When Scout and Jem are given air rifles, their father, renowned lawyer Atticus Finch tells them:
"'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.'"Scout recalls:
"That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
"'Your father's right,' she said. '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's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'"But what has this to do with the main story, and why does the title come from this small conversation? The image comes up later on in a newspaper editorial on the main plot: the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of the rape of a white girl, Mayella Ewell. Atticus is given the job of defending Tom, and much to the townspeople's displeasure, is intent on defending him as well as he possibly can. It is obvious that Tom is innocent, but this is the Deep South in the 1930s, and there is simply no way a jury would favour a black man over a white.
The novel is told by Scout, or Jean Louise Finch as she is named on her birth certificate, who is six at the start and about nine when the story ends. To her innocent mind, it is painfully obvious how things should be, and we feel her bafflement at discovering the ignorance and hypocrisy of the adults involved in the case. Everyone despise the Ewell family, especially father Bob Ewell, a drunken, violent, cowardly layabout. The Ewells are seen as the lowest of the low, and Tom Robinson is a kind, church-going family man, whose only crime was to feel sorry for Mayella Ewell. It is so obvious. And yet. And still. They are white.
Throwing books across the room is usually reserved only for bad writing, but I was sorely tempted on this reading of To Kill a Mockingbird out of sheer emotion. I wanted to shake some sense into the people, all the people.
My sister was reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett at the same time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and when discussing the books we both found ourselves wondering, in her words, "whether I would be so stupid and brainwashed if I'd lived back then. It seems like another world." Would we just accept the prejudices and injustices because That's Just The Way Things Are. In Atticus Finch we see someone who does not, who fights for justice and equality. In 2003, Atticus was voted as the greatest hero by the American Film Institute, against all the more "obvious," action characters out there. His heroism is summed up by his quote at the end of Part One:
"'[Courage is] when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."Atticus doesn't change Maycomb County overnight, but towards the end we start to see a few people acknowedging the injustices in the system and in their own nature, start to question the things they have previously accepted. Unexpected people show support for Atticus, when previously they criticised him, and speak out against the racism that infests the town. If only baby-steps, there is a little movement. People are starting to think.
I've never seen the film of the book, but by all accounts it lives up to the book and is worth watching. I intend to find myself a copy soon.