To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Harper Lee’s only novel to date is To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 but set in the 1930s in America’s deep-south. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was quickly made into a successful film starring Gregory Peck. The popularity that the novel immediately attracted endures to modern times.
The semi-autobiographical story concerns the trial of an innocent black man, Tom Robinson for the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell and around this central drama the novelist has woven a tale which reveals the appalling nature of prejudice in many forms, not just that of colour, as her ‘mocking birds’ which must not be harmed because they do none, suffer from the cruelty and ignorance of those around them.
The story is told through the eyes of the child narrator, Scout, who lives, along with her brother, Jem, with their father, Atticus, the town lawyer and destined to represent the ill-fated Tom Robinson, and their cook/housekeeper and friend, Calpurnia. In his attitude to Calpurnia, as to much in his life, Atticus challenges the contemporary view because though Calpurnia is black, she is treated as a member of the family, much to the annoyance of his sister, Alexandra. Atticus is in fact the means by which Lee examines much that is wrong with Maycomb society, from his lack of prejudice, to his defence of Mrs. Dubose and Boo Radley and his skilful means of challenging the education system which denies Scout the freedom to read by simply ignoring it. The motto by which he lives is that, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ and this he passes on to his children. However, Lee is keen to avoid making Atticus appear patently and self-consciously heroic, as in the mad-dog incident and, indeed, his defence of Tom Robinson, he only acts ‘heroically’ when he is compelled to do so.
Lee treats the reader to a succession of humorous, sympathetic and engaging characters as the story develops, none more so than the pivotal and mysterious Boo Radley and the quaintly eccentric Dill (the latter is thought to have been based on the author Truman Capote, with whom Lee grew up). Boo is in a sense both the greatest victim and the ultimate hero in the book and in many ways Dill is the ‘comic-relief’ as well as being the representative of what we would now call a dysfunctional family as much as is Boo.
By using the device of the child narrator, Lee invites both advantages and disadvantages. She gains the innocence and naivety of Scout together with her ingenuous curiosity and her ability to diffuse tense situations by her inherent innocence but she also has the commensurate disadvantage of having to get round the problems that necessarily attach to a child being the principal means by which a trial for rape is discussed. Lee solves this in the main by having Scout overhear conversations which she does not fully understand but which the reader, of course, does. This dual narrative relationship with the reader is one of the reasons why Lee’s narrative technique has been so highly praised.
However, the main reason why the novel has achieved such a seminal place in the development of the American novel is that it was published at a time when racial tension was at its height in America and being challenged as never before by the Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. Thus, by showing the injustices which black Americans continued to suffer via a narrative set nearly thirty years before, Lee addresses a contemporary problem by means of the historical resonance with which the book is permeated. Emblematic of this is the trial of Tom Robinson which had a contemporary connective in a similar trial in the 1930s. Tom, one of Lee’s principal ‘mocking birds’, is manifestly innocent and proven to be physically incapable of having committed the crime by Atticus: ‘Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand’, he declares and the reader shares his lack of comprehension, making prejudice manifestly against reason. The fact that this does not and cannot save Tom in an atmosphere which seethes with racial hatred adds to the imperative of the narrative;
In the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.
However, Lee is even-handed in her depiction of racial tension, since when Calpurnia takes Scout and Jem to the church where the black residents of Maycomb worship, they are not universally welcomed and certainly Tom is not the only victim of prejudice in the story. Boo Radley, imprisoned by his well-meaning but misguided father after a teenage misdemeanour, has become the subject of much gossip and conjecture. Indeed, the children, Scout, Jem and Dill, make him the subject of their daily dramatics, supplanting the ‘Dracula’ stories with which they have become bored. Atticus stops this as soon as it starts and the irony is that a friendship blossoms secretly between Boo and the children, of which the culmination is Boo’s saving the lives of Scout and Jem when they are attacked by the vicious Bob Ewell. Scout reiterates the idea, slightly altered, that Atticus uttered early in the novel, that ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them’ and by now the reader fully understands the meaning of those words, just as the child does.
In conclusion, perhaps it is true to say that the enduring achievement of Harper Lee’s novel is to portray racial hatred and a multiplicity of tensions motivated by misapprehension and prejudice via the microcosm of small-town America which is Maycomb. Indeed, perhaps readers continue to respond to To Kill a Mockingbord precisely because of the prejudices which sadly remain.
- Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S.Silber, Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender, (Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 2003).
- Wayne Flynt, Poor but Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites, (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL, 1989).
- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockinbird, (Arrow, London, 1989).
- Claudia Durst Johnson, Understanding to Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents, (Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 1994).
- Annie Kasper, ‘General Semantics in to Kill a Mockingbird’, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 63, 2006.
- Dean Shackelford, ‘The Female Voice in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: Narrative Strategies in Film and Novel’, The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 50, 1996.
- Renee Swanson, ‘The Living Dead: What the Dickens Are College Students Reading?’, Policy Review, No. 67, 1994.