To Kill a Mockingbird is written in the first person, with Jean “Scout” Finch acting as both the narrator and the protagonist of the novel. Because Scout is only six years old when the novel begins, and eight years old when it ends, she has an unusual perspective that plays an important role in the work’s meaning. In some ways, because she is so young, Scout is an unreliable narrator. Her innocence causes her to misunderstand and misinterpret things. She considers her father “feeble” because he is “nearly fifty,” which to a child seems ancient but to an adult is middle-aged. When Dill tells her he wants to “get us a baby,” Scout is unclear on how babies are made, thinking possibly God drops them down the chimney. The reader often has to do the work of interpretation to understand what characters are actually talking about, or judge the severity of a situation. At the same time, Scout’s innocence makes her more trustworthy as a narrator than an adult might be, in that she lacks the sophistication to shape her story or withhold information for her own benefit.
While Scout remains the narrator throughout the book, her involvement in the events she describes changes once Tom Robinson’s trial becomes the focus. At this point, Scout becomes more of an observer. Although there are some moments when she plays an active role in the events, such as the scene where she and Jem stop the mob from storming the jailhouse before the trial, for the most part the protagonist of these scenes is her father, Atticus. During the trial, lengthy passages are related directly as dialogue. Unlike the earlier summaries that Scout uses to describe events, here the story slows to follow the trial sentence-by-sentence. We have no reason to believe Scout is misinterpreting events, because her descriptions of the action are straightforward and largely visual. “Mr. Tate blinked and ran his hands through his hair,” “his legs were crossed and one arm was resting on the back of his chair.” The only indication of Scout’s inability to understand events is her faith that her father will win the trial. At the end of the novel, when the trial is over and Bob Ewell attacks Scout and Jem on Halloween, Scout is once more at the center of events.
The use of a child narrator enables the reader to see the action through fresh eyes, but Scout’s age also limits the narrative, especially in its treatment of race. While she understands Tom’s conviction is unfair, Scout accepts much of the institutionalized racism of the town. She sentimentalizes Calpurnia without considering how Calpurnia herself feels about devoting her entire life to the Finch family, at times sleeping on a cot in their kitchen and raising Scout and Jem as her own children. Atticus challenges some of Scout’s overtly racist statements, and corrects her in her use of the n-word. But Lee presents other stereotypes without commentary, such as Scout’s statement “the sheriff hadn’t the heart to put him in jail alongside the Negroes,” or her observation “the warm, bittersweet smell of clean Negro welcomed us,” or Jem’s suggestion that “colored folks” don’t show their age “because they can’t read.” Because there is no separation from the narrator and the protagonist, it is difficult to determine if Lee is critiquing or supporting Scout’s limited perspective on events. When reading the novel, it is important to remember it was written in 1960 and realize that while many aspects of Lee’s representation of racism remain relevant today, other aspects are dated and require further examination.