Questioning the Quality

In Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, Huck, the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, stumbles upon the Grangerfords, a family of some wealth. Huck calls them “the quality,” and at first he is awed by the Grangerfords—by their possessions, by their manners, even by the sentimental poetry of their dead daughter Emmaline. The Grangerfords, for all their “gentility,” have sustained a feud with their neighbors, the Shepherdsons, for countless years. When Huck’s new friend, Buck Grangerford, is killed in a shootout with the Shepherdsons, Huck realizes that the Grangerfords’ fortune and finery are quality only on the surface; underneath, these people are vengeful and brutal murderers. Their wealth disguises the poverty of their souls. Through the use of irony, Twain reveals the important truth that the family you are born into is not the determiner of character. True aristocracy is not about class, but character.

Harper Lee comes from the same tradition.

Here’s another selection from To Kill a Mockingbird, a passage from Chapter 13, shortly after Aunt Alexandra has come to Maycomb, unbidden, to keep an eye on Scout and Jem while the Tom Robinson trial is underway. In my 9th grade class, we’ve been talking about Harper Lee’s technique in revealing Atticus’s character, and this passage presents him in contrast with his sister, whose notions of Southern aristocracy run counter to Atticus’s fundamental belief in the equality of all people. Alexandra has asked Atticus to talk to the children about their background, but in this scene, Harper Lee lets the reader know how Atticus really feels about his sister’s notions of class superiority.

“How do you know,” I ask the students when I begin reading this passage aloud, “that Atticus is uncomfortable in this conversation? That the children are uncomfortable? As I read, pay attention to the details that tell you.”

Before bedtime I was in Jem’s room trying to borrow a book when Atticus knocked and entered. He sat on the edge of Jem’s bed, looked at us soberly, then he grinned.

Here I’d interrupt myself and ask, “What does this word soberly mean? We’ve already learned that Atticus doesn’t drink.”

It’s important to ask a question about a word like soberly. Many students have only heard the word in the context of drinking alcohol. Such a misinterpretation could seriously affect the way they read the rest of the passage.

Someone supplies the meaning—seriously—and I go on.

“Er—h’rm,” he said. He was beginning to preface some things he said with a throaty noise, and I thought he must at last be getting old, but he looked the same. “I don’t know how to say this,” he began.

Well, just say it,” said Jem. “Have we done something?”

Our father was actually fidgeting. “No, I just want to explain to you that—your Aunt Alexandra asked me—son, you know you’re a Finch, don’t you?”

“That’s what I’ve been told.” Jem looked out of the corners of his eyes. His voice rose uncontrollably. “Atticus, what’s the matter?”

Atticus crossed his knees and folded his arms. “I’m trying to tell you the facts of life.”

Jem’s disgust deepened. “I know all that stuff,” he said.

Atticus suddenly became serious. In his lawyer’s voice, without a shade of inflection, he said, “Your aunt has asked me to try and impress upon you and Jean Louise that you are not from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations gentle breeding—“ Atticus paused, watching me locate an elusive redbug on my leg.

About here I stop again and ask the students to explain what “gentle breeding” means. It’s the central idea of the passage, so the meaning must be clear. The two words aren’t hard ones, but combined, they convey an entirely different idea than either word alone. Breeding, the students have little trouble with. But juxtaposed with gentle? Eventually someone hits on refined, or a similar word. But that produces puzzlement—until they remember Aunt Alexandra’s obsession with social status.

“It means you come from a high class!”

“It means you’re better than everyone else.”

“It’s snobby.”

“Gentle breeding,” he continued, when I had found and scratched it, “and that you should try to live up to your name—“ Atticus persevered in spite of us: “She asked me to tell you you must try to behave like the little lady and gentleman that you are. She wants to talk to you about the family and what it’s meant to Maycomb County through the years, so you’ll have some idea of who you are, so you might be moved to behave accordingly,” he concluded at a gallop.

Stunned, Jem and I looked at each other, then at Atticus, whose collar seemed to worry him. We did not speak to him.

Again, just in case, I stop to ask what collar seemed to worry him means. Some students have trouble with idioms, so this is a good chance to make the expression clear.

“He was doing like this,” someone volunteers. “You know, running his finger under it like this.” The student demonstrates. “But really, it means he’s uncomfortable.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s why he was talking so fast.”

“He was fidgeting, it says.”

“And that throaty noise. He’s coughing to clear his throat.”

“He’s nervous!”

Presently I picked up a comb from Jem’s dresser and ran its teeth along the edge.

“Stop that noise,” Atticus said.

His curtness stung me. The comb was midway in its journey, and I banged it down. For no reason, I felt myself beginning to cry, but I could not stop. This was not my father. My father never thought these thoughts. My father never spoke so. Aunt Alexandra had put him up to this, somehow. Through my tears I saw Jem standing in a similar pool of isolation, his head cocked to one side.

“One more detail that tells you Atticus is uncomfortable?”

“His tone! Scout says His curtness stung me.”

“What details tell us the children are uncomfortable?

“Scout says This was not my father.”

“Before that?”

“The comb. She isn’t thinking about what she’s doing. She’s thinking about what he’s saying and runs it down the dresser edge.”

“Before that?”

“She won’t look at him. She’s picking at a bug on her leg.”

“So she’s uncomfortable. Is Jem?”

“Yes, he’s looking out of the corners of his eyes at Atticus. Like he’s suspicious.”

“And Scout says he’s in a similar pool of isolation. That means she feels alone and he does, too. They feel like Atticus has left them. This isn’t the real Atticus.”

“What can you conclude about Atticus’s point of view? How does he really feel about being ‘a Finch’?”

“He doesn’t believe all that.”

And indeed, a few paragraphs later, Atticus tells the children to “forget it.”

Finally, a question to stretch the students’ understanding: “How do you think Harper Lee, the author, feels about this issue of background? Is she on Aunt Alexandra’s side or Atticus’s?”

“Well, she’s arranged the details so we think Aunt Alexandra’s point of view is wrong.”

“She’s presented the scene through Scout’s eyes.”

“Yes, that’s right. But is there something else—something in the text we haven’t focused on in this way?”

Sometimes I give the students a hint: It’s a bit of irony.

Then another if they haven’t hit upon it: “Gentle breeding—“

“Oh! All the while Atticus is talking about ‘background,’ Scout is picking at a bug. Then she scratches it.”

“She’s the opposite of refined!”

“And then the author writes gentle breeding again!”

Very sly.

“So what does Harper Lee think?”

“All that class stuff is a lot of hooey.”

Kids can spot prevarication and deception in a heartbeat, so they have no trouble grasping the tenor of this passage and little difficulty seeing that the passage underscores, in the end, the integrity of the hero. What they need help with is understanding the craft of fiction and explaining how the author made her point and revealed her attitude. How any author makes a point. That is done with questions, questions whose answers are grounded in the text. Asking them is the teacher’s job. Answering them, the students’.

Yep. “The quality”: A lot of hooey.

In the tradition of Huckleberry Finn.