To Kill a Mockingbird

by: Harper Lee

Style

The style of To Kill a Mockingbird is generally humorous and conversational, but also deceptively sophisticated, which reflects the mix of straightforward story-telling and complicated ideas. Because the book is framed as the recollection of the narrator, the opening pages use complex, elevated language: “brethren,” “dictum,” “impotent fury.” Once the narrator has set the scene, she reverts to a more childlike narration, mixing elegant metaphors (“it drew him as the moon draws water”) with frank statements (“Mrs. Dubose was plain hell.”) Language and speech play significant roles throughout the book. Scout and Jem misuse words, guess at the definition of words they don’t understand, and remark on their father’s “last-will-and-testament” diction and the elegant sentences of Miss Maudie. Language both reveals and conceals, as when Calpurnia’s grammar becomes “erratic” when she’s furious, or Dill tells lies to get the kids out of trouble. Atticus, a lawyer, trips his children up in their own narratives. The contrast between what people say and what they mean is echoed by the style of the story itself, which conceals adult subjects in the apparently simple story of children.

Often in the novel, Scout has a tendency to summarize—sometimes inaccurately—adult perspectives that she does not fully understand, providing insight into the other characters. Frequently, Scout’s inaccuracies draw out a hidden truth, as when she describes her aunt: ““Aunt Alexandra’s vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father’s lonely life. I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well, but Aunty said that one had to behave like a sunbeam, that I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year.” We can infer from this summary of Aunt Alexandra’s wishes that she wants Scout to become a surrogate wife for her widowed father, and that one of the concerns of the book is Scout’s conflicted passage from being a child to a woman. In these summaries, Scout mixes words or phrases we can assume came directly from the speaker – “ray of sunshine,” “lonely life” –with her own interpretation of their meaning.

Throughout, Scout presents herself as a wry, somewhat skeptical character accustomed to being misunderstood by, and keeping secrets from, adults. The exception to this is the reader, whom she addresses as a trusted confidant. In the passage about her aunt, Scout’s humorous exaggeration of Aunt Alexandra’s concerns creates an intimacy between the reader and Scout, who implies the reader understands her in a way her aunt does not. Many of the adults in the novel are presented as baffled by Scout, and children in general. Yet the style of the book is warm and confiding. This intimate, confessional style of narration creates an atmosphere of trust and reliability in the narrator. It also establishes Scout as a young, somewhat naïve character, who sees the adults in her world in simplistic, exaggerated terms.

The novel also includes a great deal of Southern vernacular such as “ain’t,” “I reckon,” and “yonder” to show the ways the characters all belong to the same community, yet occupy different positions due to class and education. The Finches tend to use long words (such as “provocation”), signifying their education, while Calpurnia speaks like the Finches in their home, but adopts a more vernacular style at her church. When Scout questions her about “having command of two languages,” Calpurnia says “folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do.” The least educated characters are unable to shift speaking styles in this way. When Mayella Ewell testifies, Lee uses abbreviations and incorrect grammar to represent that Mayella is uneducated: “So he come in the yard an’ I went in the house to get him the nickel and I turned around an ’fore I knew it he was on me… I fought’n’hollered, but he had me round the neck.” Overall, the vernacular speech works with the content of the novel to give us a sense of each character’s identity and place within the community. However, a possible criticism is that these abbreviations encourage us to judge characters based on their education, race, and class before we get to know them as individuals.