As Scout and Jem confront the issues of difference and belonging embedded in their community, Harper Lee’s choice to tell the story through the eyes of Scout becomes more crucial to the story. Scout’s wide-eyed naiveté heightens the impact of both the social expectations she resists and the injustices she sees unfold. Indeed, one of the primary narrative arcs of the novel is Scout’s “coming of age” through these experiences. At the same time, Scout’s lack of life experience and knowledge about the world she inhabits leaves readers with gaps to fill in their own understanding of several important events and characters in the book.
Scout’s reliability as the narrator is important to understand because of what it shows about both the value and limitations of attempting to “walk in someone else’s skin.” As students simultaneously grapple with Scout’s limited perspective and observe it slowly expand as the story unfolds, they might reflect on the ways in which their own perspectives are limited, as are everyone’s. By wrestling with these challenges, students can begin to strengthen their understanding and practice of empathy.
1. Read Excerpt: the lynch mob scene at the end of Chapter 15
What does this incident suggest about mob mentality and how Harper Lee thinks it might be defeated? How does Scout’s limited understanding of the events in this chapter affect the reader? What parts of the story must the reader piece together on his or her own? What does this process reveal about her reliability as a narrator?
2. Watch Video “The Origins of Lynching Culture” Video
How do Paula Giddings’s insights deepen our understanding of the tension in the jailhouse scene? What myths and fears were used to justify the lynching of black men? What does Giddings define as the primary function that lynching played? How does having deeper knowledge of this history reaffirm or change our analysis of the choices that Atticus, Scout, Jem, and Walter Cunningham make? How does this video help us understand Scout's limitations as a narrator?
3. Do Analysis: Consider other characters’ perspectives
Another way to help students understand Scout’s limitations as the narrator is to ask them to consider how a different character might have described the jailhouse scene. Ask them to rewrite the scene from the perspective of another character who was there: Tom Robinson, Walter Cunningham, Atticus, or Jem.
Regardless of the character that students choose or are assigned, they should include responses to the following questions in their work:
- How does the character understand what the men intended to do when they arrived at the courthouse?
- How did the character feel when Scout ran to Atticus? How did he respond?
- How would the character explain why the men decided to leave? To whom does the character give credit for convincing them to back down?