The opening line of the novel is a telling one:
When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
Readers of the novel will know that we find out no more about the broken arm until the climax of the novel -that it represents, in fact, the climax of the novel. That it happens to Jem is the important thing: while Scout is also attacked, in the significant event of the novel -the attack on Jem and his unexpected rescue- Scout is no more than observer. And that’s the key thing: Scout isn’t really the protagonist of the story, Jem is. This is a tale told from the viewpoint of a protagonist’s companion.
You can read much more about protagonists and their companions in How Stories Really Work and The Master Authors’ Secret Handbook. To Kill a Mockingbird is an example, to use terminology from those books, of a Winter Epic -it has all the ingredients of an Epic story: it takes place in a remote, quiet, pleasantly ordered environment of some kind, which nevertheless contains an early suggestion or hint or clue or shadow of tension; its hero is a young boy (as we will see); their father Atticus is the ‘old man with a stick’ archetype (his stick being his rifle); Bob Ewell is the antagonist, the opposite of Atticus; a journey towards confrontation takes place, and so on.
Standard protagonist companions are in place: Dill is the comic companion who also acts as a pivotal participant in the children’s unfolding ‘quest’. Their obsession with Boo Radley, which later becomes crucial to them, is fuelled by him. As it is a story about children, romantic implications take a back seat -there is only a childish liaison between Dill and Scout which isn’t meant to be taken very seriously. Nevertheless, they do talk of marrying each other.
What about the ‘warrior-hero companion’? At first glance, he’s not there. Then we note that this companion is notoriously ambiguous in Epic fiction -Aragorn, Hans Solo, Sirius Black, Lancelot, all have shades of duplicity about them at some stage. Boo Radley fits this model. Painted first by the children’s imaginations as a villain, like the examples above, he later turns out to be a warrior hero indeed.
Is there a ‘war’ taking place around these characters in the classic sense? Not a war as such, but certainly an underlying and very real social conflict which results in the death of Tom Robinson.
Scout the one who explicitly transcends the normality in which she was brought up by the last pages of the novel, feeling as though she can finally imagine what life was like for the mysterious Boo: he has become human to her at last.
It was fall and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose's. The boy helped his sister to her feet and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day's woe's and triymph's on their face. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled apprehensive.
Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and show a dog.
Summer, and he watched his children's heart break.
Autumn again, and Boo's children needed him.
Scout comes to understand her father’s advice about sympathy with others -‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ -and demonstrates that her experiences with prejudice have not spoiled her faith in humanity. But her role throughout has been cast as Jem’s companion: he distances her at school, she feels excluded from his games, she ‘tags along’ through most of the chapters of the story, and even in the climactic scene she is trapped in a costume and cannot actively participate. Meanwhile, it is Jem who takes the lead at school, who instigates action right and wrong, and who is the focus at the climax; it is he who gets his arm broken and who is knocked unconscious.
That’s why To Kill a Mockingbird is a Winter Epic. It has all these ingredients of an Epic, but it is cast in the mood of an Irony, with its non-linear time (the story is a recollection), its darker outcomes (though insight is achieved, racism triumphs, lies persist and an innocent person dies) and its mixed up viewpoints: Scout has the revelations while Jem plays the hero.
None of this takes anything away from the novel’s brilliance -rather, it adds to it. All these patterns are there, and many more: but Lee’s skill lies in painting a picture so rich that we are enthralled and, like a viewer who doesn’t see the brush strokes but only the scene that has been captured, we are drawn in and entranced regardless.