The House as a Symbol in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”

ToKillAMockingbird

It’s difficult to believe that I have only now gotten around to reading this masterpiece. I’ve seen it performed on stage, seen the film, and actually met Gregory Peck at a dinner reception and discussed the writer’s role in filmmaking with him, but it was my daughter wanting to read this book with me, kind of as a father/daughter mini book club, that finally motivated me to buy a copy.

This book is so rich that it would be easy to write multiple blog posts exploring the many facets. You could obviously approach it from its frank addressing of racism, as an exploration of Southern culture, or as a coming-of-age tale. For my post, I’ve decided to pick one symbol and explore it a little deeper: the house.

In this book, Ms. Lee uses the symbol of the house to represent one’s psyche. As with every person, there are two parts to the psyche: the one which we show to others and the one that is hidden away. To understand how this symbol applies to this story, keep in mind that the inside of a home represents a person’s inner thoughts and feelings, while the outside of the home signifies that part of someone which that person decides to make public and known. For example, in the book, no one knows exactly what happens within the Radley house. We know that Boo suffers from mental illness, so the inside of the house becomes a symbol for the thoughts of someone who is mentally sick.

“You reckon he’s crazy?”

Miss Maudie shook her head. “If he’s not he should be by now. The things that happen to people we never really know. What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets—“

(p. 46)

Disturbing a person within their home implies that you are attempting to pry into that person’s private thoughts. When the children are spying on the Radley house and trying to see inside, they are essentially trying to sneak a peek into someone’s psyche and discover the secrets buried deep within that person’s mind.

What Mr. Radley did was his own business. If he wanted to come out, he would. If he wanted to stay inside his own house he had the right to stay inside free from the attentions of inquisitive children, which was a mild term for the likes of us. How would we like it if Atticus barged in on us without knocking, when we were in our rooms at night? We were in effect doing the same thing to Mr. Radley. What Mr. Radley did might seem peculiar to us, but it did not seem peculiar to him. Furthermore, had it ever occurred to us that the civil way to communicate with another being was by the front door instead of a side window? Lastly, we were to stay away from the house until we were invited there, we were not to play a asinine game he had seen us playing or make fun of anybody on this street or in this town—

(p. 49)

Another great example of the inside of a house symbolizing the inner aspects of a person’s psyche is the inside of Mrs. Dubose’s house. Mrs. Dubose suffered from morphine addiction and the inside of her home reflects the inner turmoil and pain associated with drug addiction.

Jem planted his big toe delicately in the center of the rose and pressed it in. Finally he said, “Atticus, it’s all right on the sidewalk but inside it’s—it’s all dark and creepy. There’s shadows and things on the ceiling…”

(p. 105)

Jem and Scout, being allowed entrance into Mrs. Dubose’s house to read Ivanhoe to her as punishment, are exposed to the shadowy realm of her consciousness, where she is haunted by the darkness of her addiction.

At one point in the story, Scout wants to invite Walter Cunningham over to the house for dinner. Aunt Alexandra tells her that she should not do so, that it is OK to be nice to someone, but that does not mean that you should invite that person into your home. Essentially, she is advising Scout to be careful regarding who she allows to know the deeper parts of her thoughts and feelings.

“I didn’t say not to be nice to him. You should be friendly and polite to him, you should be gracious to everybody, dear. But you don’t have to invite him home.”

(p. 224)

There are many other great examples of how houses reflect the psyche’s of those who live there, and if you read this book again, I encourage you to think about how houses symbolize the minds of those who inhabit them.

On a closing note, I’m sure many of you have heard that Harper Lee is getting ready to publish the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird later this year. I for one am looking forward to it and plan to read it once it comes out. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you have a wonderful and inspiring day!!

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “The House as a Symbol in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”

  1. Alex Hurst

    I haven’t read this book since high school, and I loved it then, though I sadly didn’t remember a lot of what you wrote about here. Looks like it’s time to pick up another copy. 🙂

    • Hi Alex. I think this is one of those books that you can read multiple times and get more out of it each time. Your life experiences play a big part on what aspects of the book you connect with. It was interesting discussing the book with my daughter and getting a young person’s perspective. Good news is you can pick up a used copy of this almost anywhere for a couple dollars.

      Cheers, and thanks again for all your thoughtful comments!!

      Jeff

  2. What a wonderfully creative way to look at this book!
    I love the line; “…had it ever occurred to us that the civil way to communicate with another being was by the front door instead of a side window?”
    That question speaks to more things/issues than a house.

    • You’re absolutely right. If you want to find out what a person is thinking, ask (front door). Don’t try to sneak a glimpse into that person’s thoughts and feelings (side window).

      Thanks for your comment and I hope you have a great day!!

      Jeff

  3. This is one of my all-time favorite books. I recently re-read it while my son was reading it for school. Looking forward to Harper Lee’s next one and I don’t care if it hasn’t been edited!

  4. Hi Jeff, I have never read the book and remember the movie vaguely but I resonate with this post. Also in dreams the house signifies the self, usually. I have been thinking about this as I have recently moved to a place that agrees with me and gives me and my self the comfort and security I previously lacked.
    More importantly, though: I did not know you brush shoulders with the famous 😉

    • Hi Monika.

      Thanks for your comment. The book is amazing, and I only scratched the surface in this post. I highly recommend it.

      I’m so happy that you have moved to a new place that resonates with you. Loving where you live and feeling happy there really makes a difference in a person’s life. Congrats on the move.

      Finally, yeah, I’ve met a few “famous” people over the years, at various events and such. I have to say, Gregory Peck was one of the nicest of those I’ve met. A truly gracious individual.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I always enjoy hearing from you.

      Jeff

  5. Jung also felt that the home was a symbol of the self. When doing my Masters in India I had a dream that my childhood home was on fire. The Bengali fire department was rushing to put out the flames (I studied at Tagore’s Visva Bharati in W. Bengal). In the dream I asked, “Are they going to save my books and music?” Very symbolic as those are the two dominant things in my life, after my spiritual life, that is.

    As for the use of the term “mental illness” here, I think this is a hugely unexamined area. IMO the scientific hegemony has sunk pretty deep into the average Joe and Jane’s worldview. And this is sad because, I think, in many instances, its keeps people down and unhappy and doesn’t really help at all.

    I much prefer Emily Dickinson perspective.

    MUCH madness is divinest sense
    To a discerning eye;
    Much sense the starkest madness.
    ‘T is the majority
    In this, as all, prevails.
    Assent, and you are sane;
    Demur,-you’re straightway dangerous,
    And handled with a chain.

    Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Part 1: Life (11), Boston: Little, Brown, 1924; Bartleby.com, 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/113/

    In the case of Boo, I think it might be more accurate to say he was mentally injured, as implied here… http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mocking/characters.html

    Can you tell my doctorate was in psychology and religion? 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment, Michael. Great points regarding Jung and I enjoyed what you shared about your dream. I lived on Miami Beach when Hurricane Andrew was co ing and had to evacuate. When I looked at what I wanted to save, I chose my guitars, my sitar, and my photo albums. Only so much I could pack into my car.

      Regarding mental illness vs mental injury, I can’t help but see this as two different causes leading to the same result, but I am certainly no expert in this area. I can only compare with what I have seen, and when I compare people close to me who have suffered with Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia with people I know who suffered mental injury through abuse or addiction, the results are similar to a lay person such as myself.

      Anyway, thanks again for a thoughtful and well written response. I always appreciate your comments.

      Best wishes.

      Jeff

      • Sure, the symptoms may look the same, or similar, but if the aetiology differs, then I think this can have huge effect on outcomes—provided we recognize the difference. In many cases, I don’t think it’s a black and white distinction. More like a continuum (within a particular cultural framework).

        That’s my quick answer. My full answer would have to be really complicated. Someday I’d like to put down in point form my views about psychiatry, culture, spirituality and religion. I hint at things at earthpages.ca, but I’ve never really written a full “treatise” on the topic. I should. But it would take so long. And how much effect would it really have? Maybe I’ll just keep hinting… 🙂

  6. Excellent post dear Jeff… I am also thinking right now of the house as a symbol in E A Poe´s brief Story “The Fall of the House of Usher” and how some of the things you highlighted above may also fit it!… All my best wishes, Aquileana ⭐

    • Hi Aquileana! Wow, it’s been such a long time since I read that tale by Poe, I had not even considered that. I will have to read it again soon. As always, I appreciate you insightful and supportive comments. I am very glad that I have gotten to know you through your writing. I hope the rest of your weekend is nothing short of amazing!

      Jeff

  7. Pingback: A Tragic Day for Literature: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee | Stuff Jeff Reads

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