One of the key aspects to a novel is how the characters in that novel communicate with each other, especially in terms of dialog. The dialog in a novel reveals the attitudes of the characters toward each other and the topics they discuss. The manner in which characters speak, the language characters use, and the mode in which the characters frame their statements and questions are indicative of both the characters and the story.

Discrimination and division are shared topics among three very different novels, Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Henry James’ Daisy Miller. These novels differ widely in location, era and style. They also examine very different forms of discrimination.

Alexie’s novel scrutinizes racial division issues between whites and American Indians. Indian Killer was written and takes place in the late twentieth century in the Northwest United States city of Seattle. Alexie wrote the novel in third-person omniscient form and moves between several characters’ perspectives.

Lee’s novel also deals with racial discrimination, but between whites and blacks. Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the mid-twentieth century. The novel takes place in small-town depression-era Alabama. She tells the story in first person from the perspective of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young girl who ages from six to nine over the course of the novel.

James’ novel deals with discrimination between social classes rather than racial divisions. Daisy Miller was written and set in the mid-nineteenth century. James tells the story in the third person from the point-of-view of Winterbourne, a wealthy young American who has been living abroad for many years. The novel is set in Switzerland and Italy, but the action takes place primarily among Americans living and traveling abroad.

In each novel, the manner in which the discrimination and divisions occur is different. The communication styles in each novel reflect the differences in the characters and the different approaches to the central themes of racism and division.

Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer

When Alexie makes public appearances, he is described as “hilarious” and “witty”. He has worked as a stand-up comedian and his personal appearances reflect that. Much of his writing also makes use of humor. Indian Killer, however, is not a humorous novel. It is the story of a city facing increasing racial divisiveness when a serial killer begins kidnapping, murdering, and scalping white victims in a manner that leads the community to believe the killer is an American Indian.

While the novel is not without funny moments, it is a stark and caustic portrayal of the division between two races. One of the reasons this story of discrimination is so dark is because there are very few moments of cooperation or perception. The characters in the novel do not discuss their differences with any civility or understanding. They use inflated hate speech and angry rhetoric. There are no discussions, only arguments.

Alexie uses a pulp-fiction form, the serial killer mystery, to frame the social issues facing American Indians. The city of Seattle is fractured by the actions, real and imagined, of the serial killer. The tension between Indians and whites explodes as both sides attack each other with hate speech and physical attacks of alarming sadism.

The heart of the story is the experience of Marie Polatkin. Unlike the somewhat stock characters that make up much of the mystery element of the novel, Marie is a fully realized and nuanced character. While her views are as scathing as any character in the book, she reinforces her views with her actions. Marie faithfully drives the sandwich van, feeding the homeless. She faces down the three thugs who mean to attack the homeless Indians. She tries to help the schizophrenic John Smith.

Marie, first with university professor Dr. Mather, then with the university president and finally with the police, restates the central argument of the novel. White involvement with American Indians is destroying their culture. To Marie, any interference is damaging, and the thought of whites co-opting her culture is especially galling. Her point of view allows no room for give and take. Compromise is not in her vocabulary. She shares this trait with most characters in the novel.

Much of the dialog in the book takes the form of interrogations, both actual and metaphorical. In this exchange near the end of the novel, the police interrogate Marie.

“Ms. Polatkin, Marie, can you tell us something about John Smith?”

“He wasn’t the Indian Killer.”

“Why do you keep insisting on this? We have the murder weapon, we have Jack Wilson’s sworn testimony. John Smith was the Indian Killer. Case Closed.”

“Jack Wilson is a liar.”

“Have you seen Wilson’s face? He looks like a car wreck. I hardly think he deserves to be called a liar. Have you read his book about all this?”


“You should. It’s a very interesting portrait of John Smith. You’d like it. Wilson says that Indian children shouldn’t be adopted by white parents. He says those kids commit suicide way to often. You ask me, John’s suicide was a good thing.”

“Wilson doesn’t know shit about Indians.”

“Have you read Dr. Mather’s book?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Really? You’re in it, you know? And it’s not too flattering, I must say.”

“So what.”

The dialog comes in short bursts, with no accompanying narration or description. It continues in that manner for the entire chapter. The characters do not speak in paragraphs or even sentences so much as statements. Dialog rarely leads to agreement. The few moments of realization in the novel, such as Jack Wilson’s realization about the adoption of Indian children, come only after violence. In that case, from the brutal attack on Wilson by John Smith, an Indian adopted by whites who leaps to his death after the attack on Wilson.

Truck Schultz, a right-wing talk radio host, illustrates the use of hate speech in the book. Truck fans the flames of division and discrimination. He knowingly declares that an unrelated death at an Indian reservation casino is the work of the serial killer and coins the phrase, “The only good Indian Killer is a dead Indian Killer.”

Alexie’s use of hate speech and interrogation techniques throughout the book heightens the sense that there is no legitimate solution to the racial tensions he describes in the book. The book offers no answers, only division, as reflected in the dialog. In Calvert’s analysis of hate speech he states, “Hateful messages cumulate, creating an ambiance that categorizes and, consequently, causes harm.” In Indian Killer, the accumulated statements and anger end in death and mutilation. There is no real moment of reconciliation at the end. Marie Polotkin’s final statement in Indian Killer echoes the unresolved conflict, “Indians are dancing now, and I don’t think they’re going to stop.”

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird takes a much different approach to racism and division. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the characters demonstrate over and over the value and influence of conversation. While the circumstances in To Kill a Mockingbird are as dire and explosive as those in Indian Killer, and both novels end in violence, the moments of conversation give To Kill a Mockingbird a hopeful quality that is absent from Indian Killer.

Harper Lee creates an atmosphere of learning by creating a lead character out of the adolescent Scout. Scout is a perfect character to filter the story though because she is highly intelligent and well read, yet she is a child who still has volumes to learn about life and the world. Because she is a child, she can be impulsive, stubborn and temperamental while remaining sympathetic and she can view the incidents in the novel from the perspective of someone who is seeing and questioning events for the first time. The novel brings her first snowstorm, first friend, first kiss, and first grade.

To compliment the curiosity of Scout, Lee introduces the reasoned debate of Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch is as wise and decent as Scout is intelligent and curious. Most importantly, he listens when people talk and takes the time to consider what they say. When Atticus responds, he explains why he makes a choice. More importantly, he does not allow other to push him to anger with words. He understands the power of words, but he also understands the limits.

One of the best examples of this is when Scout begins to experiment with swearing. When she starts using swear words, Atticus reacts calmly. He voices his disapproval, but he never overreacts. Atticus knows that children are fascinated by swear words, but he also knows that, bad language “is a stage all children go through, and it dies with time when they learn they’re not attracting attention with it. Hotheadedness isn’t.” Atticus recognizes the problem is Scout’s temper, not her language.

The key to the scene is Atticus’ conversation with his brother Jack about Scout’s reactions to the taunts of her cousin. The taunts, Atticus knows, are going to get worse. The court has assigned Atticus to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the town is choosing sides against Atticus. Atticus directs his statements at Jack, but they are just as much for the benefit of Scout, who he knows is secretly listening. Atticus lays out the case for his actions, but also includes an indirect plea for Scout’s better behavior.

But do you think I could face my children otherwise? You know what’s going to happen as well as I do, Jack, and I hope and pray I can get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness, and worst of all, without catching Maycomb’s usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand. . . I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the crowd. I hope they trust me enough.

While the words do not exactly turn Scout into a saint overnight, they give her a reason to try harder. His arguments work because he does not tell her what to do, he explains why he hopes she will do it. One of the classic techniques for non-confrontational persuasion is to use “I” phrases such as “I hope.”

Dr. Eric Berne defines discourse between people as having three modes, child, adult, and parent. To achieve optimum communication, two or more people must speak at the same level, with adult being the most favorable level of communication. Atticus speaks to all people as if they are reasonable adults. By doing this, he subtly encourages others to treat him the same way. He encourages a person to make the proper choices without seeming to dictate the other person’s behavior. This tactic is even more effective in this scene because Scout does not know she is being addressed. She thinks she is overhearing a conversation.

Another key scene regarding communication comes when the lynch mob shows up at the jail. In this scene, Scout inadvertently breaks up an angry mob by singling one man out and speaking with him. “Don’t you remember me Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” Once the mob divides back into individuals, it loses the will behind its anger. Conversation wins out over rhetoric and mob sentiment.

The importance of reasonable arguments, and respect for others is never stronger than when Atticus must cross-examine first Robert Ewell and then Mayella Ewell. Atticus is polite at all times. He never raises his voice and he never makes a snide remark. The effect this has on the two witnesses is overwhelming. They are so used to rough talk and disrespect that they view his adult approach as mockery. “Long’s he keeps on callin’ me ma’am and sayin’ Miss Mayella. I don’t hafta take his sass, I ain’t called upon to take it.”

By maintaining his calm manner and respect, Atticus is able to point out the flaws in the Ewell’s testimony and make it clear who is to blame for the incident. The Ewells, unable to maintain their statements, fall apart. His defense is ultimately doomed due to the prejudices and conventions of the jury and the townspeople, but Atticus gives the best possible defense under the circumstances. The long-term effect of his reasoned defense leads to Robert Ewell’s further disgrace in the town, and to the attack that closes the book.

In Indian Killer, there is no equivalent to Atticus Finch. There is no reasoned voice or noble protagonist. Each character has an agenda and none of them want to engage in conversations rather than arguments. In Indian Killer, words are weapons rather than tools. Their shock value is consistently exploited while their ability to heal and bring people together atrophies.

In many ways, the different communication styles mirror both the times and the locations of the two novels. To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the bucolic town of Maycomb, Alabama. Maycomb is a town in which people gather on each other’s porches to discuss issues. There is an unhurried atmosphere to the town and it is reflected in the telling of the story. To Kill a Mockingbird spans three years, and it does not begin to address the central conflict of the novel until over a quarter of the book has passed. The period for most of the action in Indian Killer spans about a month. The location is a large, modern city in which most people are strangers and the pace is fast.

The individual style of each book demonstrates, or at least contributes to, the different apparent goals of the two books. Indian Killer wants to shock and confront its readers. If anything, Alexie seems to want the reader to leave with a sense of the outrage that Indians feel. Lee’s goals seem more centered toward education. She wants her readers to think further about the issues, and their feelings about it, but it is not her goal to anger or confront her readers.

Henry James’ Daisy Miller

Henry James’ Daisy Miller takes a different approach toward dialog and communication. The focus of Daisy Miller is on miscommunication and the rules regarding communication and behavior between two opposing moneyed classes that can loosely be defined as old money and new money.

The central character in the novel is Winterbourne, a wealthy young American man who has been living abroad, primarily in Geneva, for several years. Winterbourne is a likable person among his social peers, who are all wealthy old-money expatriates and Europeans. When he meets Daisy Miller, a beautiful American girl, he feels an instant attraction. When he desires to act on that attraction, however, social conventions hold him back. Daisy is new money, and seems oblivious to the social conventions that define the old money class.

For most of the novel, Winterbourne spends his time analyzing and questioning Daisy’s behavior, trying to figure out if she is worthy of his affection. Class and convention envelop his thoughts. He is incapable of judging Daisy’s character, except in relation to the rules of discourse that belong to his class. The situation is further exacerbated when Daisy begins to spend time with Giovanelli, an Italian man who is clearly, to Winterbourne and his community, well below even the class of Daisy. This prompts an argument between Winterbourne and Daisy.

“Don’t do that; when I am angry I’m stiffer than ever. But if you won’t flirt with me, do cease, at least, to flirt with your friend at the piano; they don’t understand that sort of thing here.”

“I thought they understood nothing else!” exclaimed Daisy.

“Not in young unmarried women.”

“It seems to me much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones,” Daisy declared.

“Well,” said Winterbourne, “when you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here. So when you show yourself in public with Mr. Giovanelli, and without your mother–”

“Gracious! poor Mother!” interposed Daisy.

“Though you may be flirting, Mr. Giovanelli is not; he means something else.”

“He isn’t preaching, at any rate,” said Daisy with vivacity. “And if you want very much to know, we are neither of us flirting; we are too good friends for that: we are very intimate friends.”

“Ah!” rejoined Winterbourne, “if you are in love with each other, it is another affair.”

She had allowed him up to this point to talk so frankly that he had no expectation of shocking her by this ejaculation; but she immediately got up, blushing visibly, and leaving him to exclaim mentally that little American flirts were the queerest creatures in the world. “Mr. Giovanelli, at least,” she said, giving her interlocutor a single glance, “never says such very disagreeable things to me.”

This exchange illuminates the lack of a common discourse community between Winterbourne and Daisy. Winterbourne is defining Daisy by a set of rules that Daisy does not follow. He is, in fact, in violation of those same rules for his community. By those rules, Daisy should not openly flirt with any man, yet Winterbourne is content to see that rule violated as long as the violation is in his favor. He is also willing to confront her with blunt accusations, another action that does not fit with the rules of his community.

Much of the dialog in the book is concerned with the rules of relationships between men and women. Every move Daisy makes seems to violate a rule. Mrs. Miller states, “That girl must not do this sort of thing. She must not walk here with you two men. Fifty people have noticed her.” Winterbourne’s Aunt says, “They treat the courier like a familiar friend–like a gentleman. I shouldn’t wonder if he dines with them.”

Daisy may be oblivious to the rules of the community in which she finds herself, but she knows the difference between insult and affection. Winterbourne’s comments do hurt her. Over the course of the novel, his behavior towards her is far worse than the rules of convention that she breaks. This delineates one of the key points of discrimination and division, that the group in the greater position is always willing to treat the lower group more discourteously than they would treat one of their own. Winterbourne reinforces that theme when he at one point concludes that Daisy was “a clever little reprobate” and “a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.”

The rhetoric in Daisy Miller never rises to the level of hate speech that Indian Killer steeps itself in, but the discrimination is just as insidious. Reprobate is certainly a hateful word. When Winterbourne resorts to that language, if only in his own head, he is rationalizing his exclusion of Daisy. Calvert states, “Uses of the most vile speech . . . are attempts to construct and maintain a reality of domination of one group over another, a reality of unequal treatment.”

Without such obvious markers as race to hang division on, the social classes in Daisy Miller resort to a complex series of rules of behavior by which they can separate themselves. Intermixing among classes is discouraged. Just as Winterbourne’s aunt found Daisy’s friendship with her courier scandalous, once Winterbourne’s friends disapproved of Daisy’s behavior they cut her from the group. They were unwilling to associate with someone of another perceived class. To do otherwise would risk their own status in the group. Daisy was their equal in wealth, if not their better, and she was generally the most attractive woman in any room she entered, yet to that class she was unworthy because she did not follow, or even understand, their conventions.

Communication and Division

The communication in each of these books hinges on different aspects of discourse. Indian Killer is preoccupied with hate speech and strong rhetoric. To Kill a Mockingbird explores the value of conversation and logic when confronting discrimination. Daisy Miller focuses on rules of proper behavior, and how they are used for exclusion. When two groups do not share a discourse, they must remain separate. Daisy can never perceive of what the other class wants because it is beyond her experience. Even when she hears what they say, she cannot comprehend the meanings of their statements because she does not share their specific terminology.

To achieve their individual goals, each book approaches its dialog differently. In Indian Killer, dialog often comes in bursts of arguments without narration. The exchanges are fast and angry. Sentences are often short. Each character states their position without giving any latitude that the other speaker may have a valid opinion. This reflects the theme of the novel, that the cultural differences and divisiveness between these two groups cannot be easily fixed.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a less caustic novel. Education is one of its central themes, from Scout’s experiences in school to the conversational teaching of Atticus and others. The conversations in the book take place at a more relaxed pace that suits the small town atmosphere. Narration surrounds the dialog so that statements do not fly by without reflection. The characters, especially Scout, take the time to think about the other person’s point-of-view in a conversation. They possess empathy. As with Indian Killer, the novel ends after a brutal attack and a resulting death, but because of the prevalence of intelligent conversation and discussion there is a feeling that connections may someday overcome divisions.

Daisy Miller is preoccupied with the rules people develop in order to both include and exclude. As with the first two novels, Daisy Miller ends with death, although it is from disease rather than direct attack. While the outcomes in the book are not as stark as Indian Killer, they are not as hopeful as To Kill a Mockingbird. After Daisy’s death, Winterbourne comes to understand he was mistaken in his assumptions, but much like the rules that govern his world, he is unchanged by this realization.

In Daisy Miller, the dialog reflects both argument and negotiation. Because the rules these people live by are unwritten and selectively enforced, much of the dialog concerns a negotiation of these rules. The dialog replicates the differences between the classes. Daisy constantly uses terms that are misinterpreted by others. For example, Daisy uses the word “intimate” to describe her friendship with Giovanelli. She is apparently unaware that in Winterbourne’s circle this implies a sexual or at least romantic relationship. At another point, she says she has had, “a great deal of gentlemen’s society.” Winterbourne again interprets this in a sexual manner that is apparently unintended. These subtle mistakes in speech confound Winterbourne and characterize the gulf that exists between the two classes.

Dialog is an essential tool for a novel. The method by which characters communicate helps define both the action and the themes of the novel. A single character’s communication style reflects on the personality and intention of that character, but the overall dialog in a book defines themes and illuminates conflicts. Each of these novels approaches dialog in a different manner, and in each case the novel benefits from those choices.

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