Tuesday, December 13, 2011

122. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960; 284) - read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge - is a beautiful and innocent book that mirrors the conscience of a people. It belongs to the group of a few books, including Morrison's Beloved and Song of Solomon, that investigate our common mentality, query our attitudes and unapologetically point to our internal failings as humanity. Those books that slowly furl man's animalistic masque, a masque that creates a dissociation between thought and words so that we could think one thing and act entirely in the opposite direction or even a dichotomy of thoughts - one for the thinker and his or her coterie and the other for the Others, masques which further create a diametric self in an already dual personality. One might say a Jekyll and Hyde personality, had it not been described as a cliched phrase. However, what makes Harper Lee's book different from these few others in this sub-genre is the protagonist, nine-year old Jean Louise Finch or Scout. A young precocious girl who doesn't take everything as given but who asks questions, demands answers and ask further questions where issues are not clearer to her. Her observations of the people around her, her teachers, her father, Maycomb's neighbours, bring out the beauty of Lee's work. In fact, the paragraph 
Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was - she was going down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her - she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it's time somebody taught 'em a lesson, they were gettin' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an' then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home -
by the main narrator, Scout, on her teacher's double-standards regarding her hatred towards Hitler's persecution of Jews and her support for Maycomb County's persecution of blacks summarises Harper Lee's love story which became an American Literary masterpiece. That statement becomes even more revealing and meaningful, if one realises that prior to this the teacher had used the word 'persecution' and 'democracy' to distinguish between America and Germany. She says
Over here we don't believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. ... There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn't think so is a mystery to me.
Set in the Southern town of Maycomb, To Kill a Mockingbird, described as both Southern Gothic and Bildungsroman, is about human relationships, humanity, race, morality, conscience, childhood and growing up. Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, a lawyer and a legislature for the Maycomb County - a man whose self-respect is synonymous with his respect towards the other; a man who would first want to be a living example of what his children should be. In the world that nine-year old Scout describes, Maycomb County is full of castes so that people are known for certain behaviours; for instance it is known and accepted that the Finches are Noble, the Ewells are thieves and blacks are servants. As the story unfolds Scout tells of life in Maycomb, its people and especially of her relationship with her brother Jem and the obscure and enigmatic Dill. Life for the trio was pleasant and more so under a liberal father whose preferred choice of correcting a child is the threat of punishment that never materialises and even though people, including Aunt Alexandra (Atticus's sister), complained of Scout's tomboyish behaviour, her wont to move with the boys and wear breeches instead of flowery dresses and necklaces, her nonconformity to the behavioural dictates established for girls, Atticus only glanced over it; seeing beyond the outward development into the development of their moral aptitude, courage and ability to stand for what is right, and respect everybody irrespective of their colour, religion and others.

Every summer when Dill came visiting, they would act from stories and Dill would tell them several stories. However, when Dill was introduced to the Radley Place, a house inhabited by a recluse and enigmatic Arthur Radley (or Boo Radley), Dill quickly made the wooing out of Boo from his seclusion as the trio's latest adventure. The children had heard and added onto the stories surrounding Boo so much so that it became scarier and Boo took on preternatural abilities, making him a fearful figure to the children. And though Boo surprised them with gifts of gum and watch they never saw him in person. But he would later save Jem and Scout from being killed.

Their life was mostly devoid of problems until Tom Robinson, a black man living in the quarters, was accused of raping Mayella Ewell by Mr. Ewell and Atticus was nominated to defend him. Though the people of Maycomb knew the Ewells to be liars and thieves, they still disapproved of Atticus who made it his personal duty to defend Tom Robinson. According to Atticus, this was a test of his moral aptitude and should he fail he 
couldn't even tell [Scout] or Jem not to do something again. 
This is the central plot of the story. And Harper expertly handled Jem and Scout as they went were taunted by Maycomb's children and adults alike and labelled 'nigger-lovers' even when Scout Finch did not understand what the term meant and had to fight those who called Atticus by that name because she read the  the derogatory import it carried. When she asked Atticus what it means, he said
'nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don't mean anything - like snot-nose. It's hard to explain - ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody's favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It's slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody."
To Kill a Mockingbird  is a book that shows how people would always want to be associated with the majority; how people are afraid of standing for what is right but would sacrifice what is right in order to gain acceptance, for what we saw in the end is that though many of Maycomb's inhabitants were against the bad treatment of Tom Robinson, knew that he was innocent, none was willing to stand up against the system. Each want to preserve the status quo, afraid of disturbing the hornets' nest. It also shows that we need not the majority for major changes to be done and though Atticus might not have achieved what he intended to, in the end he was respected by all for the stance he took.

I conclude with this quote from which the title was taken:
I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. ... Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.


  1. Great post and love the way you've explained the dichotomy in her thinking concerning prejudice.

  2. Great review of this book, powerful little novel isn't it?

  3. Great review! I read this novel for the first time last year and loved it. I wasn't sure what to make of it at first, then came the court scenes. So powerful!

  4. I agree Anna. It starts of as those novels that can go on till the end of time but when the problem started, I know Lee had heaved upon us a problem that needs to be untangled by degree.

  5. Wonderful review, Nana. Makes me want to find my copy of the book and read it all over again. Thanks for the review.

  6. I read this book a long time ago, and saw the play a few years ago. Powerful each time, as is this moving review.

  7. These types of stories always touch me in a different way because I grew up in the south and had to deal with lots of foolishness. So I can't even imaginge what my parents and grandparents had to deal with years before me.

    I always wonder if I was in a situation where I could take a stance like Atticus, would I do it?

    Someone forwarded me a powerful quote yesterday that said: The only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for goo men to do nothing.

    Hmmm. Where would we be had all the good men done nothing?

  8. Shannon, this is a beautiful and important quote. Yes, if we should stand up for what we believe in and not move with the tides or the majority, life will be beautiful. The thing is, sometimes it doesn't need many men (in the human sense, no gender connotation) to make this change. In this story, many of Maycomb's folks knew that what Atticus is doing is right and that Ewell is wrong, dead wrong, but were afraid to stand up to their kind. Their support showed subtly when he won his seat to represent the county in the legislature. See?

  9. @Kinna, this is a book that can be reread without any problem. Unlike others that we plough through just to finish it and damp them.

  10. @Myne... Guess this book has been transformed into a lot of things: plays and movies. Hope the message was really transmitted and not just the story.

  11. I've seen many movies based on other novels, and they weren't even the same story. This movie is very true to the novel and actually quotes the book itself. This has to be the best movie based on a novel!

  12. I have read it twice, and will surely go back again in near future. To Kill A Mockingbird is my most favorite book of my life! The writing is simple, yet the reflection is very deep. I'm glad you loved it too (so far I haven't met any real reader who doesn't like it).


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