Understanding the Meaning of the Books Mentioned in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”
In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a variety of allusions to other works of literature arise, suggesting to the adept reader their significance to the plot and in our understanding of many characters and themes. Two books of special importance, Ivanhoe and The Gray Ghost – as these two are of particular importance and are mentioned relatively more than the others, but also about other more minor books such as The Rover Boys, Tarzan, Tom Swift, Meditations of Joshua S. St. Clair, and the magazine Popular Mechanics. Tarzan, The Rover Boy, and Tom Swift are all mentioned very early in the book and all in one sentence. They are mentioned by Jean-Louise as the books they (they being Jem, Dill, and Jean) reenacted in their summer-games. All three of these books are about children growing up, a central and complex theme of Lee’s own novel.
Tarzan is about a feral child – John Clayton, the son of two marooned Englishmen – Alice and John. Clayton, is adopted by the she-ape, Kala, after his parents are killed by the king-ape Kerchak. It could be important to mention that Tarzan – the name Clayton is given by the apes – literally means “white-skin” in the apes’ language. It is this difference, between Tarzan and his adopted ape family, which drives Tarzan away. Apart from the obvious theme of growing up that is apparent in both Tarzan and To Kill a Mockingbird, there is the theme of a different appearance, ironically in Tarzan it is the white skin and in To Kill a Mockingbird it is the black skin, which drives a wedge between people. Both The Rover Boys and Tom Swift are about children thinking in a different way from adults. The Rover Boys is about a group of children – Sam, Tom, and Dick – who run around almost completely unsupervised (slightly reminiscent of Jem, Dill, and Jean) solving crimes and stopping adults acting in wrongful ways. For example in The Rover Boys in School the kids manage to get one of their father’s business enemies, and part-time criminal, Arnold Baxter arrested after he arranged for Dick’s watch – which was given to him by his father many years age – by a tramp. Tom Swift is about a young child-inventor and his tinkering and inventing his way through his father’s company Swift Construction Company. Throughout the series Tom develops inventions such as the ‘electric rifle’, a sort of Taser Gun, and the ‘photo telephone’. In my opinion both of these series are largely about the way youngsters think differently and sometimes more expansively than adults. This theme is also present in To Kill a Mockingbird where Lee stresses the point that the children, most prominently Jean and Jem, think in a more innocent, and sometimes purer way than the adults. This is displayed in the scene outside the courthouse where Mr. Dolphus Raymond is not afraid to show the children he is not in fact a drunkard but is only pretending to be one, because they can understand him.
In addition, the fact that at the end of the book, Jem is seen reading from the magazine Popular Mechanics suggests to me that he has grown up. In my opinion the fact that Lee has decided to have Jem move from a book about an entrepreneur – Tom Swift – to reading about other’s inventions in Popular Mechanics shows us that Jem has grown up, a very prominent theme in To Kill a Mockingbird, and with growing up he has lost the advantages of a child’s mind, the ability to sympathise with and understand those around him without prejudice. Ivanhoe appears in To Kill a Mockingbird as the book Jem reads to Mrs. Dubose to atone for destroying her flowers. Ivanhoe was published in the beginning of the nineteenth-century by Sir Walter Scott about England after the failed Third Crusade. The book is about Ivanhoe, a twelfth-century Englishman, who returns from a campaign in The Holy Land. During the novel, Ivanhoe’s intended is kidnapped by one of the main antagonists – Sir Brian de-Boise Gilbert. De-Boise is a corrupt Templar knight and close friend of Prince John. During a trial for the life of Ivanhoe’s intended, which is settled by a melee between Ivanhoe and de-Boise, de-Boise suffers from a heart attack and dies. The returned King Charles takes this as a sign of his guilt and Ivanhoe’s intended’s innocence. I think Lee chose this book to be read to Mrs. Dubose for a very specific reason. In my opinion, the fact that the name de-Boise is pronounced very similarly to that of Mrs. Dubose is no coincidence. I believe the reason for this is so that we, the readers, will understand what Lee’s real opinion is of Mrs. Dubose. That opinion being that even though she is portrayed as being brave and virtuous, the fact that her death is so similar to that of de-Boise’s shows that, she is in fact guilty. The fact that she died bravely does not repent for her evilness toward Jem, Jean and everyone in general. The irony of this is that while Jem is there repenting for his actions, those actions being destroying Mrs. Dubose’s flowers and Jean’s baton, Mrs. Dubose is there supposedly repenting for all her life’s meanness, but in fact just adding to it by making Jem’s and Jean’s time there awful.
The book Meditations of Joshua S. St. Clair is mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird when it is brought in by Jean and Jem’s Aunt Alexandra as she is trying to impress upon them the importance of their family’s legacy. Throughout the book, the idea of family classification, and family legacy is very prominent. The idea of family classification is that each family has a “streak”, to put it in Aunt Alexandra’s words, or a characteristic that every member of that family display. You can see this from the beginning of the book where Jean says it is “a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings”, the Battle of Hastings being a battle that was fought between the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II and Duke William II of Normandy taking place in 1066. The family characteristics can be seen very prominently as Jean describes Walter Cunningham to Miss Caroline. As she is describing his predicament to her, she uses phrases such as “he is a Cunningham” and “The Cunningham’s Never took anything they can’t pay back”, as if all Cunningham’s acted and thought in the same way. All of this can be seen in the way Aunt Alexandra talks to Jem and Jean about their Cousin Joshua. She describes him as “a beautiful character” whereas Atticus, not such a romantic when it comes to his family legacy, had described Joshua to his children as he was – a sewer inspector who had tried to murder the president, and who had cost the family quite a lot of money after failing horrendously. I believe Harper Lee brought in the book so that we could appreciate the different approaches about family that are so prominent in the Finch family. On the one hand, you have Aunt Alexandra who romanticizes about her family’s past, all the while making it grander and more supercilious with each telling. Whereas, Atticus’s approach is based on facts. Moreover, Atticus does not feel he needs to oversell his family history or even mention it; Atticus is a man of the present not a romantic of the past.
The story of The Gray Ghost is mentioned only twice throughout the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It is about a group of young rascals led by Hawkins who have a run-in with their old antagonist – Stoner’s Boy. At the beginning of the novel, they glimpse Stoner’s Boy, leaving their hideout in a mess and spattered in ink. Throughout the novel, the gang tries to catch Stoner’s Boy and identify him – on account if his neckerchief hiding his face. Toward the end of the novel, they do find him but realize he was not really responsible for all they had thought he had done. At the end of the novel, a gnu escapes the local zoo and chases Stoner’s Boy and his father who dies rescuing his son. It is eventually killed by an accomplice of Stoner’s. Following this traumatic experience Stoner’s Boy decides to leave for New Orleans as repentance for his misdoings. It is mentioned first at the beginning of the book, when Dill bets Jem The Gray Ghost for two Tom Swifts if he touches the Radley front door. The second appearance of the book is when Atticus is sitting beside Jem’s sickbed and he finds himself reading The Gray Ghost, when asked by Jean why he chose that specific book he replies “I don’t know… One of the few things I haven’t read.” this of course is ironic on Lee’s part as Atticus is the embodiment of The Gray Ghost’s moral – not to judge the other by his appearance but by his mettle. After Atticus finishes reading the story to Jean she tries to summarize the book, but mixes in aspects of her own adventures with Arthur Radley taking the part of Stoner’s Boy saying “when they finally saw him… he was real nice.” A description much more similar to Jean’s thoughts on Arthur than Hawkins’ on Stoner’s Boy. Atticus summarizes the moral of both stories by replying “Most people are [real nice]… when you get to know them .” Referring to the kids’ experience with Arthur Radley.
The value of adding these specific books and stories – Tom Swift, Tarzan, The Rover Boys, Ivanhoe, The Gray Ghost, Meditations of Joshua S. St. Clair and the magazine Popular Mechanics – in To Kill a Mockingbird is a much deeper understanding of the book’s morals. This is accomplished by Lee’s excellent writing techniques and the reader’s willingness to look deeper into the books’ symbolic attributes. As I have explained the meaning of Tarzan’s inclusion is to show us the irony that comes from comparing the two. Of how in both a character is persecuted for being different than his surrounding society, only in one it is a little white boy who is different than a tribe of apes and in the other it is a black man who is different than the white society. Tom Swift’s and The Rover Boys’ addition to the book is to emphasize to us the virtues of childhood. These virtues are, in Tom Swift and The Rover Boys, the ability to think in a way that adults cannot- for example, being able to solve crimes and invent groundbreaking technological advancements. These are similar virtues to the ones Lee tries to show – that children can look at the world with innocent eyes and without prejudice.
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