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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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“Dagon” by H.P. Lovecraft: The Surfacing of the Subconscious Mind

DagonA while back I picked up an anthology of stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Last night, I decided to read one before going to sleep. I opted for Dagon, only because it was short and I was already a little tired. Unfortunately, it took me a little while to fall asleep after I finished reading the tale.

The story is about a man who is addicted to morphine and considering suicide because he is no longer able to deal with the memories of something he experienced as a sailor years back. He was adrift and came to a place where the ocean floor had risen to the surface and exposed dark and hideous things, among them a giant creature from the depths. These images haunted him since.

I immediately interpreted this story as an allegory for the dark recesses of the subconscious mind surfacing and driving a person into the realm of insanity. The boat on which he was adrift represents his mind in a state of isolation as he drifts through reality, until he reaches the point where the dark depths of his subconscious mind are forced to the surface, exposing the horrors that lay hidden below.

Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality that chilled me to the core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity.

As the protagonist recounts his tale, he recalls wandering the desolation until he comes to an obelisk engraved with carvings of strange fish-like creatures. He makes the connection that these creatures are symbolic of early man, possibly from the stage where life emerged from the ocean. These symbols, then, represent the earliest stages of our subconscious minds that are linked to our prehistoric selves which crawled from the ocean’s slime.

I think these things were supposed to depict men–at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage to some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well. Of their faces and forms I date not speak in detail; for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint.

He then questions whether everything he experienced was just fantasy, but concludes that it was real. He recognizes that within each human lies a dark subconscious, which at any moment may surface. Although he tries to bury this part of him through the use of drugs, he is unable to keep the dark side of himself from surfacing again, which drives him to the point where he sees suicide as the only escape.

Often I ask myself if it could not all have been a pure phantasm–a mere freak of fever as I lay sun-stricken and raving in the open boat after my escape from the German man-of-war. This I ask myself, but ever does there come before me a hideously vivid vision in reply. I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind–of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.

It’s a pretty dark vision of the future of humanity and one that has haunted my thoughts on occasion. It is not difficult to envision a world where our baser instincts gain control over our reason, resulting in the collapse of humanity. I think the key, though, is to acknowledge that part of ourselves and be aware of it. It’s only through awareness and acceptance that we keep the mire below the surface and continue to progress as a society.

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