To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, is an enduring masterpiece of American literature. Written by Harper Lee (for whom this was the first and last novel), the story speaks of a young girl’s (Scout Finch) love and support for her father and brother in the backdrop of the Great Depression. This was a time when America, especially the Southern states, was not ridden of racism and segregation. In this society, judgments of character was often prejudiced and based on superficial and materialistic values.
The great mystery and fear attributed to the character of Boo Radley bears this out. The fictional Maycomb County in Alabama of the 1930 is the arena of this great social drama. The novel is both critically acclaimed and popular, which is a rare distinction. What makes its appeal so widespread and everlasting (the novel is required reading in most secondary schools in America) is its realistic portrayal of existing social problems. Broadly speaking, the novel talks of discrimination along three axes – race, class and gender.
The social conflict across racial lines is the most obvious and the most controversial. Despite blacks winning equal rights to that of whites, their rights largely remained nominal. In terms of their actual status and treatment in society, the black experience was only marginally better than in the days of chattel slavery. What Harper Lee was able to achieve is exploit her linguistic and literary gifts in vividly, imaginatively and dramatically exposing these conflicts. This essay will take up the predominant communal conflict between whites and blacks and identify the manner and method in which language is used in articulating this conflict.
One of the literary devices utilized by Harper Lee is that of ‘polysemy’. The term ‘polysemy’ is defined as language usage with the intention of offering multiple interpretations. Polysemy works through the understanding that “perceptions vary, and that words are multi-ordinal; these characteristics can lead to or permit conscious or unconscious confusion. The existence of diverging perceptions and language are explained through general semantics. Two significant ideas of general semantics are non-identity and infinity of values.” (Kasper, 2006) Each of these ideas are evident in the novel. It was Rachel M. Lauer who pioneered in the field of general semantics. In her seminal work, ‘Some Basic Ideas of General Semantics, the idea of ‘non-identity’ is equated with the notion that no two things are ever the same. In this framework,
“Words can only be used as approximations of the actual things they represent. People must be careful of the generalizations they make about a person based on the groups that person belongs to. In the context of To Kill a Mockingbird, the townspeople and the jury are convinced Tom Robinson is guilty of raping a white girl simply because of their prejudiced view of black Americans.” (Kasper, 2006)
The manifest polysemy in the text is symbolic of the racial prejudice running through the story. This is not surprising when we consider the historical situation in the American South. Tom Robinson’s fictionalized travails and trials are quite consistent with the social situation prevalent in the period. It is on the back of this evidence that Lee infers that Robinson’s death was a foregone conclusion. Scout, having come to the realization “the ugly nature of race relations in the segregated South, informs the reader that Robinson’s death is foreordained”. (Dorr, 2000, p. 711) The dominance of whites over blacks was so pervasive that it is “has shaped most analyses, not only of interracial sexual relations and lynching but also of race relations in the twentieth-century South.” (Halpern, 2009)
Likewise, Lauer’s idea of the ‘infinity of values’ states that “all things can have values in a wide variety of gradations and the limitations of the human language often prevent us from making these distinctions.” (Kasper, 2006) In To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley is labeled as “creepy and strange” because he never ventures from his house. The townspeople associate this strangeness with evil and foster a prejudice against Boo. Although she has never met Boo, Scout describes him as a “malevolent phantom”. The odd combination of malevolent and phantom highlights the overactive imagination of young Scout’s mind. Someone who is malevolent would be seen as vindictive and would probably seek to harm someone. However, by calling Boo a phantom, Scout emphasizes the fact that she has not yet met him. This is a good illustration of when society influences the thoughts and attitudes of its people and almost takes over their moral perspective.
An often overlooked aspect of the novel’s language is its subtle irony. In order to fully grasp this irony knowledge of economic and political undercurrents of the time is essential. For example, set loosely around the period of the Great Depression, the economic disparity between whites and blacks was at its greatest during the time, more so in the Southern states. To overcome the acute pangs of economic depression, working class people developed a barter economy in order to make the maximum of their limited resources. And in this condition of poverty, desperation and misery, a sense of humour helps ease the pain a little. This was not lost on Harper Lee, as she inserts ample wit (often subtle) in what is otherwise a grim tale of racial oppression. As some scholars suggest, even Lee’s use of the mockingbird might have been ironic, for, after all, mockingbirds are pugnacious creatures, and have gained a reputation for bullying smaller birds.
“Instead of seeing the mockingbird as a symbol of tolerance for those peaceful pariahs such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, Tavernier-Courbin suggests the belligerent bird might be a symbol of hypocrisy–“pretending to be what it is not”–therefore aligning the symbol more closely with the “intolerance and racism” in the novel, showing Lee to be “the satirist revealing the ugly underbelly of the south through humour.”” (Bennett, 2007)
An interesting linguistic aspect of the novel is the skilful use of authorial tone in delivering a social message without sounding didactic. For example, during the emotionally intense moments in the narrative, through an apt employment of solemnity to the tone, Harper Lee is hinting how by being racist the white community has let itself down. At one place Lee accounts how racial prejudice, while evidently oppressive to blacks, undermines the supposed superiority of the whites by exposing their irrationality and lack of respect for justice and due process of law. This is alluded to by the brave and notable exception in their community, namely Atticus Finch, when he notes: “people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.” (Lee, 1960, p.25) In this milieu, justice was decidedly not ‘colour blind’, as the noble principles of jurisprudence would proclaim. Instead, many black men lost their lives on the back of accusations of sexual assault by white women – some of them being blatantly false. (Dorr, 2000, p. 711) Lee also succeeds in balancing the tone to suit the context. Since children are some of the main characters in the story, the dialogues and narratives pertaining to them take a simple, honest and direct tone. The antics and perceptions of children are given in a comic tone – the description of Scout Finch’s first day at school and her first snowman are some examples. But given the gravity of racial conflict which is at the core of the novel, Lee had to abandon this language of innocence to one of loftiness, profundity and emotional depth. These transitions in the tone and tenor of language can be seen as an allegory to the white v black racial conflict that is being narrated. For instance, when the Reverend Sykes instructs Scout to join the black people in the balcony in standing up in homage to her father, the lines are simple: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.” (Johnson, 1994, p. 5) But the situation it creates is an emotionally intense one. The same can be said of Atticus’s realization that