Mythology and Archetypes in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
Of all the various approaches to criticism, the Mythological/Archetypal achieves the greatest impact over the entire literary scope, because the themes and patterns unearthed apply universally to all works, yielding results that can be applied to a great many texts. This is because the very nature of the Mythological/Archetypal approach is the exploration of the canon for widespread and pervading symbols, plots, and characters. These are all greatly extant in Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, an extraordinary examination of the Depression-era South through the eyes of a young girl with rare intelligence and insight, living in a small town which is filled with these archetypal images. To Kill a Mockingbird, when approached from the Mythological/Archetypal viewpoint, is a prime example of the three primary elements that the method of criticism inspects: universality in character, symbol, and plot.
Universal characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are present, and well documented. For example, Jem and Scout embody the ideals of youth and the naivety of innocence, while Tom Robinson with his withered arm symbolizes the crippled powerlessness of the black community.
The scene where Tom is revealed to be physically handicapped is particularly strong:
Tom Robinson's powerful shoulders rippled under his thin shirt. He rose to his feet and stood with his right hand on the back of his chair. He looked oddly off balance, but it was not from the way he was standing. His left arm was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side. It ended in a small shriveled hand, and from as far away as the balcony I could see it was of no use to him. (TKAM 186)
This scene skillfully alerts the reader to his injury, which is much more than just one man's disfigurement, for the book points out that not just Tom Robinson is on trial, but an entire system of injustice. Through Tom, the legal and social rights of the entire community are called into question. Tom's injury, therefore, represents the injury of all the people he epitomizes.
These symbols can be illustrated many places elsewhere in the literary canon. For example, the archetypal character of the crippled man symbolizing a crippled society can be perceived in the character of Benjy Compton in William Faulkner's tremendously symbolic novel The Sound and the Fury; Benjy, who is severely mentally challenged, has no concept of time and is preyed upon by vulturous members of his world, including his black care-giver and his older brother Jason. Benjy represents Faulkner's conception of the decaying Southern gentility; that the sense of time is skewed (with its emphasis on the conservative old ways and the antebellum morality, the South, like Benjy, is living in a mixed world of past and present which...