Reading a Celebrated Classic
(A Book Review of Haper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird)
July 11 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and arguably one of the most influential cultural books of its kind in the U.S, and so I thought it would be a neat idea to read it along as the world celebrates this beloved classic.
From the opening line, “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow…” Lee captivates the reader’s attention with a deceptively simple story of a Southern family living in a Southern town caught up in a cataclysmic moral crisis. Lee’s writing is that of the storyteller who mesmerizes her audience with a simple, yet so compelling a style. Her narrator Jean Louise Finch, who goes by the nickname Scout, is a delightfully mischievous little tomboy who sees her world through the all-observant, impartial eyes of childhood. She’s bright, funny, and a highly believable child living during her time; there’s nothing contrived about her. Scout lives with her brother Jem, four years her senior, her lawyer father Atticus, and their housekeeper Calpurnia, in Maycomb County where everybody knows or is related to everybody else. Lee spends the first half of the book drawing us into the life of the town and the Finch family, Scout’s hilarious and problematic adjustment to first grade, and brings us into the mystery surrounding the infamous-yet-never-seen Boo Radley. The second half of the book is about the moral crisis that tears the town apart.
To Kill a Mockingbird’s beauty lies in the innocence and humor of its narration. As the children grow and learn more about the society they live in, so do we. Scout’s inquisitive personality is a perfect leader to take us through the book, questioning people’s motives and morals in a way that most of the town’s adults would be persecuted for. Scout’s youth and likeability allows her to get away with making remarks and asking questions on issues that are usually left unspoken. Having a protagonist ask all the questions with her quick-witted humor as a perfect accompaniment, we take a walk through a world facing segregation and hypocrisy that, sadly, still hasn’t been brought to an end to this day.
Written in a straightforward, unaffected way, Lee has a way of saying a lot by saying very little, and her style in fact works well in communicating the world of six year old Scout. One aspect of the novel is the author’s treatment of the character’s Southern accent. You will notice that in some cases the author changes spelling or runs words together to indicate the sound pattern of Southern speech.
In Atticus Finch, Lee created what would eventually grow to be the best-loved character in all American fiction. Atticus is a loving but not a doting father, an able lawyer, and an individual of towering integrity. He takes Tom’s case because he knows and believes that Tom is as deserving of good legal representation as anyone else. Atticus knows better than anyone else how his decision to take the case will affect his children, but as he explains to Scout, who wonders how Atticus can be right if everybody else thinks he’s wrong, if he didn’t take the case, he could never hold his head up in front of his children again. Atticus knows he’s fighting a losing battle, but deep inside himself he believes he may lose a battle but win a bigger war.
The title of the book is explained in Chapter 10 when Atticus gives an air gun to Jem and Scout and warns them to “remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Miss Maudie further explains that this is because mockingbirds are harmless creatures that do nothing but entertain us with song. Tom Robinson is the real “mockingbird” in the story — a harmless man who becomes a victim of racial prejudice. He has done nothing to bring on his own troubles, and his only fault is that he tried to be kind to Mayella Ewell. They (the jurors or to an extent the whole town) find him guilty mostly because they feel that to take the word of a black man over two whites would threaten the system they live under, the system of segregation. Ultimately, the novel implies that to kill a mockingbird is equated with deliberately evil and mean act.
Scout learns that sometimes it is necessary to compromise in order to get along. On the other hand, it is possible for some individuals to do the right thing for quite unexpected reasons. In the final chapter Scout learns that good and justice do not necessarily triumph every time. Harmless individuals can become victims through no fault of their own. And sadly sometimes the system can do nothing to defend them.
The novel offers an overly optimistic and simplistic view of human nature. On the other hand, the hopeful note it strikes may be one of the reasons for the book’s popularity. The author does not ignore the existence of evil in society, but she does suggest that human beings are born with a desire to do the right thing. Perhaps the best measure of the novel’s quality is that it has aged very little in five decades. Readers still see themselves in the characters of Scout and Jem Finch, and are moved in turn to tears and laughter by the story.
Published by Vintage
(Trade Paperback, 2004 Vintage Classics Edition)
Started: July 21, 2010
Finished: July 31, 2010