Recalling her reaction to reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, my friend said, “When I finished it, I just wished that everyone could be like Atticus Finch, or at least try.” Indeed. If only everyone could be decent and virtuous through and through. If only everyone would treat others with respect, regardless of their place in society. If only everyone could retain their faith in humanity in the face of prejudice and ignorance, in the face of threats against himself and his family. If only every parent could be gentle and understanding while setting firm limits. If only every man who was a dead-eye shot could avoid using a gun except when it is necessary to defend the community from a clear-cut danger.
Harper Lee intended for readers to long for decency. Not only that, but she spelled out exactly what she thought ‘decency’ and ‘right living’ means on a wide range of issues from large to small: what is justice, what is honor, what is duty; what is sympathy, what is courtesy, what is tact; what does it mean to love one’s neighbor; how does a reckless child learn to be a responsible adult? She demonstrated her code through both the actions and the words of her characters.
Far from being the utilitarian and sentimental potboiler that I expected, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of fiction. Harper Lee unfolds her stories in such a homely and leisurely manner that you don’t realize you’re taking in a systematic moral treatise at the same time.
The literary device that enabled the author to reveal the setting, the plot, and the characters slowly, in tiny easily digestible units, was using the viewpoint of Atticus’s daughter, a precocious little girl, in her eighth and ninth years, called Scout. Lee didn’t attempt to create a childish voice, but she depicted events in the way that Scout experienced them.
In order to deal with themes of racism and justice, the major plot has to do with the trial of a handicapped black laborer, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned by the judge to defend Tom, and he makes a very convincing case for Tom’s innocence, while knowing that the jury would never take the word of a Negro over that of a white man. When a mob threatens to lynch Tom, Atticus is prepared to defend him without using a weapon, sticking by his principles at the risk of his own life.
The subplot concerns a reclusive neighbor, known by the children as Boo. When he was a young man, Boo, whose real name is Arthur Radley, got in trouble with the law while hanging out with a gang of ruffians. His parents’ response was to keep him hidden at home. After 15 years of isolation, Arthur casually stabbed his father in the leg as he passed by. It is evident that he needs some kind of help, but his father refuses to let him go to an asylum, so he ends up back at home, even more isolated. When his parents finally die, his older brother Nathan moves in and continues Boo’s confinement.
Scout and her brother Jem, who is about 4 years older, and their summertime friend Dill, who is 8-10 years old, make the mysterious Boo into a dangerous monster. Sometimes they are afraid to pass his house; other times, they try to provoke him to show himself. Although they manage to rile his brother Nathan—who takes a pot shot at them when they enter the Radley place late at night in an effort to leave Boo a friendly note—Boo sees their gesture as friendly play, as it was intended. He responds by leaving tiny keepsakes in a hole in an oak tree, but mean Nathan cuts off that form of contact by filling the hole with cement.
The way these two plots are intertwined is a marvel to behold.
The man who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape is a shiftless, no-account white man, named Bob Ewell, who lives on welfare with a ragged bunch of motherless children next to the dump—quite literally ‘poor white trash,’ but still higher in the social pecking order than the lowly Negroes. His eldest daughter, Mayella, age 19—friendless and isolated, like Boo—becomes attracted to Tom Robinson when he passes her house each day on the way to and from his job working as a laborer on a nearby farm. Although his left arm is damaged and hangs useless, he is young and strong. His only fault is sympathizing with Mayella’s situation. He sees that she totally lacks support from her father and the younger children in the family, and he instinctively comes to her aid when she asks him to help with some task. When she takes advantage of the situation to kiss him and hold him in her arms, she seals his doom. Her father observes the embrace through a window and totally freaks out. He enters the house raging, and when Tom quickly departs, he proceeds to whack Mayella about the head and neck, not stopping until she is on the floor. Then he covers up his violence by accusing Tom of rape, and Mayella goes along with this in order to hide her shame.
The courtroom scenes where Atticus reveals the Ewells’ squalid life and the flimsiness of their accusations through patient and respectful questioning are great set pieces of sustained drama. The children look on from the balcony among the black community, who are stunned that any white man would put so much of himself into defending a black man. The raucous white people on the floor are temporarily subdued by doubt and suspense. After unexpectedly long deliberations, the all white male jury finds Tom guilty and sentences him to death. The injustice of the verdict hits the children and the reader like an anvil falling to the floor.
Though Bob Ewell gets his way in court, he is humiliated by the experience, and he vows to get Atticus if it takes the rest of his life. Instead of going directly for the attorney, he attacks Scout and Jem on Halloween night. Scout is saved by the chicken wire in her ham costume and rolls comically out of danger, but Ewell succeeds in twisting Jem’s arm behind his back and is on the verge of delivering a fatal blow with a jack knife, when he is overpowered by Boo, who stabs him to death with a kitchen knife. It is unclear to the children who saved them: Jem passes out and Scout’s vision is impeded by her awkward costume. When Sheriff Tate arrives on the scene, he quickly figures out what has happened, but he chooses to cover up the truth—by saying Ewell fell on his own knife—because saving the children’s lives would make him a hero in the small town, and he figures Boo would hate being the center of attention—it would be a kind of punishment.
The issue of killing mockingbirds is mentioned early in the book, when Atticus gives Scout and Jem air rifles for Christmas. He tells them never to point a gun indoors, and never to shoot a mockingbird, because killing a mockingbird is sinful. A friendly neighbor explains why: “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.” At the end, when Sheriff Tate decides to hide the truth about how Bob Ewell died, he explains: “To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin.” Scout understands this. She says, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” There’s a time for justice, and a time for mercy.
All this drama and high seriousness is interwoven with comical scenes, such as the hilarious Halloween pageant featuring children dressed as the agricultural products of the region. Or the meeting of the ladies’ Christian group that earnestly discusses the plight of some happy heathens, while freely engaging in un-Christian prejudice against members of their own community. Or Scout’s first day in school, when her teacher is reduced to tears by her own ineptitude and one of the younger Ewell children, who sasses her and walks out of school. Or Jem’s attempt to use a fishing pole to get a message to Boo in the middle of the night, and losing his pants in the process.
As appealing as this story is—full of homely detail, childish innocence, and colorful anecdotes—it is tempting to take it literally, but it is not a documentary, it is a story, a constructed piece of fiction. In fact it is a parable—a story with a moral. The characters have been idealized and simplified to illustrate certain principles.
I read this book because I wondered why it kept appearing on so many lists of best books and favorites. It appeals to our longing for basic human decency with subtle and refined artistry.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Publication Date: July 1960
Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.