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08.09.13Text Complexity, Part II–Why To Kill a Mockingbird is a Killer for Developing Readers

to kill a mockingbirdIn part one of this post I wrote about text complexity and five particular challenges complex text posed to developing readers who weren’t intentionally exposed to them,  I want to spend a bit more time looking at one of those challenges—non-linear time sequence.

People tend to think of non-linear narrative sequence as consisting of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and that kind of thing, but to me the challenging elements of time sequence in a complex text are often subtler.  These include:

Shifts in time placement: A narrator makes reference to an event that happened at one time, then describes an event that happened at another time without explicitly telling readers that the two events did not happen in the same time frame- a good reader has to infer the change in time and if he or she fails to becomes confused.

Shifts in fixity of time: Narration can shift from the depiction of a single incident in time—“Atticus stood in the garden telling Jem to be a gentleman,”—to a description of multiple moments that occurred and re-occurred periodically–“He often did as much but rarely with such vigor.” The first sentence describes a single event; the second summarizes multiple events to which the single event is contrasted.  But in many cases the cues (the word “often,” for example) are missing and the shift in and out of a narration of recurring events is difficult to catch.

Shifts in rate of time elapsing—One of the most common clichés in movies is the idea of time slowing down during  the climax of a critical event.  We use it to refer to moments of hyper focus when time seems to slow and we become aware of details in a surreal manner and where the implicit passage of time changes—a player slides into home plate at a frame-by-frame pace as if in double slow motion; a mother runs to save her child from an on rushing vehicle and even the voices are strung out in exaggerated distortion.  Literature constantly presumes our understanding of such changes—that we know time isn’t really slowing down it is only perceived to do so; that the slowing down indicated (and even presages) the importance of an event.  Sometimes it riffs on the convention by breezing through the critical moment and—as Virginia Woolf does—referring to the death of a major character in a parenthetical—(“So and so having died the year before” ). 

I’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my kids this summer and have been struck by how often the narration becomes non-linear and how critical this is to the book’s argument.  Here’s an example. In this simple passage, as in the rest of the book, Scout is recalling her childhood, narrating it in the past tense with occasional omniscience that reveals to the reader that she is recollecting it from a distance… ie much later on in her life.  (Just this critical fact might be missed by students who didn’t “catch the hint” given by the non-linear nature of the narration.)

In this scene from early in the book, however, Scout’s describing not a single event in past tense but an amalgam of several similar events over multiple occasions when she and Jem and Dill played Boo Radley themed games in their yard.  As revealed by the past conditional tense, glossing the general action of repeated similar events, which is very different from telling a story about something that happened one time.

When it was time to play Boo’s big scene, Jem would sneak into the house, steal the scissors from the sewing machine drawer when Calpurnia’s back was turned, then sit in the swing and cut up newspapers. Dill would walk by, cough at Jem, and Jem would fake a plunge into Dill’s thigh. From where I stood it looked real.

Seems simple enough to a sophisticated and experienced reader but Scout has gone from narrating a specific day to summarizing typical days. Then she begins to narrate specific variations from the days she describes: One time when Miss Maudie stared at them; several (but not all) iterations of the game when Mr. Radley walked by and saw them.  It takes a very sophisticated reader to follow the multiple occasions referred to and not referred to in the rapidly shifting narrative.  As in:

When Mr. Nathan Radley passed us on his daily trip to town, we would stand still and silent until he was out of sight, then wonder what he would do to us if he suspected. Our activities halted when any of the neighbors appeared, and once I saw Miss Maudie Atkinson staring across the street at us, her hedge clippers poised in midair.

 Then suddenly were are back to a specific day out of the many and the narration stays fixed on this single moment in time for several pages.

 One day we were so busily playing Chapter XXV, Book II of One Man’s Family, we did not see Atticus standing on the side-walk looking at us, slapping a rolled magazine against his knee.

The sun said twelve noon.

“What are you all playing?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said Jem.

Jem’s evasion told me our game was a secret, so I kept quiet.

“What are you doing with those scissors, then? Why are you tearing up that newspaper? If it’s today’s I’ll tan you.”

It’s a basic necessity of comprehension to be able to place this scene in the context of others—it was one example of many times they played. They were all different. This one probably occurred near the end.  It was the most memorable and critically important. Much of that information is carried by complexity of the narration–the sudden hyper focus on one single day after the blurring shifting among the many days of Scout’s summer

*    *    *    *

Now here’s a more complex sequence from the critical courtroom scene at the climax of the book.  It’s marked, at first, by slow and deliberate narrative of the court scene as it unfolds at about 8:00 pm.  The jury is in deliberation.  The court room is quiet, waiting and the narrative lingers on minute details to capture the slow and tedious elapse of time; then all of a sudden it’s 11:00.  Time moves idiosyncratically to express the perspective and affect of a child (Scout) who’s experiencing it. It is non-linear, in some moments moving quickly, in others slowly.

I looked down and saw Atticus strolling around with his hands in his pockets: he made a tour of the windows, then walked by the railing over to the jury box. He looked in it, inspected Judge Taylor on his throne, then went back to where he started. I caught his eye and waved to him. He acknowledged my salute with a nod, and resumed his tour. [Straight past tense here.  a moment in time described.]

Mr. Gilmer was standing at the windows talking to Mr. Underwood. Bert, the court reporter, was chain smoking: he sat back with his feet on the table.  But the officers of the court, the ones present Atticus, Mr. Gilmer, Judge Taylor sound asleep, and Bert, were the only ones whose behavior seemed normal. I had never seen a packed courtroom so still. Sometimes a baby would cry out fretfully, and a child would scurry out, but the grown people sat as if they were in church.  [Note hear that the baby crying is a break in time sequence. It happened more than once and not necessarily at the time when Atticus was walking around the room, waiting for the verdict]. 

The old courthouse clock suffered its preliminary strain and struck the hour, eight deafening bongs that shook our bones. [Now were back to a single moment in time: 8:00]

When it bonged eleven times I was past feeling: tired from fighting sleep, I allowed myself a short nap against Reverend Sykes’s comfortable arm and shoulder. [Now it’s 11:00!]

But I must have been reasonably awake, or I would not have received the impression that was creeping into me. It was not unlike one I had last winter, and I shivered, though the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when the mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley Place.  [Now the narration is retrospective, referring to an impression that crept into Scout’s consciousness over time as she sat there between 8 and 11, and of course the impression that she narrates is something that happened at another time- in the winter. It’s retrospection within retrospection—a memory of a memory. But it’s more than that because it’s not a specific winter morning Scout is recalling but winter mornings generally.  So what we have is a narration, at 11:00, of what Scout was thinking about before 11:00 during a period when she had lost track time and was idly thinking about winter mornings in Maycomb and the realization, later, that what she had been imagining was similar to the feeling of the courthouse now, just after 11:00 and just before the verdict.  Now THAT is a a non-linear time sequence.]

A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom packed with people. A steaming summer night was no different from a winter morning.  [Now the narrative start moving ahead again] Mr. Heck Tate, who had entered the courtroom and was talking to Atticus, might have been wearing his high boots and lumber jacket. Atticus had stopped his tranquil journey and had put his foot onto the bottom rung of a chair; as he listened to what Mr. Tate was saying, he ran his hand slowly up and down his thigh. I expected Mr. Tate to say any minute, “Take him, Mr. Finch.” [The narration shifts here between hypothetical thoughts about what Mr. Tate might have (but didn’t) wear and what Atticus was actually doing at the time… essentially one character is changed by Scout’s imagination and the other  is described as he actually was.]

But Mr. Tate said, “This court will come to order,” in a voice that rang with authority, and the heads below us jerked up. Mr.Tate left the room and returned with Tom Robinson. He steered Tom to his place beside Atticus, and stood there. Judge Taylor had roused himself to sudden alertness and was sitting up straight, looking at the empty jury box. [Bang! Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the pace shift and Tom Robinson is brought into court for the verdict. The climax of the novel has arrived and surprised Scout with its suddenness too.]

What happened after that had a dreamlike quality. In a dream, I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away, and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty.  A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson. The foreman handed a piece of paper to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge. [Now we’re in the dreamtime of hyper focus and detail just before a critical event when time slows down… at least we understand that the narrator has perceived it too even though it hasn’t really]

 I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty. guilty, guilty, guilty,” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them. [Now fast and sudden, in real time and sparse narration comes the shock of the verdict]

Judge Taylor was saying something. His gavel was in his fist, but he wasn’t using it. Dimly, I saw Atticus pushing papers from the table into his briefcase. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter and said something, nodded to Mr. Gilmer, and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him. Atticus put his hand on Tom’s shoulder as he whispered. [Back again to dream time as the narrative slows down.  It can’t even keep up with the flow of events as the phrase “Judge Taylor was saying something…” suggests.] Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the courtroom.


I’m going to stop here.  I realize I am geeking out on this topic—perhaps excessively, but I wanted to show how many shifts there are in the narrative time sequence in TKAM, how critical they are to understanding one of the book’s most important scenes and scout’s perspective on it.  In short, you can’t really comprehend the book unless you can track how time is portrayed, and yet few people would think of this as a non-linear text.   Think for a moment how a difficult it would be to recreate a timeline of the order in which events in a typical contemporary novel occurred; and yet this is the task of a reader: to understand—like a lawyer–who said what to whom and when.  My sense is that the only way to get good at it is through intentional practice.