First-person narrative is used by an author to create a limited view of the events of the story; the tale unfolds with some elements deliberately emphasized and others left out, based on what the narrator knows or observes. In the case of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the effect of using 6-year-old Scout as narrator is to specify, to distance and finally to intensify the novel's happenings.
Scout keeps the novel's events focused through her child's-eye view of what is important, an approach some critics consider simplistic. Oversimplified or not, Scout dwells specifically on morality from an innocent's perspective. She does not realize the danger to Atticus when she and Jem intervene on the jailhouse steps, nor does the injustice of Tom Robinson's trial outrage her as it would an adult. She is puzzled by these violations of right and wrong but never modifies her views; no grown-up prejudices sway her. The effect of her narration pinpoints evil without preaching against it.
Scout distances the novel through her perspective since she lacks empathy, seeing events from a distance. She is in the balcony at Tom's trial and frequently loses the thread of the argument, and she is safely out of harm's way when Atticus shoots the mad dog. The effect of this diminished perspective is ingenious: The reader strains to understand the trial's convolutions and feels the suspense of the dog's shooting far more than he would if the novel were a third-person limited narration. Scout keeps it all personal and tangible.
Stephen King's "On Writing" speaks of the trap that awaits less gifted writers who present shocking narrative events up close, detailing every horrific moment. Harper Lee understood the paradox that the second-hand description of a horror has far more impact for a reader than first-hand. Scout only hears of Tom Robinson's death incidentally and remains curious as to the reasons behind his being cut down, while Tom's wife dissolves in tears. The startling effect of this scene is that Scout's confusion at Tom's death becomes our confusion also; we ask ourselves why the man had to die.
Atticus Seen in First-Person
The most telling effect of Scout's first-person narration is to present her father Atticus as multi-dimensional. Numerous essayists have argued Atticus Finch's heroic or non-heroic status; The novel simply states that Atticus is her father, which for Scout is hero enough. Scout's narration, in addition to intensifying and focusing the text, thus becomes a safety net for the reader; we have only to remember our ideals of fatherhood to define Atticus.
- Princeton University: First-person narrative
- To Kill a Mockingbird; Harper Lee
- Theguardian.com: "To Kill a Mockingbird": too simple a moral tale?
- Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird": New Essays: Walking in Another's Skin: Failure of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird; Katie Rose Guest Pryal
- On Writing; Stephen King
- Readings on Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird":Atticus Finch Is a Heroic Figure; Michael Asimov
- Readings on Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird":Atticus Finch Is Not a Hero; John Jay Osborn, Jr.
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