As the story goes, when Harper Lee first submitted her manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1957 to J.P. Lippincott publishers, she was told it was a “series of short stories strung together.” She worked with an editor to shape the material into novel form, and the novel was published in 1960 to acclaim. It’s a good bet that few unpublished writers would get that kind of editorial help today, and it’s likely that some editors would reject this Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the grounds that the story wraps up too tidily and that some passages border on the polemic. Call me old-fashioned, I love the symmetry of this book and I can accept the author’s slipped-in moralities: failure of schools to teach, comparisons of Hitler’s Nazism to America’s racism, the detritus of missionary zeal in tribal cultures, hypocrisy of the “well-bred”—because of her handling of the narrative through Scout.
Lesson: Use symbols well to shape the story
Symbols abound in first-person narrator Scout’s world, and they are used by Lee to shape the story from first page to last.
A broken arm, described by Scout in the opening sentence, ties Jem, her brother and unfortunate victim, to Tom Robinson, the Negro convicted of raping a white woman. Jem’s left arm is “somewhat shorter than his right” and Tom’s left arm, seen two-thirds of the way through the book, “was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side.” The fact of Tom’s disability should have saved him from the rape conviction, but it doesn’t. Jem’s injury, mentioned in the first sentence, is not incurred until 20 pages from the novel’s completion. The broken arm, seen by the reader through Scout’s eyes as “dangling crazily in front of him,” bookends a story of racism and love.
An oak tree with its knothole and jutting roots looms large in Scout and Jem’s small-town neighborhood. The tree lies at the edge of the Radley property, along the route to school (though there is some confusion here—early in the book there are two oak trees that seem closer to Scout’s home and later there is the one that is closer to the school yard—oh, well—this may be evidence of the novel having been a series of stories). One day the knothole beckons with foil-wrapped gum, then other gifts such as soap sculpted in the likenesses of Scout and Jem, but soon the hole is plugged with cement, effectively cutting off the cryptic communication between the children and the mysterious filler-of-the-knothole-with-presents reclusive neighbor Boo Radley.
In the course of the story, the children venture beyond their neighborhood and the phantoms of their imagination to the larger world of the courtroom, where their father, Atticus, defends Tom, and where the children witness a truly bad man—Tom’s accuser Ewell— and learn the horrific outcome of his intentions.
The novel is winging its way to a close when the children, headed for a school Halloween pageant, pass under the oak—a stand-in for Boo. The reader is alerted: Boo has a role yet to play. When, on the way home, barefooted Scout (her vision obscured by her ham costume) “felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak,” it’s as if Boo were there, but we trust the narrator and the author not to shock by making Boo a villain. The children are accosted and Scout is unable to see who is grabbing her or who has appeared on the scene to save them. The reader understands before Scout does that the rescuer is probably Boo Radley.
Sharp implements, gestures, flowers, food, feet, dogs, birds
The attacker is Ewell, the man who with his daughter invented the rape story to frame Tom Robinson. Ewell is killed with a knife. His own? Boo’s? Scout can’t possibly know—she was inside the ham! The reader pieces it together as Scout sees and hears Atticus and Sheriff Tate discussing scenarios of the attack and the killing. By the time Atticus asks her, “Can you possibly understand?,” the reader is certain Boo killed Ewell in defense of the children, and knows that Atticus and Tate are corroborating on a story that Ewell fell on his knife. They want to protect Boo from being subjected to prosecution.” Earlier she’d been told that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because all they do is sing, and she makes the connection saying to her father: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?
Sharp implements—scissors, hedge clippers, knives—slice into the story from beginning to end. Comforting gestures—Atticus’ pat on Jem’s head, Boo’s petting of Jem’s head, Scout’s hand on Boo’s arm as she escorts him home—add a gentle touch. Flowers—a garden of azaleas, camellias with tops lopped off, rows of potted geraniums—define and connect women characters. Food is ever present—as nourishment, payment of debt, gratitude, love, and social strata clues. Shoes and barefeet keep the story grounded in a rural Southern place. Soap—as sculpture, a sign of cleanliness, a measure of poverty—is a tactile element. A rabid dog, shot dead by Atticus, hints at the human deaths to come. Birds, real and symbolic—mockingbirds, the good-hearted Finch family and neighbors, populate the story and keep hope aloft through the end.
The dangerous man is dead, racism is alive but more open to scrutiny in the Maycomb community, and the children are safe. Atticus gets the last word: “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” The book comes full circle to Jem, asleep with his bandaged arm. Atticus is in his son’s room and “would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” Sigh. The reader rests in that moment of resolution.