Review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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With Harper Lee’s death in February and the release of Go Set a Watchman last year, now feels like a particularly poignant time to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird – for so long a staple text taught on syllabuses around the world and held up as a novel of tolerance and good morals. When one pulls back from all the press, from Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning performance in the film adaptation, how does the novel itself hold up, more than fifty years after its original release?

In the hazy days of summer during the 1930s, six-year-old Scout (Jean Louise Finch) and her older brother Jem spend their days finding amusement around their small community of Maycomb County in the American South. One of their neighbours, Boo Radley, is a known recluse and the children are fascinated by the stories they hear about him. Despite the warnings of their widowed father Atticus, the children, along with a visiting friend named Dill (a stand-in for Lee’s good friend Truman Capote), make plan after plan to lure Boo out of his isolation. These are thwarted, however, and time rolls on. Scout starts school and finds it rather constricting compared to the home schooling she has enjoyed with Atticus to that point. The children learn more and more about the folks in their community but when Atticus – a lawyer – is called up to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, the children are exposed to a whole different side of Maycomb County. Mayella Ewell, the white lady who Tom reportedly attacked, is from an impoverished family who are not looked upon well by the other residents of Maycomb, and yet against her word Tom Robinson stands very little chance of justice. In the face of this, Atticus acts with quiet dignity as he goes about defending his client. The subsequent trial is relayed from Scout’s naïve position and by the novel’s close she will understand a lot of more of the “secret court of men’s hearts”.

I think it is fairly common – certainly it was the case for me – to remember To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson. The truth, in fact, is that far more time is spent on the simple life and childhood occupations of Scout, Jem, and Dill as they pursue Boo Radley. It is not until the second half of the novel that Tom Robinson’s case becomes prominent. In both halves of the novel, however, the main conflict is between prejudice and tolerance. This is certainly not contained to racial prejudice and Scout is given strong examples of treating others with respect no matter their position in society by Atticus who is actively sympathetic to poorer classmates of Scout and to Boo Radley who, in his absence, is a cause of speculation and fear. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus tells Scout. Fundamentally, To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story in which Jem and Scout are forced to acknowledge the Others within their community and move to a place of greater knowledge and compassion.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee book cover
The trial of Tom Robinson revolves around the ideas of guilt and innocence and who is qualified to make such a judgement. That men can risk their lives in war for ideals they fail to uphold for all men (and women) is somewhat absurd and Scout feels this keenly, both from her own experience and from observing the more severe cases of poor judgement of guilt in the novel. Lee sets the story up around the common assertion that black men are driven by animalistic desires and cannot be allowed to spend time with white women (a misguided idea that had a lot to do with the segregation imposed by the Jim Crow laws). Incidentally, for anyone interested in the historicism of the novel, there are undoubtedly a few instances where real-life events are mentioned slightly out of time (the WPA is mentioned two years before it existed, Eleanor Roosevelt’s breaking of segregation laws at a conference in 1938 is mentioned three years before it happened) and so it is fair to consider the historical space in which the story exists as an amalgamation of the cultural history of the South rather than anything more specific.

Inevitably, To Kill a Mockingbird has, for better or worse, become thought of as a ‘race’ novel almost to the exclusion of its other themes. However, as a novel about race it is flawed. Toni Morrison has dismissed the novel as a “white savior” story – and she has a point (apart from the fact that Tom isn’t saved). The most evident problem is having Atticus – a white man – speaking in defence of a black man. For Tom Robinson has no real agency in the book and is afforded no real voice. At no time through the narrative does the reader learn of Tom’s, and by crude extension, black people’s qualities save for the one irrefutable truth we know of Tom: he is innocent. Instead of this we are presented with a benevolent white man who preaches tolerance between races but shows no example of parity between them. By positioning Tom as a victim in need of saving, Lee creates a problematic situation in which salvation must come through the white man and in which the black man does not form his own history but rather has it formed for him by the white man. As a side note to this, the word ‘nigger’ appear forty-eight times in the novel. It is not difficult to argue that this volume is gratuitous and likely to cause discomfort to many readers.

Mark Twain is a clear influence on Lee and there are comparisons to be drawn between Huckleberry Finn and Scout, and Atticus and Huck. It is a useful comparison and here’s why: Huck Finn puts his own well-being in danger to protect someone less fortunate than himself, Atticus merely follows through with his duty (his assignment to the Robinson case by the court might be a fatal flaw in the novel’s moral message). In one we have a direct call to dislodge oneself from comfort and confront inequality by attempting to do something about it, on the other we have a man with all the strong-jawed fortitude one could want but who ultimately looks on as justice is not served and fails to create the dissonance required in the reader for real change. To Kill a Mockingbird is the acceptable face of anti-racism, one that anyone can read and feel an upwelling of nostalgia towards the firm patriarchal Atticus who stands up for a black man in a losing battle and that causes no pang of discomfiture that may require action on the reader’s part.

This leads onto a more general discussion of Atticus – the novel’s heart. For Scout may be astute but she is by no means a prodigious child. Consequently she has neither the language nor the moral development to anchor the story herself – it must be Atticus who fills this role. An ode to Lee’s own lawyer father who in 1919 had defended black men who he would see hanged, Atticus’s centrality to the story is slightly problematic. The first half of the story is certainly Scout’s but in the second things are less clear. It is not uncommon for a character-narrator to tell someone else’s story but the fact that the emphasis is not consistent throughout the book is slightly jarring. Second to this, Atticus is a fairly uninteresting character in that he is morally steady and contains very few shades to his character - he is a Christ-like figure, an idealised patriarchal presence. It is not until the novel’s end that Atticus’s self-assured virtue is compromised – and he becomes all the more interesting for this late waiver in which he is persuaded by the town’s sheriff not to place his faith in the legal system to protect his own children after an unseemly act of violence, but instead to smooth/pervert the course of justice by allowing a falsified story to hold sway.

Indeed, the most interesting discussion point around Atticus may be whether his broad love for humanity and his brand of tolerant pacifism are counter-productive in their passivity. After all, intolerance must be actively fought back, one might suggest. There is pretty clear defeatism or abstention from action in his voice when he says that “[t]here’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.” This may be the case but the tone of resignation is less than one might want from Atticus.

The idea that one should and must be able to face the world, particularly one’s children, is raised repeatedly in the novel. The self-respect that comes from acting consistently with one’s spoken beliefs is important as is having the respect of others. As a story of a single father trying to raise children in a far from perfect society, To Kill a Mockingbird is interesting. Atticus tells Scout, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” This falls in line with a consistent show of quiet courage in the novel but again one might question if it is the right sort of courage.





Stepping away from the race issue, the novel does tackle the position of women and children as subordinate to men in the patriarchal society of Maycomb but there is still a hint in Atticus of his support for traditional gender roles when he suggests that a jury made up of women would fail to make a decision as they would be gossiping away, and in general by his allowing Scout’s aunt to chip away at Scout’s perceived lack of femininity. It is interesting that in a novel which features such a strong paternal figure in Atticus – a model for the idealised man – we also find some real challenges to accepted modes of heterosexuality and gender. Scout, albeit young in age, consistently affirms throughout the narrative that she feels no inclination to conform to the feminine gender role towards which she is pushed.

There does seem to be a dearth of writing on To Kill a Mockingbird from the most notable critics of the twentieth century and it is interesting to wonder why this is. It is perhaps the case that many consider the book a rather morally simplistic work aimed at younger readers and thus choose not to dig into it too deeply. This is conjecture of course, but trying to establish where To Kill a Mockingbird sits is a useful train of thought. Lee’s easy prose style – simple without being cliché – is very effective and certainly lends itself to the younger reader’s enjoyment of the story. Although it is the adult Jean Louise Finch who narrates the story, it is entirely through the younger Scout’s eyes which the story is observed and again this may appeal to younger readers. Of course, by telling the story through the eyes of Scout, Lee is able to look upon the prejudices of the adult population of Maycomb without bias and without the social conditioning that affects our judgements. As a consequence the narrative has the ring of simple truth as the unspoiled logic of Scout cuts straight to the heart of the matters at hand – something older and younger readers can appreciate alike.

The truth is, it is difficult to work out exactly what To Kill a Mockingbird is. As a simple moral tale of growing up and of accepting others without prejudice, it is flawed, particularly on the race issue, I would argue. Yet it is not sophisticated enough morally to be anything more satisfying. It could be a pretty satisfying coming-of-age story if you can side-step the moral issues that float about the book. Truman Capote was, after all, right to describe it as a “touching book, and so funny, so likable,” but literature, for me, has to be more than this. The simple and telling truth for me was that on re-reading the novel it left me with absolutely nothing to challenge me or think about after I closed the final page. The nostalgic twinge thoughts of the novel provoke seem somehow misplaced given the actual themes of the book and it, I will admit, left me feeling a little confused as to what I actually made of the book on my most recent reading. Good literature exists in ambiguities and there was too much biblically-certain yet somehow off-kilter morality in this.

Because the face of racism and prejudice has changed over the past hundred years there is somewhat of a disconnect between the world of Scout and that of the modern reader that wouldn’t have existed for readers in the 1960s. The world is changed and To Kill a Mockingbird has slipped into being a period piece. That distance somewhat deadens its impact on the modern reader. Nevertheless, the themes of tolerance and acceptance of others are timeless and, given the slight simplicity of the morality, the book is surely still one that will be part of many younger readers’ formative experiences with the Novel.

2 comments:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Just a quick note on the development of the novel that I didn't manage to fit into the review:

The novel started out as a series of short stories. When these were placed in front of a literary agent in the mid-1950s, Lee was recommended to turn the pieces into a longer, more marketable novel. Even after attempting to do this, Lee was asked to work on the novel further and spent almost three more years editing it into its final form. It came a long way, then, from its original conception.

Matthew Selwyn said...

A note also to say that I realise I have focused on some of the less talked about aspects of the novel rather than the more positive aspects, which are well documented. I'm probably less down on the novel than the second half of the review sounds but I thought these were the more interesting points to bring up and work out for myself (I'm not sure I've managed that yet!).