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In English, you’ll be required to study literature and gain a deeper appreciation for the thought put behind its creation. As a result, you can expect to read tons of novels throughout your six years at school and your teachers will expect more deep and insightful revelations to be drawn as time goes by. It’s easy enough to read a novel, but how do you analyse one? Let’s have a look at one particular excerpt ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee to get an idea (this is a text that almost all Year 9/10s in NSW study). This comes from Chapter 20, where Atticus is addressing the courtroom:
‘…Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
‘I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system – that is no ideal to me, it
is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men you make it up. I am confident that you gentleman will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”
1. Your first read
The first time you pick up the pages of your book, read for comprehension. Don’t worry about whether Object X has some deeper meaning – just enjoy the story and the journey. During this first read, have a look out for the following in this sequence:
Plot. What’s going on? What is the sequence of events? What causes what? Why does someone feel this way or want this or does this? You get the picture. No fruitful analysis can come without understanding the story. As aforementioned, this scene takes place in Maycomb’s court – and Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a black man, from an accusation that he raped Mayella Ewell, a white woman. He’s directly addressing the jury and trying to convince them that Tom is innocent. We also know that this trial is one, big exposé of the blatant racism of the town.
Characters. From reading earlier in the novel, we know that Scout, Atticus’ daughter and youngest child, is narrating. She doesn’t intrude on her father’s speech – showing that she holds him in high respect. Atticus meanwhile, from what we see from his passionate defence of Tom, is a just and righteous man whose belief in justice and true kindness makes him say what he says.
Conflicts. Now, we could put this as a part of the plot, but it’s important to separately figure out the central tensions between characters and the battle of ideas – something that’ll become more important as time goes on. There’s the basic conflict between Atticus and the jury – he’s trying to appeal to their religious senses and American identity in order to free Tom. And speaking of Tom, the whole trial is a conflict between him and the Ewells. We also, on a more abstract level, have a conflict of justice (whether Tom will be found innocent) and a conflict of racism (that the whole trial is driven by prejudice towards Black Americans).
2. Reading the second time round
Okay, now that we’ve got an idea about what’s going on, let’s read it a second time. We know what’s going to happen, so we can now focus on how all those surface level stuff – plot, characters and conflicts
– are built up and created page-by-page. Going back to the courtroom for a second time, we can find a couple of things:
Form. We can see that this whole passage is a speech, an address. Lee therefore wrote this part as if it were being read aloud… since that’s exactly what’s happening within the book at this moment. Now that we’ve identified it as a speech, we’ve got to be on the lookout for particular and form-specific elements. It may include things like logos in “In this country our courts are the great levellers”, pathos with “I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence”
and ethos in “restore this defendant to his family”. Atticus’ use of these three elements of rhetoric reveals his passionate defence of Tom, and therefore his belief in his innocence.
Language. This should be the second thing we look out for. Language might include things like lexical choice, similes, adjectives, oxymorons, etc. For instance, in the first line Atticus’ use of “our” is a means for him to remind the jury – and all of Maycomb really – of their collective responsibility to pursue and carry out true justice, and not the justice of their prejudice. On top of that, you might have picked up on the use of “In the name of God”, a religious phrase used to emphasise the nature of this important, and arguably divinely-sanctioned, duty of recognising innocence. We even get a reference to the US Declaration of Independence – that “all men are created equal”.
Themes. Now, if we recall back to conflicts, we touched upon justice and racism. Upon our second reading, we realise that these are two MASSIVE themes throughout this book – and everything
in this novel can be somehow linked to these two ideas. There’s the fact that the blacks (whom Scout, Jem and Dill are with) sit segregated, above in the balcony during this sequence. We also realise that the power of social pressure and conformity means this whole speech is in vain – Tom will get killed all because the jury could not resist the racist tendencies of the town. As such, Atticus becomes this symbol of justice, a defender of the helpless against the injustice of their society. Speaking of which…
Symbols. Symbols clue us in to the deeper meaning and message behind the novel. An earlier scene in the novel showed Atticus telling Scout that it “is a sin to kill a mockingbird”, because as Miss Maudie explains, it is an innocent bird that does nothing but sing for everyone. You may realise that Tom Robinson becomes a mockingbird – a hard working man and husband who has stayed out of trouble, but takes the fall for Mayella Ewell’s own advances. And the entire imagery of the black community of Maycomb sitting above with the whites below has a double meaning; it is not only a symbol of segregation, but it’s also a sign of their greater moral character, a people who have endured prejudice hurled at them and refuse to stoop down to the town’s level. The jury itself becomes a symbol for wider society – people who know and witness the truth, but choose to do nothing with it.
Structure. Our final element helps us understand the metaphorical scaffolding of our novel. Upon closer inspection, we can see that this speech is actually the climax (the high point) of this scene. This means that this speech has greater significance than what comes immediately before or after it – and we can therefore deduce that Lee wanted this to be burnt into the memories of her readers.
3. Third time’s the charm
Yep, we’re not done! Now that we have a really good understanding of what’s going on and how it’s done, we can focus on the text as a whole. Our third and final read for analysis requires you to research
a little. If the first read is about who, and what, the second all about how, the third needs you to answer where, when and why.
Context. This is the where and when, similar to what we need to consider for comparative studies. The book itself is set in the 1930s, in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. Your research should tell you about the Jim Crow Laws – actual legislation which restricted the actions of people of colour across America and favoured white citizens. The segregation, blatant racism, and questionable behaviour should now make more sense; American society encouraged racial injustice through its laws. The book itself was published in 1960 – a time where the Civil Rights movement was gaining a lot of traction, where wider American society became more aware of racial issues in the country and where Southern blacks (yes, in places like Alabama) were leading the fight for equality. On top of this, Harper Lee took elements from her own life; Atticus was loosely inspired by her father, who tried to defend two black youths accused of murder. So we now have got a time, place and even autobiographical elements, but we’ve got to now ask about…
Intent/ Author’s purpose. And it’s pretty clear where Lee stands – she’s unashamedly against racism and is horrified by the injustices she saw in her own life. Given the time she wrote in, she was
perhaps urging white Americans to be like Atticus and stand up for the marginalised, or even be like Scout: to have this child-like innocence and see how crooked and contradictory a racist society attempting to act decent is. In other words, Lee asks readers “In the name of God, [to] do [their] duty” and seek change.
4. Putting it all together
So now we have figured out the who, what, when, where, why and how. When you read, you should always have these elementary questions in the back of your mind. Analysis requires you to put all these
parts together to make one, cohesive argument or idea. There’s a simple structure you can use to do this:
Idea >> Context >> Example >> Technique >> Effect >> Conclusion
First, what idea are you trying to explore? Then, you need context in and out of the text to make sense of the example you’ve chosen. Then, identify the technique used and explain the effect it is supposed to have. From there, we can draw a conclusion. Let’s take the first line of Atticus’ speech to make sense of this.
“Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great
levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal…”
Idea. Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” explores the concept of equality (or the lack of) in…
Context. …Maycomb, a Southern town whose prejudice and divisions mirror the segregation and injustice of American society before the Civil Rights Act.
Example. Atticus Finch, a morally-driven lawyer, tells the jury at Tom Robinson’s trial that “in our courts all men are created equal”, …
Technique. …an allusion to the US Declaration of Independence, …
Effect. …stressing the religious and civil belief in the common dignity of all people, and as such Lee
through Atticus reflects on the desecration and denial of that belief through the bias towards the white plaintiff, Mayella Ewall.
Conclusion. Therefore, it is clear that Lee views Maycomb, and wider American society, as one lacking equality for all races and betraying its own foundational belief in the brotherhood of man.
There you go! This of course is a super basic and low-key analysis point – as you progress through high school you’ll be expected to make deeper connections between ideas and the composer’s craft, and even evaluate the effectiveness of their work. Novels are your starting point into appreciating literature, so
read thoroughly, think deeply and write strongly. Don’t be intimidated by a thick or convoluted novel, just take your time reading it multiple times and in no time you’ll be analysing it to shreds! Click here to view a recording of an essay writing seminar we had to see how you can put all your analysis in an essay!
Curious to see what our lessons are like? Even from Year 7, our english tutors teach analytical essay skills in response to different pieces of literature, so that students are prepared for any school assessment they face during high school. Contact us to find out how we can help you today!