To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, is an enduring masterpiece of American literature. Written by Harper Lee (for whom this was the first and last novel), the story speaks of a young girl’s (Scout Finch) love and support for her father and brother in the backdrop of the Great Depression. This was a time when America, especially the Southern states, was not ridden of racism and segregation. In this society, judgments of character was often prejudiced and based on superficial and materialistic values. The great mystery and fear attributed to the character of Boo Radley bears this out. The fictional Maycomb County in Alabama of the 1930 is the arena of this great social drama. The novel is both critically acclaimed and popular, which is a rare distinction. What makes its appeal so widespread and everlasting (the novel is required reading in most secondary schools in America) is its realistic portrayal of existing social problems. Broadly speaking, the novel talks of discrimination along three axes – race, class and gender. The social conflict across racial lines is the most obvious and the most controversial. Despite blacks winning equal rights to that of whites, their rights largely remained nominal. In terms of their actual status and treatment in society, the black experience was only marginally better than in the days of chattel slavery. What Harper Lee was able to achieve is exploit her linguistic and literary gifts in vividly, imaginatively and dramatically exposing these conflicts. This essay will take up the predominant communal conflict between whites and blacks and identify the manner and method in which language is used in articulating this conflict.
One of the literary devices utilized by Harper Lee is that of ‘polysemy’. The term ‘polysemy’ is defined as language usage with the intention of offering multiple interpretations. Polysemy works through the understanding that “perceptions vary, and that words are multi-ordinal; these characteristics can lead to or permit conscious or unconscious confusion. The existence of diverging perceptions and language are explained through general semantics. Two significant ideas of general semantics are non-identity and infinity of values.” (Kasper, 2006) Each of these ideas are evident in the novel. It was Rachel M. Lauer who pioneered in the field of general semantics. In her seminal work, ‘Some Basic Ideas of General Semantics, the idea of ‘non-identity’ is equated with the notion that no two things are ever the same. In this framework,
“Words can only be used as approximations of the actual things they represent. People must be careful of the generalizations they make about a person based on the groups that person belongs to. In the context of To Kill a Mockingbird, the townspeople and the jury are convinced Tom Robinson is guilty of raping a white girl simply because of their prejudiced view of black Americans.” (Kasper, 2006)
The manifest polysemy in the text is symbolic of the racial prejudice running through the story. This is not surprising when we consider the historical situation in the American South. Tom Robinson’s fictionalized travails and trials are quite consistent with the social situation prevalent in the period. It is on the back of this evidence that Lee infers that Robinson’s death was a foregone conclusion. Scout, having come to the realization “the ugly nature of race relations in the segregated South, informs the reader that Robinson’s death is foreordained”. (Dorr, 2000, p. 711) The dominance of whites over blacks was so pervasive that it is “has shaped most analyses, not only of interracial sexual relations and lynching but also of race relations in the twentieth-century South.” (Halpern, 2009)