Interpreting Literature: Session V To Kill a Mockingbird 2015-05-07

Analysis Chapters 17-24

Our discussion of last week’s reading led us into an examination of three of the trial witnesses…their testimonies and their demeanor on the stand and a discussion of the events in this section. We finish the reading this week! 

I then pulled up a map of Maycomb, Alabama. Bearing in mind that Maycomb is a fictional town, we took a “tour” of the town using the map. I think it’s fun as we read to have a clear visual of the town. One could say it even serves as a character in the novel. So much happens in the space of a few blocks!


To Kill a Mockingbird begins as a story about curiosity, sibling adventures, and the first school days. The novel evolves into a saga about criminal justice, legal representation, and deep-rooted Southern values. All the events lead to the final, tragic event: Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict. At this tragic moment, Jem forsakes “background” in exchange for how long his family has “been readin’ and writin’.” He believes that literacy allows the Finches to rise above prejudice. In the face of such injustice, Jem realizes that Boo Radley may want to stay inside to avoid the prejudice and injustice prevalent in Maycomb.

Next, I quizzed the students on characters and plot for Parts I & II. I had them try to remember the names of all the major and (most) minor characters as quickly as they could and then took another few minutes to complete a plot summary. Plot summaries are very helpful in reviewing events that you have been reading about over a longer period of time. This particular novel is full of characters and events, and it’s easy for younger readers to lose their way. The writing tends to be more subtle as well. This was also the case with our last novel, My Antonia. Remember, these two books were not written with young audiences in mind, and although the reading is not overly difficult, it may require students to back up and review certain passages when needed.

My “pop quiz” generally showed that students are following the novel, with a few holes here and there. They were given two or three words and then had to complete the sentence to essentially form a timeline of the plot. Some sentences were easy, and some, a little trickier! Take your time with the last chapters and really let it soak in!

If you want a good laugh, ask them what detail they missed about Mr. Avery until I explained a particular scene to them. 🙂

The Sequel

The fabulous Harper Lee So, most people have heard by now that there is a sequel to Mockingbird. I took the last few minutes of class to read an excerpt from a New York Times article that was written this February. The new book, Go Set a Watchman, is scheduled to be released this July. I really hope some of our students will be inspired to at least try it when it comes out! There is a bit of controversy surrounding its publication and its sudden appearance is a bit mysterious.

First, the new novel was “found” among Ms. Lee’s archives by her friend and attorney, Tonja Carter. Ms. Carter thought it was a manuscript for an original version of TKAM, when in reality it was the “incubator” for the famous novel. Harper Lee wrote Watchman first. Her publisher was more interested in the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood within Watchman, and asked her to write a novel set in that time frame, not the 1950’s as Ms. Lee had originally planned. Since Harper Lee was a new and unpublished author, she didn’t argue with the publisher. Watchman is therefore the original story of Scout and Atticus set in the 1950’s and focuses on the racial tensions of that era. It’s referred to as a sequel because this story occurs 20 years after the first, however, it was written BEFORE it!

Second, the bit of controversy surrounding the publication is that Ms. Lee has always despised publicity and is very aged and infirm, not even able to read any longer without a heavy duty reading glass for the nearly blind. She is also thought to be quite congenial and will sign most anything put in front of her (according to some). There was concern expressed by many that it is not her intent to see this novel published, but we’ll never know for sure. Her statements about the book have been delivered through her agent and lawyer to the publisher. Her long time protector, sister and attorney, Alice, died at the age of 100+ last fall. Ms. Lee lives in an assisted-living facility and suffered a stroke in 2007. According to her literary agent, Harper Lee has said that Watchman is not a sequel, it is a “parent” to TKAM. I’m so glad our students are reading her novel (or novels) in her lifetime. It is something to remark on and remember, as Mockingbird is one of the most important novels of the 20th century. Will Watchman be one of the most important of the 21st? A lot of people think “lightning won’t strike twice.” What do you think?

Symbolism Essay

The title of To Kill a Mockingbird has very little literal connection to the plot, but it carries a great deal of symbolic weight in the book. In this story of innocents destroyed by evil, the “mockingbird” comes to represent the idea of innocence. Thus, to kill a mockingbird is to destroy innocence. Throughout the book, a number of characters (Jem, Tom Robinson, Dill, Boo Radley, Mr. Raymond) can be identified as mockingbirds—innocents who have been injured or destroyed through contact with evil. This connection between the novel’s title and its main theme is made explicit several times in the novel: after Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds,” and at the end of the book Scout thinks that hurting Boo Radley would be like “shootin’ a mockingbird.” Most important, Miss Maudie explains to Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That Jem’s and Scout’s last name is Finch (another type of small bird) indicates that they are particularly vulnerable in the racist world of Maycomb, which often treats the fragile innocence of childhood harshly. 

Read the essay prompt on the syllabus. You are going to support with citations from the text why Boo Radley (who like the bird is a victim of children) and Tom Robinson (the “mockingbird” that it is a sin to kill) are seen as the “mockingbirds” in this story (this can be paragraphs two and three). For your fourth paragraph, you’re going to tell me who you think the third mockingbird is (there is no right/wrong answer, and this is widely debated and discussed). If you can make a case for it with a quote from the book and your own reasoning, I’ll go with it. Remember, for our purposes, a “mockingbird” is someone whose innocence has been injured or destroyed. 

There is also a case for Scout to be the third mockingbird. Scout, who is small and plain, but “sings” her own song (the novel). Both Tom and Boo are victims of their own kindness (towards Mayella; towards the children); both are innocent (of rape; of psychopathy); both are victims of prejudice; both are “caged.” More subtly, the mockingbird could represent the innocence of childhood which is “killed” in various ways for Scout, Jem, and Dill. The mockingbird first appears in Chapter 10, when Atticus tells the children, “Shoot all the bluejays you want… but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Miss Maudie explains this is because mockingbirds are neither harmful nor destructive, but only make music for people to enjoy. Its connection with Boo is made clear in Chapter 30, where Scout recognizes that the public exposure of Boo would be “sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.” Other than the above instances the symbol recurs in Chapter 21 ‐ waiting for the trial verdict and Chapter 25 ‐ in Underwood’s article.