Narrating “To Kill A Mockingbird”

There’s at least one great reason that To Kill a Mockingbird has been in print for 50 years: Scout. From the novel’s first sentence, this lovable, mischievous, innocent, hard-headed, and wise first-person narrator (aka Jean Louise Finch) takes us firmly by the hand and escorts us through a story spanning three years of her childhood and racial prejudice in a small Southern town. Her lost innocence and growing awareness is our own, again and again. Her matter-of-fact assessment “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” which comes at book’s end and is spoken to her father, Atticus, is as startling, provocative, and revelatory on rereading as it was the first time we came upon it. Why would anyone kill a mockingbird, when all it does is sing?

Whose story is it?

Harper Lee’s Scout is a masterful teacher for studying point of view and narrative voice. Writers are often confronted with the question: “Whose story is it?” The answer can lead to decisions about narrative structure. With Scout, the better question is “Whose story is it to tell?” Scout is at the center of story and it’s very much about her, but it’s also about her brother Jem, her attorney father, a recluse named Boo Radley, a black man unjustly accused, and the town of Maycomb, Alabama—a fictional microcosm of race and class prejudice in the Depression-era deep South. Scout can tell it not only because she witnesses most of it, but because she’s the innocent and can ask, “Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird encapsulates a time and place before the civil rights movement. Scout’s narrative voice and point of view has kept the story relevant for current times. Issues of race, class, and morality continually challenge us and to see them fresh we need an unbiased, open perspective, such as Scout’s. Ultimately, it becomes again and again our story and ours to tell.

Lesson: Distinguish the voice through diction

It’s clear upfront that the story is being narrated after the incidents: “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them…” The voice is adult—”Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged…” How many six-year-olds say “assuaged”? Lee’s mastery is in how that narrative voice dips easily back into Scout’s in-the-child-moment presence, so that we are there with her. Scout is intelligent and precocious, an avid reader who is told by her teacher not to read because she’s too far ahead of the class. The setup allows for young Scout’s intelligent observations and rich vocabulary of remembered descriptions, and also for authenticity. Because she’s a child living in a small town in the South—no matter how well she’s been schooled by herself or her self-schooled attorney father—she says things like “Dill’ll wanta come” and “Then I’m goin’ with you. If you say no you’re not, I’m goin’ anyway, hear?” and “Ain’t you feeling good?”

She’s childlike but not childish, and she’s a reliable source of information when it comes to knowing what’s important to children. She relates in high vocabulary an incident involving Jem and a cantankerous old woman—”I wasn’t sure what Jem resented most, but I took umbrage at Mrs. Dubose’s assessment of the family’s mental hygiene.” Two pages later, angry with Atticus for making Jem apologize to Mrs. Dubose, she slips from child wisdom —”I hated him for that, but when you are in trouble you become easily tired; soon I was hiding in his lap and his arms were around me.”— to child wondering—”I said I didn’t see why we had to keep our heads anyway, that nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything.” 

Lesson: Don’t tell all you know

As narrator, the adult Scout knows the answers to the child Scout’s questions, and she could tell us from her adult perspective. But, bless her heart, she doesn’t. Who put the carved soap figures in the knothole of the tree? Who saved Jem’s life?  The adult Scout lets the reader have the satisfaction of figuring many things out ahead of her childhood self. We know she knows all now, but understand what she didn’t know then. She pulls the reader through the story by sustaining the suspense as she experienced it in childhood. “Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, foundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots.” She’s in the ham costume, so logically she can’t see and tell in the moment. For this reason, among many, the ham costume is a masterful narrative prop. It keeps Scout and us in the dark and allows an omission of information that readers will accept, as they keep turning pages.

Lesson: Telescope

At times she speaks from the long view: “I never saw [Boo Radley] again.” At other times, she moves in closer to the action—“Christmas came and disaster struck”—and closer still— “I felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak.” This telescoping keeps us engaged as readers. It gives us the bigger picture for context and draws us into the details with sensory writing. 

Lesson: Write a lovable narrator

Narrators don’t have to be easy to love, and they may be hard to like. But in this case, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold tens of millions of copies and is called “One of the best-loved stories of all time” because readers like spending time with Scout. She’s at the center of the story, but she’s not self-centered, any more than a child is naturally. “It was plain that Aunty thought me dull in the extreme, because I once heard her tell Atticus that I was sluggish.” She’s curious, feisty, and forgiving. “Yeah Walter, I won’t jump on you again. Don’t you like butterbeans? Our Cal’s a real good cook.” She’s humble enough to wear a ham costume in public—”Jem said I looked exactly like a ham with legs. There were several discomforts, though: it was hot, it was a close fit; if my nose itched I couldn’t scratch, and once inside I could not get out of it alone.” (This description sets up her inability to escape in the subsequent scene where she’s accosted while walking home wearing the costume.) She’s brave enough to take the arm of a man whom she’s been terrified of for years—”Mr. Arthur, bend your arm down her, like that. That’s right, sir.” She makes sense of the world, as much as can be made, for her in her time and for us in ours.

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