifts in the tree
Bigoted –picked up from father  
Appalling living conditions clearly described Home likened to Gothic haunted house.


I think that the key to this essay might be to look at how the children cope with their ‘suffering’ – in this case Boo rises above it and does what is right, yet Mayella could be said to lack that moral compass. Setting is relevant as well and students might wish to consider the difference between the Radley house which has the best view of all the events in the novel against the house on the dump.


There is much more to find, but this is a start….

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TKAM: Characters of Cal and Tom. A give-back

I have just been marking Y11 practice essays on Mockingbird relating to the characters of Calpurnia and Tom. Given the stem: ‘how are the characters…. presented?’ the focus is clearly on Lee’s technique but also on her intention in creating these two characters. Students need to ask themselves what the function is of any character in a question such as this and then address the ways in which the author brings out that function in the writing.

Both are black and in a book focused on the racial divide of the deep south, this is an obvious point to make. More than this , both are ‘good’ and therefore can be seen not only as ‘Mockingbirds’ but also as the antithesis of the ‘white trash’ defined by the Ewell family. This is important since Lee is at pains to point out that there is inherent worth in Tom which cannot be seen at all in Bob, though Bob, being white, will receive the benefit of the bias of the jury.
Thus both symbolise an essential concept of goodness. Both are also part of Scout’s education though in different ways. Calpurnia, from before the start of the text is an active teacher whose role is criticised by society in the shape of Miss Caroline; Tom is himself a lesson – he never meets Scout, but is as much a part of her education as anything undertaken by Calpurnia or Atticus.

An intelligent and hard working black woman employed to replace Atticus’ wife in the Finch household. It is clear from the early stages of the narrative that Scout is utterly indebted to Calpurnia for her education and her burgeoning awareness of the world around her. Cal is not the only surrogate mother – Maudie and Alexandra must also be considered in this light, but Lee uses her for clear social education -whether when teaching Scout not to disrespect Walter or when taking the children to her church and responding to Lula’s verbal aggression.
It is Cal to whom the children turn when upset and it is Cal who will be chosen by Atticus to accompany him to call on Helen following Tom’s death. She has the feminine virtue of compassion and empathy in a way that Atticus does not. This is not to say that she is a ‘soft touch’ -Jem’s comments about the strength of her hand in a beating make that eminently clear.
Towards the end of the novel Calpurnia is presented in two scenes: Alexandra wishes to be rid of her and Atticus is clear -he can’t live without her. This is not a romantic attachment, but one of support and mutual respect. Look again at the little scene in which she enters the body of the courthouse to tell Atticus that his children are missing – she bears herself with dignity in the lair of the white folks and carries out one of her last duties in regards to the children. After this in the novel she will wait and serve at the tea party and help to comfort Helen, but her role as educator in chief is no longer relevant. In Part 1 she seems to be Atticus’ accomplice in educating the children. By the middle of part 2 she is replaced by circumstance and by Tom.


Although mentioned in Part 1, Tom plays no part in the text until part 2 – as though Part 1 has been preparation for the key idea: the black man, however poor, is not to be written off because of the colour of his skin. His trial takes up around a quarter of the text and is without doubt the central event of the whole text. In it Tom is set against Bob Ewell and the pair are held up to scrutiny. Tom is as much portrayed by his own deeds and speech as he is by Bob’s: the one is the antithesis of the other. Where Tom is quiet, respectful and unwilling to use Bob’s own words in his evidence because they are too uncouth. Bob, on the other hand, is brash, disrespectful and boorish. Lee uses the trial to give the reader a detailed description of the Ewell home which will later be contrasted with the homes of the black community. Both are near the tip but Bob’s is virtually on it – there are no windows and a fence made of savage-looking ruined tools. The only touch of softness is the attempt by Mayella to grow geraniums in a poor copy of Maudie’s garden in the centre of town. The Black community dwellings are, in contrast, cosy and carry the scent of cooking to the visitors, despite their poverty.

This is the key: despite poverty, at the middle of the depression, Tom finds time for dignity and honesty. This is seen time and again in the court house and also in the fact that he is employed at all, and a good worker. Not only this, he pities Mayella. Whilst this is used against him in court, it is so important – his thoughts are not for himself but for others. For this caring nature he is held up as a scapegoat by a jury of bigots. When he is killed trying to escape, he has run out of hope and his death presents the reader with a clear recognition that a terrible injustice has taken place.

His death is the last piece of Scout’s jigsaw. She sees Calpurnia being asked to provide comfort outside her family and also sees her Aunt – until this time a figure of hostility and perceived unkindness – in a different light. She too can see that it is time to grow up and to find dignity in the face of adversity.

Many will write that Tom is a ‘mockingbird’ but few refer to the jail scene. Here after the lunch ob has dispersed it is Tom’s weak voce which pierces the evening air. A frightened and vulnerable soul in a violent and cruel world.

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Year 11: exploring key passages in TKAM

Sheets created in class in 25 minutes in order to focus on aspects of context, language and plot devices in TKAM.


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The Theme of Innocence in TKAM: A giveback

Again, a PowerPoint for students to refer to after a lesson.  In this case an essay question from May 2014 from the Edexcel IGCSE Literature paper.


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Notes from class: Year 11. Most memorable character

These are notes from class to share with my y11 class in a lesson following up from the post looking at the most memorable character in TKAM


The IWB was not working and I am trying to wean myself off PowerPoint…

Mainly for their benefit (you had to be there…).

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Setting at IGCSE: MAAN and TKAM


A screencast to look at the approach to an essay about setting at IGCSE

The youtube link to the department channel:

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Setting in TKAM and MAAN

A short revision lesson on the two set texts for the Year 10 exams later this summer.

setting in TKAM

other setting links can be found here:https://jwpblog.wordpress.com/?s=setting

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2 lessons: planning round table

Sound files of two lessons with year 11 discussing aspects of TKAM and MAAN.

courage in MAAN, suffering in TKAM, Boo Radley, friendship in MAAN…


A few boys missed these lessons and these are for them to catch up from as study leave begins… help yourselves and feel free to use the reply thread to begin a conversation.

Lesson 1:

Lesson 2: 

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Suffering: a theme in TKAM

A response to the 2016 January Edexcel IGCSE exam.  NOT a model essay: Find your own quotations – I have tried to point out the way!

Suffering covers a wide range of ideas and I would begin here by identifying my key thought areas:

  • Suffering due to abject poverty
  • Suffering due to prejudice
  • Physical suffering
  • Mental suffering

Once this is done, we can look more closely at each area.

Poverty drives this novel from the very opening and the firsr few chapters, focused on early school days are a good source for this.  Another area I would use is the description of the Ewell home which is found during the trial in chapter 18.  The depression has hit the South hard as it was struggling to cope with the after-effects of the civil war.  Southerners took great pride in their heritage , but even now the energy is running out – “Maycomb … was a tired old town”.  The description of the town – the courthouse with the roof which “sagged” and the dirt street which turn to thick mud suggest a town on its last legs.  even the mules are”bony”.  At school the poverty is thrown into sharp contrast with Miss Caroline’s dress (which represents the Stripes of the Stars and Stripes – then still seen as the flag of the North).  Individuals are singled out for attention – Walter with no food but the pride and dignity to refuse the loan to buy some since he can’t repay it.  There is nothing without suffering in a society in which food is used as payment for actions – however picturesque or heartwarming it might be.  This is a world in which poverty has removed dignity from so many and created alarming levels of suffering which the young Scout does not really see.  The Cunninghams are dignified in their suffering.  The Ewells are not.  Burris hurls abuse at his “slut” of a teacher and leaves school on day 1 each year – presumably to do nothing since the description of the home does not suggest a need to help on the family farm.   The Ewell household is suffering at the very bottom of society and seemingly is incapable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Their home by the dump has no running water, no panes in the windows and a general air of poverty that would rival that seen by Mrs Merryweather’s beloved Mrunas. Bob is in receipt of financial help from the state but chooses to drink it all away and leaves the care of the children to Mayella.  She is helpless – she tries to make the place more beautiful with geraniums, but is helpless.  The food is scavenged and the atmosphere threatening.  Poverty has reduced this family to a level of suffering which is painful to behold.  Sadly, the theme of racist bigotry is so strong in this house that we do not see the suffering as clearly as we should – it does not excuse any of the actions of Mayella, but it explains why she longs for the company of Tom, even if her moral compass is rendered non-existant by the threats and abuse of her father. We should notice that the suffering caused by her father with its implied sexual abuse causes her to behave as she does and any suffering she feels as she lies on the witness stand derives neatly from this same source. This suffering shows neatly the hypocrisy rife in the town, where even Atticus can refer to the Ewells as white trash and all suggest that they occupy a lower social level than the Blacks.  In that society, suffering is all too clear, but it is interesting to note that one of the purposes of the scene in the church is to highlight a community pulling together to help each other out of the suffering caused by poverty and bigotry.

Such prejudicial suffering must be highlighted by the treatment of Tom.  He and his family suffer for racist prejudice.  It is clear he is innocent of the crime, yet he is convicted.  Atticus knows this is to be the case and all with an understanding of the racial attitudes of the deep South know it too.  As a first person narrator, Scout cannot know what took place in the jail prior to his escape bid (if such it was), and this is not touched upon.  We assume that there was no let up there.  His family suffer the grief of his death and the continued harassment of Bob “chunking” on Helen. Link Deas performs a small act of Heroism to save her from this suffering, but no amount of slightly description of the black homes with their “pale smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber from the fires inside” and the “delicious smells” coming from them can hide the level of suffering of this community – ignored by the town women who fret about the Mrunas while allowing such abject conditions to exist within their own town.

Physical suffering is used, as much else in this text, as an educative process for the children and is best shown through Mrs Dubose.  Her suffering -in a sense futile since it will not alleviate death – is used to teach Jem true courage.  The description of her home and her physical features -a beautifully written Gothic interlude- show her as a grotesque and terrifying old woman – “the corners of her mouth glistened with wet, which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin” – but one in much pain from her attempt to clean her body prior to death.  Again, Scout is such an unreliable narrator that the reader is fixed on her cruelty and her unkind mouth, rather than on her suffering.  Once the section is complete, the reader learns, along with the children, what this was about.  “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand”, says Atticus, “it’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway”.  The suffering of Mrs Dubose is an apt illustration of this and concludes part one of the book.  The same message will be stressed in part two through the medium of Tom’s trial.

My final section might consider the mental torment suffered by Boo and you can look at another post to flesh out ideas for this: Hey Boo!


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Thoughts: Hey, Boo!

A few thoughts about the presentation of Boo Radley as a result of an email from an absent student….

How is Boo Radley presented?

1: Establish appearance and reality.  IN a novel where so much is recounted through the eyes of a highly subjective and unreliable narrator, it is important to separate the known unknowns from the unknown knowns and the known knowns…

What are we told that may not be true – the known unknowns

  • Boo is a wild man chained to a bed eating squirrels – all a figment of Jem’s overactive Gothic imagination.  A diet of ghost stories has left Jem with ample time to develop his imaginary world.
  • This is casually referred to inChapter 4 with Walter who adds his own little piece of gossip – the “pizened” pecans
  • The story of the stabbing and subsequent incarceration as told by Stephanie Crawford is another unsubstantiated slur.  As a result of some unexplained misdeed it is possible that  Boo was locked in the basement of the jail for an indeterminate time   – enough to thoroughly frighten a sensitive character and to make it increasingly likely that they would wish to stay indoors….
  • He becomes the central figure of all the children’s games, with Dill particularly intrigued by him.  He is central to the cliffhanger which ends chapter 4 when “someone inside was laughing” following Scout’s arrival inside the tyre.  This is meant to be chilling.

So if the children and Miss Stephanie create an image of Boo to chill the blood, what are the unknown knowns and the known knowns?

  • Boo was in trouble as a youth and was not sent away to the industrial and so missed out on the “best secondary education in the state”.  The trouble owed more to being a teenager than being a criminal but broke some of the unwritten “codes of society”.
  • His father seems cruel and unthinking in relation to his treatment of Boo.
  • Nobody has seen him for many years, yet Atticus seems utterly unfazed at the end of the novel- possibly he is not too much of a stranger after all to the older generation.
  • When the children break into the Radley garden it is Boo’s hand which mends the jeans sewed up “all crooked”.
  • It must be Boo who provides Scout with a blanket during the fire
  • It must be Boo who provides the gifts in the knot hole, and Mr Radley fills it to spite him, not the children.
  • Boo saves the children’s lives and richly deserves Atticus’ thanks
  • He is subject to discrimination in all the tales told by the likes of Miss Stephanie and allows Atticus to show his innate fairness.

So much, so good…

Boo is very much a key part of the action in the early part of the novel – when the children are at their most impressionable, and reemerges at the end, though he is not part  of the plot around the trial and the injustice given to Tom Robinson.  This seems right because he lies completely outside society and has a different function. He is a victim of prejudice, just a certainly as Tom, but not because of colour, rather due to the hypocritical actions of the gossips around town who stringently enforce their “codes” – the ones that Mayella will break, and do not tolerate variance from the norm.  He has paid the penalty for breaking societies codes, but this has not made him into a bad person.  Everything he does is to benefit society – in the form of what Lee refers to as “his children” when she finally gets to stand on his porch in the wonderful coda of the book when the narrative slips into an omniscient third person description of the story from Boo’s perspective.

Despite the initial appearances drawn up by Jem and the others, he is a figure of good – a real “mockingbird” untouched by the hypocrisies of “polite” society.  He is fearless in defence of right and lives to care for the children.  Whether it is stretching things to see him as a second Atticus as a result of this, I am not sure, but thought his actions and motives are different, he certainly embodies many of Atticus’ most pungent character traits:

It is a sin to  kill a mockingbird.  It is also wrong, as Jem points out to torture a defenceless bug.  Boo is both of these things. A real force for good who goes unobserved at the centre of society without being part of society.  His taunting by the children may well have been cruel, as Atticus points out, but it helped him to develop a relationship with the children which would ultimately save their lives.  Boo flits ghost- like through the book and his final description as he stands in the bedroom: “his face was as white as his hands…is grey eyes were so colourless, I thought he was blind…His hair was dead an thin… feathery on top of his head” is a far cry from Jem’s image of blooodstained hands and other savagery.  It is fitting that Scout walks him home – he does not seem to be of the same world as the rest of the characters of the book.  Indeed, the book that Atticus reads Scout at the end of the novel could be his autobiography – The Grey Ghost.

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