Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Release date: June 2006 (this edition)
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Source: Library/personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5
Set in fictional Maycomb County in 1930s Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by young Scout Finch, who is generally more interested in finding treasures and scrapping with her brother, Jem, than in the Great Depression or Jim Crow.
But tension in the Deep South is unavoidable, especially when your dad is Mr. Renaissance Man himself. Atticus Finch is representing Tom Robinson, a black man accused of sexual assault by an impoverished white girl. Scout is young, but already she struggles with biases inherited from members of this insular community. As she observes the tumult caused by the trial, and as she deals with her own demons, Scout learns that people aren’t always as they appear.
Now that I have the plot summary over with,* let’s talk about why I love this book so much – and why I plan to keep re-reading it every couple of years.
This time around, I listened to part of the story on audiobook, and I was struck by the assertive and unfailingly consistent voice of the narrator, Scout Finch. Scout’s viewpoint is important in understanding how the South in the 1930s and in the decades following influence the story’s unfolding.
So, let’s talk about voice. (I’m not exactly an expert on constructing voice in Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novels, so I’d love to see comments below on what voice is, how to construct effective voice, and what I’ve gotten wrong.)
First, the difference between voice and tone. Tone is like mood lighting, establishing the feelings and behavior of the main characters. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the tone is in turns playful and revelatory, philosophical without excess weight.
Voice, on the other hand, signals the personality of the main character. It encompasses a variety of techniques that provide a frame through which to view the character’s (and, at times, our own) world. You know that feeling where you can actually hear a character in your head? That’s an established voice.
Through a thousand little choices, the voice of a writer or character provides guideposts to understand not only the world of the novel, but also the character who is explaining it. How much does Scout know about Maycomb society? How does she feel about what’s happening during the trial? How might her personal opinion of events color her account?
In order to establish voice, Lee chose from dozens of items in her writer’s toolkit, including syntax, usage, diction, punctuation, character development, structure, dialogue, and other words that sound fancy. These items on their own don’t make up voice, however; they are the anatomy, and voice is the unseen soul—made up of passion, opinion, history, experience, ideas. The ether of writing.
“Voice” can mean a writer’s voice—you can pick up any book by Jack Kerouac and know it’s him without looking at the cover—or it can be a character’s voice. Because this is Lee’s only book, it’s difficult to say whether she employs this voice only for Scout, or whether it would permeate other books as well. (Given how autobiographical the story seems to be, it may be both.)
A developed voice means the author has delved into who the character is, how they see the world, how they sound, and transmitted it to the reader. Strong voice is the mark of a pro writer; it’s what sets a work of literary merit apart from simply good storytelling.
Aside from making the author seem smart, why is voice important?
It makes the whole thing seem authentic and believable. Scout is only eight years old. Although she’s a precocious eight, there are still plenty of events that go over her head as she narrates the book. Particularly when narrating from a child’s perspective, you must be very careful about what you show and how you reveal details.
As the daughter of the lawyer representing Tom Robinson, Scout is given unusual access to the case, especially considering her age. She overhears most of the trial, even though others in the community attempt to shield her from its racial and sexual overtones. Her father has a rather relaxed policy on what Scout is allowed to know, which grants the reader a wider view than one might expect from a elementary-school-age girl.
When Atticus asks Scout, rhetorically, if she’d like Aunt Alexandra to come live with them, Scout reflects: “I said I would like it very much, which was a lie, but one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them.”
At times, authors may overstep the bounds of a first-person child narrator, using words or phrases they might not have understood, or verging on the philosophical, as above. But the important thing is that the author stays true to the character’s voice. Lee never inserts her own, more adult voice, even when she is hard at work revealing to the reader what is actually happening.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic not despite the limitations on its child narrator but because of them. Scout approaches the story with a child’s freshness. This is her first real experience with discrimination, and as a child she is able to make observations that an older generation may have obscured. Furthermore, as a young girl, she has the capacity to change. And, perhaps most importantly, Scout makes very serious circumstance very funny, avoiding the territory of sermonizing.
One of my favorite little asides occurs when one neighbor wants another’s secret family recipe:
I reflected that if Miss Maudie broke down and gave it to her, Miss Stephanie couldn’t follow it anyway. Miss Maudie had once let me see it: among other things, the recipe called for one large cup of sugar.
It’s the kind of casually hilarious sentence you read without really processing, and then you go back. Wait, what? One large cup of sugar? What the hell is a large cup? Yet Scout is already sailing on to the next observation.
Lee does all of this with word choice and dialogue, with the way her main character explains social conventions and mores and the way adults respond to her. Readers must savor this book, hearing Scout’s voice in their heads, becoming her little by little.
Which, after all, is why we read.
*If you need a more detailed plot summary than mine, you can google “To Kill a Mockingbird book review” as well as anyone else and comb through 2.36 million hits. Or you could simply watch this video:
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Categories: 5 stars, Book Reviews
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