Updated on October 2, 2015
35. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee
Hello, my name’s Clare and I’ve never read To Kill A Mockingbird. Well, until now, but I did do two English degrees and somehow managed to make it this far without reading it. But at last I have rectified that embarrassing situation, and I’m very glad that I did!
Of course, I was mostly spurred on Harper Lee’s presence in the news this year. Her first novel, Go Set A Watchman, was controversially discovered and released – it acts as a sort of sequel to Mockingbird in that it follows many of the same characters but years later. Hearing about the furore surrounding Watchman I decided it was high time I read the book for which Lee is well-known.
To Kill A Mockingbird is told from the point of view of Scout Finch, a girl growing up in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. She has a brother, Jem, and they are looked after by their single father, a lawyer named Atticus. Theirs is an average town and much of the beginning of the book follows Scout and Jem’s childhood, the various adventures and misadventures they have, and the friends they make. Down the street from their home is the mysterious house of Boo Radley, a man nobody ever sees because since childhood he has never left his house. The children become somewhat obsessed with Radley and do everything they can to try to draw him out, to no avail.
The real crux of this novel is race. As the story progresses we discover at first disconcerting and then outright bigoted attitudes towards race in the world of Maycomb. There are black people living in the town, but they have their own areas, their own churches and they are definitely treated as lower-class citizens. Portraying racism through the eyes of a child being exposed to it – and not really understanding it – is highly effective because it highlights how trivial the differences are that racists choose to latch onto. It is the storyline of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, that takes the town and the novel by storm.
Of course, the courtroom scenes are at the very heart of this novel. Atticus is the only lawyer in the area willing to defend Tom Robinson (most would not ‘sully their names’ by defending a black man) and he does a fantastic job of it. He is sharp and intelligent, and he builds a case so strongly in favour of Tom that it is hard to see how anybody could possibly find him guilty. The fact that the jury does find him guilty just goes to prove that it is bigotry and not justice that prevails here. The courtroom scenes are electric, with Atticus poking holes in the white accusers’ arguments, and the children watching from the balcony above and feeling deeply moved by the injustice they are witnessing.
So where does the title To Kill A Mockingbird come from? At one point in the novel Atticus gives his children air rifles for Christmas and tells them, “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This ‘sin’ is explained later by Miss Maudie, who points out that “mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” The underlying message here is that we should not harm people who do nothing to harm us. In the novel, Tom Robinson is a mockingbird – he is hard-working and generous, but he is killed for it – and so is Boo Radley, who never bothers anyone but is persistently provoked by the children. Scout and Jem learn early on that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, and yet they see mockingbirds being cut down around them all the time.
This novel is very readable. It isn’t dense, quite the opposite – it’s charming and often funny – but it also doesn’t shy away from some truly harsh realities. There is brutality here and a strong moral lesson. I think that Mockingbird has become a classic for good reason.
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” – Atticus Finch
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.