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To Kill a Mockingbird - Extract 1

This GCSE English Literature quiz is the first of two extract questions for To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It takes place during the second half of the novel when tensions in Maycomb are running high due to the trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell. As so often is the case in their games and explorations, Scout, Jem and Dill stumble into the fraught, incomprehensible adult world. Because the reader sees this world through the eyes of the perceptive young Scout, we see how the outwardly unremarkable town masks its simmering violence.

How to answer an extract question in an exam:

Before attempting to answer an extract question for an exam, always be sure to read the passage through carefully at least twice. Re-reading is never a waste of time.

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The first time you read the passage, aim for a broad understanding of the extract and consider how you might answer the question. You can begin to make detailed notes and annotations as you gather your thoughts during a second reading. Consider why the specific passage has been chosen. How does it fit with the rest of the text? Does it introduce any significant characters or themes? Which events follow? Does the passage foreshadow later events? Does it represent a turning point? Think about the ending of the extract: why does it end where it does instead of somewhere else? Is there anything of significance in the final line?

Be sure that you pay close attention to the question you have chosen to answer. Perhaps you have been asked to write about mood and atmosphere, or a particular character. Maybe the question asks for your personal response to the passage or to a character. You might be asked to discuss dialogue, behaviour or feelings. Remember to explain the passage’s immediate context: acknowledge the events which precede the extract. Consider detail, setting and characterisation. In your response, you should analyse and discuss the relationship between the excerpt and the themes of the text. Structure your writing by grouping related ideas together. Ensure that you leave enough time to discuss the entire passage rather than covering one section in detail before running out of time to do justice to the rest of the extract!

Read the extract below carefully before answering the questions.

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The Maycomb jail was the most venerable and hideous of the county’s buildings. Atticus said it was like something Cousin Joshua St Clair might have designed. It was certainly someone’s dream. Starkly out of place in a town of square-faced stores and steep-roofed houses, the Maycomb jail was a miniature Gothic joke one cell wide and two cells high, complete with tiny battlements and flying buttresses. Its fantasy was heightened by its red brick façade and the thick steel bars at its ecclesiastical windows. It stood on no lonely hill, but was wedged between Tyndal’s Hardware Store and the Maycomb Tribune office. The jail was Maycomb’s only conversation piece: its detractors said it looked like a Victorian privy; its supporters said it gave the town a good solid respectable look, and no stranger would ever suspect that it was full of niggers.

As we walked up the sidewalk, we saw a solitary light burning in the distance. “That’s funny,” said Jem, “jail doesn’t have an outside light.”

“Looks like it’s over the door,” said Dill.

A long extension cord ran between the bars of a second floor window and down the side of the building. In the light from its bare bulb, Atticus was sitting propped against the front door. He was sitting in one of his office chairs, and he was reading, oblivious of the nightbugs dancing over his head.

I made to run, but Jem caught me. “Don’t go to him,” he said, “he might not like it. He’s all right, let’s go home. I just wanted to see where he was.”

We were taking a short cut across the square when four dusty cars came in from the Meridian highway, moving slowly in a line. They went around the square, passed the bank building, and stopped in front of the jail.

Nobody got out. We saw Atticus look up from his newspaper. He closed it, folded it deliberately, dropped it in his lap, and pushed his hat to the back of his head. He seemed to be expecting them.

“Come on,” whispered Jem. We sneaked across the square, across the street, until we were in the shelter of the Jitney Jungle door. Jem peeked up the sidewalk. “We can get closer,” he said. We ran to Tyndal’s Hardware door — near enough, at the same time discreet.

In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as light revealed solid shapes moving towards the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view.

“He in there, Mr Finch?” a man said.

“He is,” we heard Atticus answer, “and he’s asleep. Don’t wake him up.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Mandarin, 1989)
  1. What is the immediate context for this passage?
    Jem can feel that something was not quite right with Atticus when he left the house
  2. What immediately follows this passage?
    Scout's recognition of a classmate's father temporarily shames the men into more civilised, "neighbourly" behaviour
  3. Which of the following best describes the atmosphere of this passage?
    The ordinary, everyday environment of the square is transformed by events into a quietly menacing setting
  4. Re-read the paragraph beginning, "We were taking a short cut". Which of its words contribute most to the atmosphere of the passage?
    The men's movement through the sleepy town square becomes menacing as the slow progression of the line of cars is described in repetitive detail
  5. Why are the men looking for Tom?
    The men do not explain their plans. They tell Atticus, shortly after this passage, to move out of their way, saying, "You know what we want". Historically, imprisoned black men were frequently dragged from their cells and lynched
  6. What makes the jail's physical appearance rather absurd?
    Its Gothic features, combined with its narrowness, make the jail ridiculous
  7. Which of the following is NOT true of the reasons given for approving of the jail's physical appearance?
    Those who approve of the jail focus very much on being outwardly respectable
  8. How is Atticus presented in this passage?
    Atticus is shown engaging in one of his most familiar activities, reading the newspaper. His command to the men to be quiet takes them by surprise
  9. "Whispered", "sneaked", "shelter" and "peeked" emphasise which of the following?
    Besides not wanting Atticus to see them, the children have also been affected strongly by the strange atmosphere, which makes them quiet and careful
  10. "Shadows became substance as light revealed solid shapes moving towards the jail door." What is the effect of this phrase?
    The shadowy nature of the men's activities hides their very real threat, but as they move out of the shadows that threat becomes more substantial. The men also hide their deeds in attempted anonymity which does not fool anyone, as Scout makes clear when she recognises Mr Cunningham

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