How does Lee explore the children’s world in the first half of the novel?
Through the character of Scout, Lee explores the world of the South in the 1930s. This was also her own childhood time, so she’s painting a picture of a lost world, which she loved, but which also had its problems. Through Scout, Lee deals with the problem of being a ‘lady’, society, being ‘poor’ but trying to be a ‘gentleman’ and what it means to be as ‘brave’ as Atticus wants. Her relationship with Atticus, Calpurnia and her brother all develop through this section. In the ‘Boo Radley game’, their fear and ‘fascination’ with the ‘unknown’ echoes what will later happen to Tom Robinson.
The story is told largely through the naive eyes of Scout as a six-year old. She says, quite seriously, that Boo ‘ate squirrels raw’, something she could hardly believe as an adult. When she sees snow for the first time it’s touching as well as funny. She thinks ‘the world’s endin’, and every scrap of snow is as precious to them as diamonds. Her child-like view means Lee can play on the tension of what the reader sees, but Scout doesn’t: that the legend of Boo conceals a damaged individual, that Miss Caroline is young and out of her depth. These layers gradually peel back as Scout grows up. Miss Maudie tells her “It’s about time you found out it’s because he lets you [beat him at chess].
Through the novel, Scout introduces us to the world of the South. She says Atticus was ‘related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town’, showing close ties and the importance of heritage. Their history is linked to the ‘land’ - all that they retained once they were ‘stripped of everything’ by the civil war. She says proudly, ‘there had always been Finches at Finch’s Landing.’ Aunt Alexandra and other relatives have a grander feel, though Atticus explains to her that he is “very poor”. The sense of belonging is huge, of ruined former glory. At the time she knew it, she says, ‘Maycomb was a tired old town’. She feels she can speak for her world, as shown where she is nominated as class spokesperson to explain to Miss Caroline why Walter Cunningham won’t take money. She understands pride and “shamin”, which links to the idea of dignity, even in poverty, which was a defining feature of the almost-aristocratic South. Ideas of ‘pride’ and what it is to be a ‘gentleman’ feature heavily in Scout and Jem’s world.
Justice is introduced at the start as brutal, and being more like revenge. The language is far from child-like, and sounds like the adult Scout’s voice. She quotes Atticus’ first clients (who were all hanged) who insisted: ‘the son of a bitch had it coming to him was a good enough defence for anybody’. To us this sounds a ridiculous defence, and in fact, the clients were hanged. But summary justice happens later in the book to Tom Robinson, proving Atticus’ later point that “reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up”. This links to Scout’s world because she herself (as a child) takes a ‘the son of a bitch had it coming to him’ approach to justice. When Francis badmouths her father she tries to “knock his block off”. Corporal punishment is the norm. She says Calpurnia’s hand is ‘as wide as a bed slat and twice as hard’ and Miss Caroline ‘whipped me’ - in the latter case, quite unfairly. Likewise, Uncle Jack punishes her severely without finding out what really happened - that she was “provocated”. Through this, Lee brings out the theme that summary justice isn’t often fair and that it isn’t only the children who misunderstand.
Lee introduces us to a variety of Southern types, especially feminine ones. Calpurnia is a loved and respected member of the household - and black. In this way, Lee shows that black/white relations could be positive. Before the civil war, 47% of the population of the lower South was black slaves (29% in the upper South). The old system of household slaves - rather than field slaves, which formed the bulk - evolved into servants like Calpurnia who could (sometimes) become a beloved, and important member of the family in a way that rarely happened in the North. Though black people in the Northern States were ‘free’, they were not as much part of people’s everyday lives. Calpurnia teaches Scout to read, gives the children discipline, teaches them to be noble, and takes them to church. Scout shows her respect as she watches her, saying ‘I began to see there was some skill involved in being a girl’, where previously she has suffered ‘the pain of being called a girl’. Femininity is troublesome to Scout. Aunt Alexandra suggests she ‘wasn’t supposed to be doing anything that required pants’. Scout links femininity to a loss of power. So the fact she is reconciled to it by the feminine skill of her black housekeeper gives huge dignity to the character of Calpurnia - over Aunt Alexandra - a more traditional ‘lady’.
In the character of Miss Maudie, Lee presents a true old-fashioned Southern lady, now impoverished. When describing her, Scout’s language is heavenly: she had a ‘benign’, ‘reign over the street in magisterial beauty’. The words ‘reign’ and ‘magesterial’ both suggest queenly power, another image of nobility. Even the scent of her mimosa is ‘like angels’ breath’, a simile that adds to the divine effect. Miss Maudie is wise and ‘reasonable’, and usually agrees with Atticus. Scout says she is “the best lady I know” - high praise. Miss Maudie brings light to things Scout doesn’t understand, and explains some of the mystery of the Radley house. She illuminates yet another of the unreasonable prejudices of the book: “footwashers think women are a sin by definition”. Then she explains “sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle”, showing the power people have to corrupt even good things, and how some (like Atticus) can never be corrupted. This character allows Lee to show an outside, unbiased perspective on Atticus contrary to the majority who insult him. Miss Maudie is the epitome of all that was good about the South and the destruction of her house is symbolic of its destruction in the civil war. All the neighbours gather to help, saving what they can. In the end, she is placid: she has always, she says, wanted to build something new. Scout can’t believe she isn’t “grievin”. Miss Maudie is unbreakable, though she’s “ruined” her hands saving her home: ‘brown with dirt and dried blood’, she ‘whooped’ and is ‘chuckling’.
In contrast to Miss Maudie, is Mrs DuBose. Scout says she is ‘vicious’ and ‘melancholy’ and later gives a close-up sensory description that makes the skin creep. She says she’s: the colour of a ‘dirty pillow-case’, her mouth ‘glistened with wet’, ‘knobbly’ and ‘her pale eyes had black pin-point pupils’. We feel disgusted too. Later, we see the same thing from another angle as Lee introduces Atticus’ explanation: Mrs DuBose was terminally ill, “suffering” and struggling bravely against addiction to the drugs “the doctor put her on” as “pain-killers”. Our disgust and fear turns to compassion. But even at the end, Lee won’t give us a clean reversal. Mrs DuBose isn’t wholly good. She “disapproved heartily” of Atticus, but respects him at the same time, calling him “to make her will’, to share her private struggles, and again at her death. It’s a difficult contradiction to get to grips with, especially in the black-and-white universe of Scout’s mind.
Lee links Mrs DuBose’s death to two other issues. The first is the Tom Robinson case. Atticus explains Mrs DuBose’s struggle, and tells the children that her death is an important symbol that “I wanted you to see”. He says it was “real courage” to fight on “when you know you’re licked before you begin”. He uses a very similar phrase about the Tom Robinson case when talking to Uncle Jack. And when he talks to Scout about the case, he makes another link: this time, to the Civil War. He says he won’t win, and that things will get bad: “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But … no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” Here, and in Mrs DuBose’s death, Lee is drawing a picture of the dignity of the South, in suffering, in defeat - in all the poverty we see through the book, she shows them still holding their heads up, though they might be ‘crying with hunger pains’, without shoes, without money, ruined by the Great Depression that followed hard on the heels of the civil war.
The narrative style therefore brings up the theme of the book: you have to see it from the inside. It isn’t what you think. Lee isn’t just challenging Southerners’ prejudices about black people. She’s also challenging Northerners’ prejudices about the South.
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she learns her daddy really is a ‘nigger-lover’ but comes to see it not as an insult, but a principle of his character.
Lee wants to show the innocence of childhood, with raw emotions, and takes us on a journey as Scout learns to control them. We often find her ‘fists clenched’, ‘ready to let fly’, and she and her brother are sometimes cruel. Atticus says they are ‘tormenting’ Boo. What seems a game to them has a darker side. We follow as they learn to be good, getting ‘accustomed’ to insults and ‘walking in another man’s shoes’. Lee shows us coming of age, where innocence is not always pure. They are fierce about injustice, but have to learn a subtle lesson about turning the other cheek. When Jem
“It’s about time you found out it’s because he lets you.”
, and also how brutal, naked of narrative tidying-up.
In the Deep South, things rarely changed. After the civil war, the people were robbed of all their money, so the only way a society could be made was how people behaved and lived. For example, as a child, Scout knows that within white culture their is a social strata. When at school, Miss Caroline offers to give Walter Cunningham Jr. money, yet he won't " borrow" due to his pride. Here we see how though Cunninghams are poor, they are rich in pride and honour. This is also in how little chuck is a " born gentleman", as if he instinctively knows how to behave properly with dignity. He stands up for Miss Caroline, when he is "half" Burris Ewells height, demonstrating his courage. Harper Lee shoes the Ewells to be the bottom of the social hierarchy. Though, like the Cunninghams, they have no money, they are incredibly rude and indecent. He calls her a " snot nosed slut", bad language which is incredibly alarming for a child of his age, putting the Ewells at the bottom of social order.
The author, Melanie Kendry, is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.