The tone of To Kill a Mockingbird changes over the course of the novel from chatty and innocent to dark and knowing as Scout loses a degree of her innocence. At the beginning of the novel, as Scout recounts a series of anecdotes describing growing up in a small Southern town, the tone is light and nostalgic. In these anecdotes, Scout recalls playing with her brother, Jem, and their friend Dill. Many of the anecdotes also focus on times when Scout learned an important lesson, such as her father scolding the kids for bothering their mysterious next-door neighbor, Boo Radley. Other examples of stories in this first section are the first time Scout sees snow, her first experience of school, or the time she and Jem invite a poorer classmate over for lunch. Reminiscences such as “somehow, it was hotter then,” and “it was a time of vague optimism” create the sense of nostalgic remembrance of a simpler, more innocent time. This sentimental tone creates a gauzy picture of the Depression-era South that will be undermined by the starker reality of the tensions revealed in the second half of the book.
After establishing a tone of folksy reminiscence, the narrative slows down to focus on the trial of Tom Robinson, and the tone becomes serious and foreboding. Seemingly harmless characters such as Mrs. Dubose and Mr. Cunningham turn menacing as Atticus’s decision to defend Tom Robinson incites their racist anger. When Scout and Jem observe Tom Robinson’s trial, the tone is solemn and the narrative is primarily focused on the trial proceedings, with little commentary from Scout. The tone of childish wonder is replaced by a more realistic, pessimistic view of the world, as when Scout remarks, “even the babies were still, and I suddenly wondered if they had been smothered at their mothers’ breasts,” symbolizing the death of Scout’s own innocence. The end of the book, when Bob Ewell attacks Scout and Jem, contains some humorous references to Scout’s school pageant and her enormous ham costume, but the attack is described in a frightening and dramatic tone. After Bob Ewell is killed, the tone remains serious, more melancholic than nostalgic, as Scout and Jem have learned difficult truths about the world.