THE THEMES OF CHILDHOODS IN ‘JANE EYRE’ AND ‘TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’
To Kill A Mocking Bird’ by Harper Lee and’ Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte are two very different books written in different periods of history. There are, however, similarities in the themes and background. For example, both books were written during times of great social upheaval and strife. In ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’, the world was still very racist and it was not until the book was actually written some twenty years later the men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X started to bring about real reforms. 4 Jane Eyre’ was slightly different as this was set during a time when the masses of overworked and underpaid Victorians were being given greater freedoms and more time in which to have these freedoms.
Both books are written from a first person point of view, with a narrative voice. In ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’, the narrative voice is the voice of ‘Scout’, a small girl and in ‘Jane Eyre’, Jane herself takes the role of narrator. Both books are also Fictional Autobiographies. This means that they chronicle, if not directly, the lives of the authors.
The two books (in the first chapters) revolve strongly around the themes of childhood. The way that these themes are introduced affects the whole book and the way that characters react to one another.
To Kill A Mocking Bird’ starts with two paragraphs that contain the entire book. It tells the reader of the beginning, middle and end of the book. It also introduces the way in which the story will be told and five of the most important characters. For a solid eight paragraphs, there is nothing but description of the Finch family. It is here that childhood really starts to be introduced. The language used is almost entirely superfluous, very descriptive uses many effective, if childish, techniques such as “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with” (repetition) and very descriptive phrases such as “A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer”.
Description of characters is done in two highly differing ways in To Kill A Mocking Bird’, the first being the adult and formal manner: “Jem and I found our Father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment.” Then there is the second manner: “She was all angles and bones.” This shows that, whilst being childish, childish language can be very effective and descriptive. Children do not have the filters that adults do, and this allows them true freedom of speech. Another way that childhood is introduced lies in the way that the text is structured. There are long passages of description, interspersed with equally long passages of direct speech.
“I’m Charles Baker Harris, I can read.” This shows some of the things children are prepared to say to enhance their ‘social standing’ (something that is very important in May comb). They have no inhibitions and are prepared to say things that normally only junior executives would dream of saying to their bosses. They can also make fun of things that others would not dream of. For example: “… Charles Baker Harris…. Lord, what a name… Your name’s longer than you are. Bet it’s a foot taller.” This is said where an adult would say “What a nice name!” Children are also full of superstition. This is shown in ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ by several passages: “Radley pecans would kill you.” “When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them.” “Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom.” Absolutely none of this would be true, but it all goes with the Bogeyman, children need something to fear, but it will never be something they know. This particular bit of subliminal (almost) meaning serves as an explanation for Scout’s saving of her Father later in the text.
Childhood is introduced by reported speech. Hearsay and rumour are a way for news and knowledge to spread. Many things are blown out of proportion or merely lied about. All the information about the Bogeyman of Maycomb (Boo) is received via these mediums. “Miss Stephanie said . . .”
“Atticus just said …” “Miss Maudie said” and all of this is followed by some form of gossip. ‘Children can be cruel’ but they must be taught to gossip and insult…
Children’s attitudes to school are somewhat different to those of adults. Adults, who have experienced the joys of education, disagree with those who are experiencing the joys of education. This is because it has to happen; it just doesn’t feel that way at the time. Once the course has been run, however, it becomes an entirely different story . . . “Before the first morning was over, Miss Caroline Fisher, hauled me up to the front of the class and patted the palm of my hand with a ruler, then made me stand in the comer of the room until noon.” On her first day at school, Scout is reprimanded for being literate. “I never deliberately learned to read.” The childish response that will be given is “sorry”, introducing more childhood into the text. Scout is sorry but she says herself that it is not her fault, nor her Father’s, yet these people are being blamed.
‘Children do not understand money.’ runs the statement. Whilst the fiscal knowledge of some children may err to the ignorant side, many understand that money is good, and that it also grows on parents. This particular facet of the theme of childhood is introduced in the form of a lesson. Scout’s Father, Atticus, is paid for his services with Hickory Nuts, and other groceries.
In ‘Jane Eyre’, childhood of any form is not even recognized, let alone introduced until the cryptic opening of direct speech and questioning “What does Bessie say I have done?” This is a phrase to use purely by a child, one answerable to grown-ups. In modem times, this would probably have been followed by “Whatever she said isn’t true, Mom!” Even this outburst is not confirmed as being from a child until a knifelike response, “… There is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner.” In the times when this book is set, it was most certainly age and money, and not wisdom that dictated who was best; with money winning by a nose. By the late 1920’s, this had changed a lot. During the time when ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ was set, the principles of social, educational, though if not economical, equality were well in force Though people were still having to fight for freedom, much as they did during the time when ‘Jane Eyre’ was set.
Childhood is helped with its introduction by the most unchildlike language ever. “I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures.” These were times when childhood was not supposed to be a thing of pleasure, but a race to old age, so language that was neither concise nor mature was scorned. The last quotation would have been the Victorian equivalent of saying “I grabbed a book with lots of pictures.” This comes in sharp contrast to the language used to introduce childhood in To Kill A Mocking Bird’, which uses adult, though not overlong words in close proximity to very childlike phrases and expressions.
Childhood has fears, and many are associated with places. Jane has a peculiar horror of the red room, and decides that there is nothing she can think of that would be worse than the ‘red-room’. Jane’s fears of the ‘red-room’ can be easily compared with those of Scout and her fear of the Radley House. Jane fears the ‘red-room’ and its contents because it was here that her benefactor had lain in state. It is the childish fear of his ghost that scares her, though she can come of less harm in an empty room than she can in a house where people cause serious damage to her with books. Scout fears the Radley House because it is the residence of the object of her fears: Boo Radley. Though neither Jane nor Scout has seen their tormentors, and neither of the tormentors holds any real threat, both are still afraid; this is across a gap of some ninety to one hundred years.