The Use of Apprehension for Creating Tension in “To Kill A Mockingbird”
by David Schlachter
In Harper Lee’s book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the use of seemingly random freak accidents in a contrasting setting helped to create a sense of tension that made the reader apprehensive concerning possible events that seemed imminent; events that were sure to have a negative impact on the lives of Maycomb’s denizens.
For example, in chapter 8 an unnatural snowstorm hit the quiet southern town of Maycomb. On page 63, Scout told us that, “for reasons unfathomable to the most experienced prophets in Maycomb County, autumn turned to winter that year. We had two weeks of the coldest weather since 1885.” Clearly, it had been at least 40 years since the last time that it had snowed in Maycomb. However, even though Scout and Jem made a snowman and had a good day, the snowstorm was not a happy event. On page 68, as night approached, the book told us that, “The snow stopped in the afternoon, the temperature dropped… Calpurnia kept every fireplace in the house blazing, but we were cold.” Not only was it cold, but tension was also created when the snowstorm was blamed on the children of Maycomb. On page 65, Mr. Avery said, “It’s bad children like you makes the seasons change.” This accusation helped to strengthen the feeling of tension by suggesting that the snowstorm might be punishment for Maycomb. Perhaps there really was something monstrously wrong in Maycomb; something to send weather that had not been seen in nearly half a century to a quiet town in the southern US. The snowstorm was definitely an atypical event that was unparalleled in the lives of many Maycomb citizens. However, during the day it seemed like the snowstorm would be fun, even with the implication that something was wrong in Maycomb, but as the day went on it was clear that the night would be very cold, and very miserable, and that perhaps Maycomb was really being punished for some evil. This contrast between the seemingly peaceful setting and the foreboding event, and the suggestion of some unknown crime, helped to strengthen the tension in the story, by suggesting that bad things would unexpectedly happen to Maycomb, perhaps because of some breach of an unknown law.
Another example of a seemingly random event giving the story a sense of tension and foreboding can be found on page 69, where the book tells us that, “At the front door we saw fire spewing from Miss Maudie’s dining room windows.” Not only was there a completely unnatural snowstorm outside, in which people were freezing, but there was also a fire that was destroying someone’s house and threatening to take the whole neighborhood with it. This contrast between the cold stillness of the freak winter, and the intense heat and fury of the unexpected fire helped to create tension, especially when both of these contrasting events were so seemingly unrelated and unnatural, and both were destructive. The snowstorm suggested that additional unexpected and ruinous events would undoubtedly occur, and the fire helped to strengthen this suggestion. By strengthening this pattern, it reinforced the reader’s assumption that Maycomb was doomed by forces outside of its control. To the reader, Maycomb, a ‘quiet’ southern town, was certain to have even more unanticipated events with a turn for the worst.
Another event in, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that seemed to be thoroughly random, and also had the potential to become a disaster for Maycomb citizens, can be found in chapter 10. In the chapter, Scout and Jem were walking down their street on a Saturday when they saw Tim Johnson, a dog, in the distance. He was walking erratically and twitching, and as Jem put it on page 92, “There’s something wrong with [him].” It turned out that Tim was rabid, and therefore terribly dangerous. Everyone got off the street immediately, and the neighborhood became totally deserted. The seemingly still neighborhood, in mid-winter, with a mad dog coming down the street definitely reinforced the sense of tension in the book, because it was so unexpected. Although the reader might have expected some negative event in Maycomb, it would be difficult to predict exactly what that event might be. However, most readers would not be expecting such a supposedly passive danger. On page 94, Scout tells us that, “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street.” The event’s seemingly peaceful setting, combined with the imminent, but slowly approaching, danger of a rabid dog, conveyed a sense of foreboding, and fear for the lives of Maycomb residents, to the reader. Even once the dog had been shot, the danger was still there. On page 98, Zeebo told everyone not to come near where Tim had been. Not only had there been an intensely dangerous and threatening, but outwardly passive event when Tim was moseying down the street, but there was also a lingering danger of infection wherever he had been. This constant veiled danger posed a threat to Maycomb, creating tension by making the reader even more concerned about the possibility of more events with similar danger and more potent implications.
In conclusion, Harper Lee used outwardly random freak accidents in, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to create a sense of tension based on fear and apprehension concerning possible, seemingly imminent, but unknown events that would pose a threat to Maycomb, and have negative implications for its residents.