The Power of Fiction: A Close Look at a Chapter of Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'


I resisted reading To Kill a Mockingbird for many years, believing that it must be a depressing novel, given that it is primarily about growing up in the racist conditions of the 1930s in the Southern United States. Scout Finch lives with her brother Jem and their father Atticus in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama. I was put off by the supposed tone and location until one day, realising that it was the best of a bad set of options for me as a teacher on a school reading list, I had to read it. I began it in a caravan one evening, in Yorkshire, as it rained outside. It wasn’t just the quiet setting, the rain and the tea which warmed me to the novel - To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece and displays Harper Lee’s grasp of underlying story fundamentals.

To comprehend those fundamentals fully, one would need to absorb the underlying principles of fiction writing as outlined in How Stories Really Work, which has its own terminology - but for those without that book, and by way of example, it’s worth examining one chapter in particular, specialist terminology-free.

In Chapter 15, a group of men led by the sheriff, Heck Tate, come to lawyer Atticus’s house in the evening. Atticus has agreed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white girl, something which dooms him to losing ‘everything’, according to one of the characters. The men are there to warn Atticus that Tom Robinson is to be held in the local jail and that this puts his life under threat from possible lynch mobs in the area.

This plunges us straight into a concern about life and death, the top level of attention-attracting story aspects as described in more detail in How Stories Really Work. This level is the core of most stories: we as readers are gripped by the potential of the loss of life more than by anything else in fiction. But careful story craftspeople like Harper Lee know that plunging a readership directly into this ‘maximum setting’ can work against the overall effectiveness of a tale - it is much better to grip the reader on a gradient, slowly introducing him or her to the underlying serious issues through lighter, less imposing dramas. This is why we get to hear the confrontation between Atticus and his visitors only partially and indirectly through Scout and her brother Jem, who listen covertly from the darkened room of their house as the men express their concerns:

A crowd of men was standing around Atticus. They all seemed to be talking at once.

“...movin‘ him to the county jail tomorrow,” Mr. Tate was saying, “I don’t look for any trouble, but I can’t guarantee there won’t be any...”

“Don’t be foolish, Heck,” Atticus said. “This is Maycomb.” “...said I was just uneasy.”

“Heck, we’ve gotten one postponement of this case just to make sure there’s nothing to be uneasy about. This is Saturday,” Atticus said. “Trial’ll probably be Monday. You can keep him one night, can’t you? I don’t think anybody in Maycomb’ll begrudge me a client, with times this hard.”

There was a murmur of glee that died suddenly when Mr. Link Deas said, “Nobody around here’s up to anything, it’s that Old Sarum bunch I’m worried about... can’t you get a—what is it, Heck?”

“Change of venue,” said Mr. Tate. “Not much point in that, now is it?”

Atticus said something inaudible. I turned to Jem, who waved me to silence.

“—besides,” Atticus was saying, “you’re not scared of that crowd, are you?”

“...know how they do when they get shinnied up.”

“They don’t usually drink on Sunday, they go to church most of the day...” Atticus said.

“This is a special occasion, though...” someone said.

They murmured and buzzed until Aunty said if Jem didn’t turn on the livingroom lights he would disgrace the family. Jem didn’t hear her.

The effect of this broken and only partly relayed conversation is twofold: in the first place we as readers are increasingly aware of the ramifications and the children who are listening are not - Jem actually misunderstands the intent of the group and thinks that they are out to ‘get’ Atticus. This is dramatic irony and serves to increase both tension overall and sympathy for the child narrator Scout,who at this point has no concept of what is happening. But the other effect is to restrain the tension, to prevent it building too quickly, to increase the reader’s sense of anticipation. It’s an expert use of two kinds of story mechanism: the allusion to threatening unknowns in the future, which hooks the reader, and the maintaining of a subtle sense of mystery, which glues the reader.

Before long, Jem, his sister Scout and their young companion Dill have followed Atticus to the jail in the middle of the night as their father sets himself up as a sole protector and guardian of his client by sitting outside the prison cell alone. Soon afterwards, four cars drive into Maycomb and park near the jail. A group of men gets out and demand that Atticus move away from the jailhouse door. Atticus refuses. Our reader-senses are attuned to the very real danger in which Atticus has placed himself: this is the lynch mob which was feared earlier. But the tension is mollified by the narrator, the child Scout:

This was too good to miss. I broke away from Jem and ran as fast as I could to Atticus.

Jem shrieked and tried to catch me, but I had a lead on him and Dill. I pushed my way through dark smelly bodies and burst into the circle of light.

“H-ey, Atticus!”

I thought he would have a fine surprise, but his face killed my joy. A flash of plain fear was going out of his eyes, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light.

There was a smell of stale whiskey and pigpen about, and when I glanced around I discovered that these men were strangers. They were not the people I saw last

night. Hot embarrassment shot through me: I had leaped triumphantly into a ring of people I had never seen before.

Scout thinks that she is on the edge of an adventure at first, something ‘too good to miss’; we as readers experience the dramatic irony of knowing - and glimpsing briefly, as Scout does, in the face of her father - that this is no adventure, but a matter of life and death. We are again simultaneously ‘glued’ to the mystery of what is happening from Scout’s point of view, while being pulled along by the suspense of not knowing quite how events will unfold.

Jem and Dill follow Scout to Atticus’s side, but Jem refuses the direct order of his father to take the younger children home. This unheard-of conflict between father and son, pointing as it does at the deeper risks and threats of the situation, are counter-pointed by Scout’s straightforward observation of the scene before her eyes. She has grown tired of the argument between Jem and her father that she doesn’t understand:

I looked around the crowd. It was a summer’s night, but the men were dressed, most of them, in overalls and denim shirts buttoned up to the collars. I thought they must be cold- natured, as their sleeves were unrolled and buttoned at the cuffs. Some wore hats pulled firmly down over their ears. They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”

The man did not hear me, it seemed.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin‘ along?”

Mr. Walter Cunningham’s legal affairs were well known to me; Atticus had once described them at length. The big man blinked and hooked his thumbs in his overall straps. He seemed uncomfortable; he cleared his throat and looked away. My friendly overture had fallen flat.

Mr. Cunningham wore no hat, and the top half of his forehead was white in contrast to his sunscorched face, which led me to believe that he wore one most days. He shifted his feet, clad in heavy work shoes.

Note how Lee has Scout describe the details of what she sees matter-of-factly, stripped of any connotation, anchoring us into the scene as readers. Scout ironically concludes that the over-dressed men ‘must be cold-natured’: to her, that means cold in temperature terms; to the wiser reader, it suggests a chill of an altogether different kind.

Then the magic occurs: Scout’s direct perception of what is in front of her acts as a kind of moral ‘X-ray’. Being totally unaware of the complexities of what she is observing, her innocent questions serve to dissipate them. She recognises Mr. Cunningham as the father of her classmate Walter Cunningham and starts talking to him about his legal entailments and his son, and asks him to tell his son ‘hey.’ The effect is dramatic:

I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Atticus said nothing. I looked around and up at Mr. Cunningham, whose face was equally impassive. Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.

“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.

Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”

As they had come, in ones and twos the men shuffled back to their ramshackle cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed, and they were gone.

The serious, core issue of the book - the dangerous racism that could have resulted in the loss of a prisoner’s life prior to any courtroom trial - evaporates for the moment. We are again not privy to the grown-up conversation that takes place between Atticus and the newspaper proprietor Mr. Underwood (who had the whole scene covered with a shotgun from an upstairs window) in which these fundamentals would have been discussed in detail. Seeing and hearing everything from Scout’s point of view has empowered us to assimilate the events through the lens of her innocence while touching upon them directly through dramatic irony.

Atticus says later, the events of that night prove that ‘a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.’ Lee’s command of basic story elements has conveyed that point through fiction, rather than as a simply stated treatise, and the power of fiction has magnified it.

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