To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 1-7

The girlfriend and I have been reading To Kill a Mockingbird together – either out loud, or stopping to chat every few chapters when we read apart. Below are some of our notes back and forth. The chapters aren’t always clearly marked – this covers Chapters 1-7.

QP: So, I guess I thought I’d kick it off with a recap of the first few chapters we’ve read together (thanks for putting up with my very uneven American accents :P).

One of the things you mentioned was thinking about the experience of the teacher, Ms Caroline. Harper Lee gives her some shading, in that it’s simultaneously easy to feel sorry for her (thrown into a difficult environment), but annoyed as well (at how little care she takes treating with difficult or vulnerable people).

There’s humour as well – some beautifully understated lines in Scout’s voice. There’s also class emerging as a very clear issue; not even along racial lines, but simply between the ‘white’ people in Maycomb county. But even as class is set up, there’s a very distinct message about personal virtue – one family works very hard despite being incredibly poor (and is clean), and another doesn’t work (and it’s their son who’s the dirty one in the classroom).

A final thing I found interesting is the foreshadowing. It’s been years and years since I read the first one, so my recollection of the plot points is fuzzy. But it feels interesting to see Lee already evoking ideas about the law, and how it can mean different things to different people, and may not always be obeyed.

How about you? What’s struck you on this re-reading? On coming back to it for a third time, does anything seem particularly unusual, or have you noticed particular points?

GF: On Miss Caroline, I agree that she is given shades. One of the first things she says to the class is that she hails from Winston County, which sets expectations from the class and the reader. WIll she fit the stereotype or will she rise above? I also think that Miss Caroline is a character through which Harper Lee cleverly introduces us to Maycomb and the dichotomies contained in the novel: what is supposed to be done (rules) versus what is done; the treatment of outsiders against the acceptance of the behaviour of locals (though they may be questionable); rigidity and adaptive capacity (for instance, when Miss Caroline does not know how to adjust her teaching style to accommodate Scout’s elevated literacy levels); black and white; gender issues; action versus inaction; right and wrong; justice and injustice; rich versus poor (Walter Cunningham)… and so on.

I do enjoy the humour – particularly the exchanges between Jem and Scout. It’s obvious how much Scout respects Jem and in turn, how much Jem enjoys dispensing his wisdom to his little sister. Speaking of, I think the first few chapters does a good job in capturing the sense of family and outlining the different types of family units in Maycomb.

I am always struck by the depiction of Atticus in the first few chapters. His compassion, warmth, morals, modern views, quiet strength, willingness to listen, considered approach to issues, and intelligence set him apart from other Maycombers from the very beginning, noting that he was born and bred in Maycomb. The fact that he is introduced as Atticus and not “my father” by Scout is a hint that his parenting is unorthodox. He is the hero.

I agree with your comments on the law. Indeed, the first few chapters foreshadow the difficulty of interpreting, applying, and enforcing the law – in theory and in practice.

One other thing that struck me is the legend of Boo Radley. I think there’s more than a subtle hint that Boo is a victim, not a monster.

I love Calpurnia.

Something that I took much more notice of this time around is the setting. Maycomb is not just the setting, I think it is almost a character in the book. From the first description, it seems that not only do the people maketh Maycomb, it maketh the people.

My last comment is on narrative. It was clear in some sections that Scout was now an adult recounting her childhood experiences but in other parts, it felt like we were seeing things through Scout’s perspective as an almost six-year old.

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