Likewise, Lauer’s idea of the ‘infinity of values’ states that “all things can have values in a wide variety of gradations and the limitations of the human language often prevent us from making these distinctions.” (Kasper, 2006) In To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley is labeled as “creepy and strange” because he never ventures from his house. The townspeople associate this strangeness with evil and foster a prejudice against Boo. Although she has never met Boo, Scout describes him as a “malevolent phantom”. The odd combination of malevolent and phantom highlights the overactive imagination of young Scout’s mind. Someone who is malevolent would be seen as vindictive and would probably seek to harm someone. However, by calling Boo a phantom, Scout emphasizes the fact that she has not yet met him. This is a good illustration of when society influences the thoughts and attitudes of its people and almost takes over their moral perspective.
An often overlooked aspect of the novel’s language is its subtle irony. In order to fully grasp this irony knowledge of economic and political undercurrents of the time is essential. For example, set loosely around the period of the Great Depression, the economic disparity between whites and blacks was at its greatest during the time, more so in the Southern states. To overcome the acute pangs of economic depression, working class people developed a barter economy in order to make the maximum of their limited resources. And in this condition of poverty, desperation and misery, a sense of humour helps ease the pain a little. This was not lost on Harper Lee, as she inserts ample wit (often subtle) in what is otherwise a grim tale of racial oppression. As some scholars suggest, even Lee’s use of the mockingbird might have been ironic, for, after all, mockingbirds are pugnacious creatures, and have gained a reputation for bullying smaller birds.
“Instead of seeing the mockingbird as a symbol of tolerance for those peaceful pariahs such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, Tavernier-Courbin suggests the belligerent bird might be a symbol of hypocrisy–“pretending to be what it is not”–therefore aligning the symbol more closely with the “intolerance and racism” in the novel, showing Lee to be “the satirist revealing the ugly underbelly of the south through humour.”” (Bennett, 2007)
An interesting linguistic aspect of the novel is the skilful use of authorial tone in delivering a social message without sounding didactic. For example, during the emotionally intense moments in the narrative, through an apt employment of solemnity to the tone, Harper Lee is hinting how by being racist the white community has let itself down. At one place Lee accounts how racial prejudice, while evidently oppressive to blacks, undermines the supposed superiority of the whites by exposing their irrationality and lack of respect for justice and due process of law. This is alluded to by the brave and notable exception in their community, namely Atticus Finch, when he notes: “people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up.” (Lee, 1960, p.25) In this milieu, justice was decidedly not ‘colour blind’, as the noble principles of jurisprudence would proclaim. Instead, many black men lost their lives on the back of accusations of sexual assault by white women – some of them being blatantly false. (Dorr, 2000, p. 711) Lee also succeeds in balancing the tone to suit the context. Since children are some of the main characters in the story, the dialogues and narratives pertaining to them take a simple, honest and direct tone. The antics and perceptions of children are given in a comic tone – the description of Scout Finch’s first day at school and her first snowman are some examples. But given the gravity of racial conflict which is at the core of the novel, Lee had to abandon this language of innocence to one of loftiness, profundity and emotional depth. These transitions in the tone and tenor of language can be seen as an allegory to the white v black racial conflict that is being narrated. For instance, when the Reverend Sykes instructs Scout to join the black people in the balcony in standing up in homage to her father, the lines are simple: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.” (Johnson, 1994, p. 5) But the situation it creates is an emotionally intense one. The same can be said of Atticus’s realization that