The novel is centred on the lives of members of the Finch family between 1933 and 1935. It is narrated by Scout Finch who is looking back on events which began when she was almost six years old. She narrates the events in chronological order so that by the end of the novel, two years later, events have come full circle and the characters must come to terms with all that has happened to them during this period.
Part one of the novel is important because it provides the reader with the background information they need to appreciate the full impact of Tom Robinson’s trial on the people of Maycomb. For example, the reader learns that many residents of Maycomb are racists who are willing to assume Tom Robinson is a guilty man without waiting to consider the evidence of the trial. Atticus himself points this out when he comments to his brother, Jack Finch,
Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand...
Atticus Finch is presented as a lawyer who can be trusted to believe in Tom’s innocence and do all he can to prove this, even though it will make life difficult for him. In Part one, Scout and Jem are shown as young children who are less mature than they are in Part two. In Part one they are determined to coax Boo Radley out of his house so they can catch a glimpse of him. By Part two, Jem in particular has matured enough to realise that there may be reasons why Boo Radley does not wish to leave his house and that ultimately he should be left in peace. Jem tells Scout,
I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time... it’s because he wants to stay inside.
Tom Robinson’s trial is central to the novel and this is why structurally the build-up to it takes place at almost the halfway point of the novel itself. This helps underline how important the trial is.
Part two shows how the characters cope with the result of the trial. The reader discovers that when Bob Ewell threatens Atticus at the end of the trial he fully intends to carry out his threats. This can be seen throughout the final chapters of the novel, particularly in chapter 22 when Bob Ewell spits at Atticus before attacking Jem and Scout in chapter 28. Harper Lee also reveals that Tom Robinson despairs of ever being found innocent. Even with Atticus on his side he does not believe a justice system, which so favours white people, will help his cause and so he tries to escape, a move which ultimately costs him his life.
Harper Lee is also very careful with her use of structure during the actual trial itself. Atticus’ careful questioning of Bob Ewell and Tom Robinson only gradually reveals the fact that Mayella Ewell was hit by a left handed man. Bob Ewell is left handed and Tom Robinson is unable to use his left arm. This helps to add tension and drama to the court case and it also helps keep the reader in suspense.
By the end of the novel, Jem and Scout are beginning to have more understanding of the impact of the trial on the community and on the neighbours they know so well. They realise that their father was brave when he agreed to defend Tom Robinson but that if he had not taken the case, he could never again have held up his head with pride and self-respect. They are also beginning to have a greater understanding of courage and realise that bravery comes in many shapes and sizes, such as Mrs Dubose fighting her morphine addiction.
How important is the overall structure of this novel?
The structure is closely linked to the maturing of Jem and Scout. In Part two of the novel their understanding of the trial and of Boo Radley has grown and they realise that Atticus has been trying to teach them some important lessons about the nature of tolerance. Scout also realises that there is more to being a lady than she first realised when she sees how her Aunt and Miss Maudie keep control when news of Tom’s death reaches the Finch Household.
The structure of the novel is important because Part one introduces the reader to the community of Maycomb and to the prejudices of the people who live there. For example, Jem is angry when Mrs Dubose criticises his father,
Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for. Part two shows the reader what can happen when these prejudices get out of hand and an innocent black man is put on trial for a crime he did not commit. Atticus underlines this in the final speech he makes in court,
And so a quiet, respectable, humble Negro who had the unmitigated temerity to 'feel sorry' for a white woman has had to put his word against two white people’s.
The structure of the novel places the trial and the events surrounding it at its centre. This ensures everyone is aware of how important it is in To Kill a Mockingbird.