To Kill a Mockingbird as a Bildungsroman | To Kill a Mockingbird as an Autobiographical Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird as a Bildungsroman | To Kill a Mockingbird as an Autobiographical Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird as a Bildungsroman

A Bildungsroman like autobiographical fiction rendering the process of growth and maturation of a character in both biological and intellectual development within a time span typically set from childhood to early maturity. Most of Bildungsroman novels are autobiographical. Harper Lee has said that To Kill a Mockingbird is not an autobiography, but rather an example of how an author “should write about what he knows and write truthfully”.

Nevertheless, several people and events from Lee’s childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, parallel those of the fictional Scout Finch. Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was an attorney similar to Atticus Finch, and in 1919, he unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of murder. After they were convicted, hanged and mutilated, he never tried another criminal case.

Lee’s father was also the editor and publisher of the Monroeville newspaper. Although more of a proponent of racial segregation than Atticus Finch, he gradually became more liberal in his later years. Though Scout’s mother died when she was a baby, Lee was 25 when her mother, Frances Cunningham Finch, died. Lee’s mother was prone to a nervous condition that rendered her mentally and emotionally absent. Lee had an elder brother named Edwin, who like the fictional Jem was four years older than his sister. As is the novel, a black housekeeper came daily to care for the Lee house and family.

Like a typical Bildungsroman, Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird centers on the moral growth of the two main characters, Scout and Jem Finch, in. As young children, they move from innocence to experience in a Southern racist community during 1930s while witnessing numerous injustices committed against African Americans. That is why To Kill a Mockingbird is said to be a coming-of-age novel for both children. Scout and Jem begin to understand themselves i.e. a self-awareness they gain by first understanding their community and the “Others” within it. Thus, both children experience harsh opening up of their eyes and suffer the consequences of such realization, which makes the novel Bildungsroman for both of them.

Lee modelled the character of Dillon her childhood friend, Truman Capote, known then as Truman Persons. Just as Dill lived next door to Scout during the summer Capote lived next door to Lee with his aunts while his mother visited New York City. Like Dill, Capote had an impressive imagination and a gift for fascinating stories. Both Lee and Capote were atypical children: both loved to read. Lee was a scrappy tomboy who was quick to fight, but Capote was ridiculed for his advanced vocabulary and lisp. She and Capote made up and acted out stories they wrote on an Underwood typewriter Lee’s father gave them. They became good friends when both felt alienated from their peers; Capote called the two of them “apart people”. In 1960, Capote and Lee travelled to Kansas together to investigate the multiple murders that were the basis of Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Lee, in turn, is the model for a character in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

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Down the street from the Lees lived a family whose house and always boarded up; they served as the models for the fictional Radleys. The son of the family got into some legal trouble and the father kept him at home for 24 years out of shame. He was hidden until virtually forgotten; he died in 1952.

While Lee has downplayed autobiographical parallels in the book, Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered biographical:

“In my original version of Other Voices, Other Rooms I had that same man living in the house that used to leave things in the trees, and then I took that out. He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get these things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true. But you see, I take the same thing and transfer it to some Gothic dream, done in an entirely different way.”

Bildungsroman novels deal with themes of “childhood, the conflict of generations, provinciality, the larger society, self-education, alienation, ordeal by love, the search for a vocation and a working philosophy”. Dealing with themes of racism, injustice and loss of childhood, the novel itself has had a huge impact on the society and its readers.

The origin of Tom Robinson is less clear, although many have speculated that his character was inspired by several models. When Lee was ten years old, a white woman near Monroeville accused a black man named Walter Lett of raping her. The story and the trial were covered by her father’s newspaper which reported that Lett was convicted and sentenced to death. After a series of letters claiming Lett had been falsely accused, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died there of tuberculosis in 1937. Scholars believe that Robinson’s difficulties reflected the 1931 landmark notorious case of the Scottsboro Boys, in which nine black men were convicting of raping two white women on negligible evidence. This interracial rape case may also have helped to shape Lee’s social conscience. However in 2005, Lee stated that she had in mind something less sensational, although the Scottsboro case served “the same purpose” to display Southern prejudices. Emmett Till, a black teenager who was murdered for flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, and whose death is credited as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, is also considered a model for Tom Robinson.

However, Lee successfully portrays the issues of racism and sexism through the characters of Jem and Scout, while using Bildungsroman genre to show how those issues hurt people and change children. It seems that Lee, by exploring the characters of Jem and Scout, shows the painful transition from childhood to adulthood due to injustice, harsh treatment.

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