To Kill a Mockingbird is one of four set texts on the new AQA English Literature syllabus for ‘Other Cultures’, along with Of Mice and Men and two ‘new’ texts which are less familiar to English teachers and students: Mister Pip and Purple Hibiscus. No doubt, it will be one of the more popular texts alongside the stalwart Of Mice and Men.
The opening paragraphs of To Kill a Mockingbird reveal much about the rest of the novel. We are introduced to an ‘older’ Scout, the narrator, although we do not find out her name immediately, or even if she is a girl or a boy. This creates a ‘shared world’ for us; we are immediate insiders. There are several other ‘shared world’ details that assume we are part of Scout’s circle: she mentions ‘the Ewells’, ‘Dill’ and ‘Boo Radley’, and we’re already seen as an insider, albeit a confused one. She treats us as if we are part of her world even if we do not know exactly what she is talking about. We are a confidante. From the very beginning, we are insiders in her world, and it is her story. A confession, almost. From the very beginning, we must realise we are seeing through her eyes. This is not an objective tale, like Of Mice and Men, but her view.
Not only is it her view, it is her view, as an adult, of her childhood. An incident in her childhood. Not only this, but she establishes in these opening paragraphs the notion of accuracy, as her brother Jem recalls his broken arm as a result of ‘Dill’ and ‘Boo Radley’ rather than the Ewells – and we are yet to determine who any of these characters are. Immediately, we are asked, as we are always asked, to trust the narrator. So, to what extent do we trust Scout, nine at the time of the story?
It also establishes the theme of blame, of cause and effect, of consequences and ripples through time. “I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem… said it started long before that.” – “I said it really began with Andrew Jackson”
As this theme is established, we also get a sense of Scout and the Finches as a family in general. We are insiders in Scout’s world. We see that she is argumentative with Jem and she seems to enjoy one of those sibling relationships which revolve around good-natured but unimportant squabbles. We see that she defers to her father, “we consulted Atticus” and we learn a little about the family relationship.
The fact that she calls ‘Atticus’ by his first name, not unlike Bart Simpson with Homer, is curious. Is it a sign of disrespect? Not really. She defers to him. You wouldn’t defer to someone you don’t respect. Perhaps then it is a sign of their feeling of friendship and equality, rather than the traditional hierarchy of ‘father-children’, especially as she goes on to say “he treated us with courteous detachment” – they are polite but not close. She says her father is “satisfactory” and it is obvious much of the ‘bringing up’ and raising is done by Calpurnia.
The family background, too, tells us a lot about the Finches in general. They are pioneers, following in the footsteps of their ancestor, Simon, who ‘paddled up the Alabama’. We see he is religious, being a Methodist. So why is this important?
The Methodists, formed by John Wesley, believe in ‘living a holy life’ part of which is about community and sharing. They also believed in ‘social justice’ which meant doing ‘works’ that supported the community such as caring for prisoners, widows and orphans – and although he was committed to the abolition of slavery, which did not sit with Simon Finch’s view, John Wesley seems to sum up many of the Finch family behaviours: belief in social equality, standing up, doing community works. The fact that of the three elder Finch siblings, one is a doctor and one is a lawyer suggests a ‘Methodist’ approach to life.
So how else does Simon Finch lay tracks through Finch’s Landing to Jem and Scout? He is not quite part of society, having rejected town life to live in isolation, only going into town once. He also abandons his faith when it doesn’t suit him, becoming rich and buying three slaves and Finch’s Landing. He is clearly an individual with a strong sense of who he is. He is also a bit of an outsider, a pioneer, a non-conformist. It’s these qualities that seem to live on in Atticus, Jem and Scout.
Several other things are worth mentioning: the setting in Alabama (and the brief reference to the ‘Creek’ native Americans) which was obtained via a violent battle between colonising forces and native Americans – we must never forget that the colonisation of America came at a cost. Like in Of Mice and Men we must remember that ‘the American Dream’ of pioneer spirits sits alongside the forced removal of native lands. America is not some empty ‘Eden’ or paradise, but home to already-established communities and societies – it is a tainted dream. America’s dream and constitution are rooted in atrocity and forced removal of lands.
By the time of the novel (set in 1936 – a year before the publication of Of Mice and Men yet published in 1960, five years after the ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’ and the arrest of Rosa Parks, long held to be a main event in the movement for racial civil rights) Alabama had become associated with racial tensions – Montgomery being the home of the American Civil Rights movement. Alabama is connected with the white supremacist movement – the Ku Klux Klan – such as the bombing of the baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. So, to understand the novel, you have to understand how deeply racism is entrenched in the history of Alabama. The treatment of Crooks in Of Mice and Men is an interesting starting point for understanding how blacks were treated in the 1930s in America. Researching the Jim Crow laws will also help you understand the social situation behind the racism that is evident in the novel.
However, as with all English Literature studies, it’s important to understand that it is NOT a History study. You do not need to write about the situation in detail – just to understand how it is a background to the novel.