The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Southern Gothic

BEFORE

1940 Carson McCullers’ debut novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter encapsulates the elements of Southern Gothic in a story of social misfits in Georgia in the 1930s.

1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by playwright Tennessee Williams, is set on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta and challenges Southern social conventions with its portrayal of the favourite son as a repressed gay man and alcoholic.

AFTER

1980 A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, is set in New Orleans and follows the antics of slob and misfit Ignatius J Reilly. Toole is posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the book a year after its publication.

Building on the traditions of 18th-century Gothic literature, with its elements of fantasy and the grotesque, mid-20th-century writers of the American Deep South, such as Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers, established a literary genre known as Southern Gothic. These writers used the characteristics of the traditional Gothic style to inspect the unsettling realities and twisted psyches beneath the surface of Southern respectability. With their damaged or eccentric characters, macabre settings, and sinister situations, the texts in this genre examine Southern social issues such as racism, poverty, and crime.

Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird incorporates a coming-of-age theme into the Southern Gothic genre, and highlights racial prejudice in the American South in the years before the Civil Rights Movement. It also explores the behaviour of those who live in a small Southern community.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."


To Kill a Mockingbird

Challenging convention

The story is set in the mid-1930s in Maycomb, an Alabama town where “a day was twenty-four hours long but seemed much longer”. The narrator is a young girl, Scout, aged nearly six at the start of events. She is a tomboy, who questions social conventions. Scout lives with her widowed father, lawyer Atticus Finch (a morally upright man who strives to teach his children the values of understanding and compassion), her brother Jem, and their black cook, Calpurnia.

Scout describes daily life in Maycomb, their neighbours, her friendship with an unusual boy called Dill, and her school, creating a picture of an apparently timeless society in the Deep South. Heat bakes the streets, refined ladies gossip at missionary teas, poor white children arrive at school with no shoes, and black people live segregated lives as land workers or domestic servants. In Southern Gothic tradition, however, there are oddities in the community – in particular the reclusive Boo Radley, who lives in a supposedly haunted house, and about whom the children weave fantastical tales. When Atticus agrees to take on the defence of a local black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman, Scout describes the tensions and violence created by Atticus’s determination to defend Robinson, in spite of the fact that, as he admits, it is a lost cause. Following the trial there is a murderous attack on the children, which reveals Boo Radley to be guardian, not a monster. The novel ends with Scout older, wiser, and reflecting on human behaviour within her small community.

Published as the Civil Rights Movement was accelerating, To Kill a Mockingbird was an almost instant bestseller. Despite its gentle tone, the novel, like others in the genre, exposed the darkness underpinning the gentility of a Southern community forced to face the reality of racial hatred.

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Over the course of the novel, Scout’s perception of the world around her matures from a naive ideal to a more realistic understanding of society, but she nevertheless retains her optimism.

HARPER LEE

Born in the town of Monroeville, Alabama, on 28 April 1926, Harper Lee was a loner and a tomboy. Her father was a lawyer, and her best friend was the author Truman Capote (she would later help him to research In Cold Blood).

Lee attended the University of Alabama, where she edited the university magazine. Although she started law school, she wanted to write, and in 1949 dropped out and moved to New York. In 1956 close friends offered to fund her for a year so that she could write. Taking inspiration from events and people in her childhood, she started To Kill a Mockingbird, which she completed in 1959.

The tremendous success of To Kill a Mockingbird gained Lee many literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. She accepted a post on the National Council of the Arts but largely retired from public life from the 1970s. It was believed that Lee had only ever written one book but in 2015 Go Set a Watchman, her second novel, was published: although a sequel, it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird.

See also: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn • The Sound and the Fury • Invisible Man • In Cold Blood