Friday 19 November 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Of all the novels I've read over my lifetime, there are several which I recommend to friends, a fair few that I am surprised if someone hasn't read, and just a handful that I think everybody must read! To Kill A Mockingbird is in the last category.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird for one of my GCSE English modules. Correction: I read a playscript adaptation, which captured the gist of the novel while omitting a lot that didn't directly affect the main plot. Even at fourteen or so I resented the truncated version, just as I was grateful for being in the only class in the year group to actually study a novel (Lord of the Flies) instead of a few odd short stories in The Anthology: novels were harder work but the alternative felt like cheating. I wanted something I could really get my teeth into. (Looking back, it's clear I was destined to study English Literature.) Thinking about it now, though, it seems that by setting us To Kill a Mockingbird for the obligatory drama module, the exam board were slipping us another classic novel in disguise, and a couple of years later I read the book properly for the first time.

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.


  1. i haven't seen the movie either :(

    also, i really should plan to re-read this soon. i haven't read it as an adult and i'm sure i would have such a greater appreciation of it now.

    great post!

  2. Wonderful review of one of my all-time favorite books. I agree, it is something everyone really must read. The movie is also phenomenal, with Gregory Peck as Atticus. Do yourself a favor and watch it as soon as you can.

  3. Love this book so much and I enjoyed your review.
    And I agree that Atticus is an amazing character and hero but I wish people would give Scout just as much credit. She is such a beautiful character.

  4. Yes, she is, and I'm sorry I didn't get everything in that I wanted to. Scout has a mixture of innocence and wisdom, and sees the seemingly simple truths that so many of the adults' minds are too clouded by The Way Things Are to understand. The scene where she stumbles across the lynch mob and reminds Mr Cunningham that he is a person, and not just a mindless part of a crowd, is just amazing, and has a lasting effect.

  5. Thanks for the comment on my blog post about House of Dead Maids and Wuthering Heights. I am definately going to pick up a copy soon.

    And this review here made me realize how many books I would love to reread. :)

  6. The movie was quite good actually, it was one of those movies that doesn't ruin the book (as most do!). I thought the book was absolutely incredible, it was just so beautifully written and so deep and meaningful, I absolutely loved it. I would recommend watching the movie too, as Atticus is portrayed amazingly - in my opinion. Great review!


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