To Kill A Mockingbird

Cover-of-To-Kill-A-MockingbirdIt’s funny how many well-known classics – Frankenstein springs to mind – turn out to be quite different to my expectations. I thought To Kill A Mockingbird was all about a court case in which a black man is wrongfully accused of the rape of a white woman. And chapters 16-22 out of 31 are indeed focused on this gripping piece of blatant injustice, beautifully constructed, jaw-droppingly outrageous and rightfully taking their place amongst the works of literature that will survive eternity because they have something so powerful to say.

But what about the rest of the book? It reminded me of other American classics like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer’s Schooldays with their gentle pace and episodic structure, a slow 360 degree contemplation of a society that is still in the process of constructing itself, although it thinks itself finished and complete. The heart of Mockingbird is with Scout and Jem, the siblings who are being brought up by their widower father, Atticus Finch, and allowed to run wild, according to small town wisdom. But we readers see nothing of the sort. Instead, much of the novel is about the education that Atticus is trying to give them – an education that is complicated by their own perceptions and the rules that society seeks to impose. For what Atticus is trying to do is teach them to be unusually deep and perceptive readers – to read against the grain of common understanding.

Take for instance, Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, an elderly neighbour who torments Scout and Jem by insulting their beloved father – because of his decision to defend the black man, Tom Robinson. Jem loses his temper eventually and cuts the heads off all her camillias, an act which angers Atticus and for which he must pay a penance. Mrs Dubose wants to be read to every day, and the children carry this promise out, hating and fearing the bedridden fits she succumbs to, whilst being aware that the reading sessions are gradually growing longer and longer. Finally they are released and Mrs Dubose dies shortly afterwards. Only then does Atticus present them with the solution to the mystery. Mrs Dubose, old and ill, has become a morphine addict, but she is determined to crack the habit before she dies. Jem’s reading helps her through the stages of withdrawal. Atticus explains to them:

‘I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what…She was the bravest person I ever knew.’

Instead of seeing a cranky, cantankerous, vicious old lady, Atticus insists they should see the reality of fear and despair that lies beneath, as well as courage in the face of death. It might look like she hates them, but really, Mrs Dubose hates her own fate. It’s a beautiful study in compassion, but it’s also remarkably convoluted. Another example is Mr Dolphus Raymond, a white man considered to be evil because he lives with a black woman and appears to be constantly drunk. In fact, the children learn that he only pretends drunkenness to help out the townspeople who want to hate him for the way he lives. He hands them an excuse that also gives them a credible way to understand why he won’t change.

A great deal of this novel is concerned, then, with the legibility or otherwise of people, the strange ways they mislead or signify by misdirection because of an overly rigid and complex code of appearances. How does this fit in with the crucial trial, you might ask? Well, perhaps it’s going to take this sort of careful, subversive reading for the whites to come to terms with the blacks, to see past their colour and the prejudices it provokes, to the real people beneath.

But there are some problems with this. Scout, quite rightly points out that the education they are receiving is out of line with the community they live in: ‘nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything’ she complains, instinctively aware they are being prepared for a society that is not yet ready for them. And the educated, liberal middle-class attitude that Atticus wants to pass on to his children is itself steeped in its own kinds of coding. What Atticus wants Scout and Jem to do is never show their feelings. They must at all times maintain a veneer of politeness and respect, no matter what they feel.

Whatever is wrong with this, you may ask? Well, the problem is that such a mode of behaviour ends up by supposing that only vile and unpleasant things lurk beneath the surface of human beings – that politeness is essential or else aggression and vice will seep out. We’re given an example of this in Scout’s teacher, who confuses Scout by sanctimoniously reviling Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in the classroom whilst mouthing off to her friends in private about the blacks and the need for them to keep their place. Where education doesn’t cover her attitude, that old human hostility rears its head.

But the best example of the problem with this attitude comes from Atticus himself. At the end of the book, Scout and Jem are placed in great danger, but their attacker is stabbed. When the sheriff comes to see Atticus, he tells him the villain fell on his own knife. Atticus will not believe this; in fact he is determined that Jem must have killed him in self-defence and it’s only by the most strenuous efforts on the sheriff’s part that the wholly innocent Jem doesn’t land up in jail. Atticus is incapable of believing in his own son’s innocence because his code of interpretation gets in the way.

See, this novel cannot believe that humans can live without a code, and that’s the most intriguingly problematic thing about it. There is no hope in emotional congruence as the saviour of human relations – a world in which people are allowed to feel what they feel, but precisely because they have their feelings and are aware of them, can choose how best to act. The most congruent characters in the novel are, of course, Scout and Jem, and this is why they are so endearing and so lovable and so easy to relate to. It’s also why the hopes for a more just society rest upon their shoulders. When Scout asks Mr Raymond why he’s told them his deepest secret, he says: ‘”Because you’re children and you can understand it”,’ children whose instincts have not yet been warped by social mores, and who can still cry out of a wordless but accurate horror over ‘the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.’

To Kill A Mockingbird is brilliant on the simple hell that gets enacted on blacks by whites. When it comes to the behaviour of adult whites between themselves, the situation becomes more complex. Perhaps being taught to pretend a polite serenity one doesn’t feel is the first step forward, but it’s still pretending. In a world where, as Judge Taylor says ‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for,’ the practice of pretence gives them a reason to do so. But still, above this layer of complexity, Mockingbird is a novel that pushes hard for compassion, sympathy and kindness, thus gaining a place in the great canon of world literature not only for its storytelling skills, but also for its great big heart.

56 thoughts on “To Kill A Mockingbird

  1. I was a child when I read this so didn’t get any of these subtexts🙂 Do you think that there was a different way that Harper Lee could have had Atticus “be” and would it have had the same popular effect?

    • Oh me and my subtexts! I do love them so. If I had any say in the matter, I might like Atticus to have a bit more faith in his kids and I felt he rather let the side down by allowing snobbish Aunt Alexandra to stay in order to mould Scout. But you’re probably right and it speaks to most people the way it is.

      • I thought it was interesting reading your take on it, because it’s the sort of thing you don’t necessarily see when you are younger. I was a bit of a black and white reader in those days, Atticus was the “good” guy therefore everything he did must have been justifiable. (Explains why I wasn’t very good at making friends then too.)

  2. This book meant a lot to me in my teenage years, and I’m still a little wary of rereading it in case it doesn’t hold up to my memories! That said, your review is a wonderful reminder of the richness of this novel, and I really like the way you’ve brought out so many different facets of this story.

    • Oh I understand! I have books like that too. I certainly found it rich and intriguing, so you’d probably love it just as much now as you did then. But sometimes the memory is so lovely as it is, it doesn’t want to be messed with!

  3. Not a book I’ve ever read and so two of my book groups have scheduled it precisely because they are horrified by my ignorance. I shall come back to your post next month when I’ve read the novel for the first of those discussions.

    • Ooh well I shall be very interested to hear what you and your book group make of it – particularly as I might still have retained a few details in my mind if your discussion is only a month away!🙂

  4. What a thoughtful review! I confess I’ve never read this book (*hangs head in shame*) but I suspect I would have missed many of the nuances if I had read it at an earlier age. I have a copy – maybe this will be year I finally read it!

    • I’ve been meaning to read it for years too! It’s only made its way to the top of the queue by leaving behind in the dust a whole bunch of other must reads that remain, ahem, unread.🙂 If only I could read more quickly!

  5. A fascinating reading! Growing up in the U.S. South, Lee was probably immersed in a culture that believed in original sin, so much so that the idea of everyone having a hidden dark side was always there in the background. That idea fits in nicely with your reading of Atticus.

    • Teresa, that is a brilliant insight. It also explains why I felt that Atticus was as near to a saint as you might find in a novel. Lawyers are supposed to be god’s representative on earth (in the kind reading towards them!).

    • Have you much experience with growing up in or living in the South? I ask because a culture that is “immersed in original sin” does not describe my hometown. Immersed in beer on St. Patrick’s Day? Yes. Original sin? Not so much.

      • I’ve lived my entire life in the South (Virginia), living just outside a small town not unlike Maycomb until going to college. Communities vary, of course, but in the areas where I spent my childhood and early adulthood, that sort of Christian ideology was always there in the background and tended to affect people’s thinking, even when it wasn’t talked about openly. Beer, not so much. I wouldn’t say that holds true where I live now, which is so close to DC to hardly even count as the South.

  6. It’s a fascinating book—I read it when I was 12 or 13, I think, and I remember thinking how glad I was that Atticus Finch wasn’t my dad, because as much as I admired him for standing up for the downtrodden, he struck me as an incredibly sanctimonious pain in the ass, just generally speaking. Which is not to say I didn’t value compassion even at that age; I did, and I do. But the careful compilation of subtext sat awkwardly with my deep vein of bitter cynicism. Sometimes people are just assholes, and sometimes, yes, they’ve constructed an identity worth seeing past. But not always.

    • See I do agree with you that some people are just assholes, and, even, that if you behave like one you probably ought to get called out on it. It’s the only way that change really happens, or else we enable bad behavious. I am all for compassion, but it has to make sense. Then it’s hugely compelling and right. I do think you have to love people for the right reasons and dislike them for the right reasons, as far as we are capable of that.

  7. I loved this book (and the film) as a teenager and don’t remember having a problem with Atticus, but maybe I would interpret certain aspects of the story differently if I read it again as an adult. I’m hoping to find time for a reread soon and will then have to decide whether or not I want to read Go Set a Watchman!

    • That’s interesting. I didn’t think of my reading as one about having a ‘problem’ with Atticus. As I was reading the book, I felt that he was being set up as a hero because of his immense capacity to suck up the world’s anxiety, fear and negativity. And then I felt, wow, poor guy, there’s a man headed for an early grave from chronic stress. So I wanted to look deeper into what he was saying, and what he was teaching, see if there was a way that people could be Atticus without having to go the whole hog and be a saint. I think after reading this, I’d be more tempted now towards Go Set A Watchman – I wouldn’t have read it before.

  8. I am so tickled you liked this, one of the few things we Yanks got right. As always, your review is wonderful. I appreciate how you include your experience of it.

    • Aw thank you! I do love American literature. I’ve been sort of toying with the idea of getting to the classics that I haven’t read over the course of the summer. When I first started blogging, I set myself an American lit challenge and I really loved doing it.

  9. A most interesting account. It is many years since I taught this, although for obvious reasons it has remained a key text, centred on young characters. I recognise your perspective which I viewed as versions of dishonesty, hypocrisy, including the historical opening where the issue of the whites being refugees from religious intolerance is placed to hang over their modern day attitudes. I’m not sure I can envisage that paradise (cultural icon) you imply where there is “emotional congruence as the saviour of human relations” or where there is no code. No code would set us adrift in a void of social-cultural asphixiation or perhaps I’m just limited in trying to envisage a one-to-one relationship between oneself and the world. Anyway, even if I am right let’s stick with the hopeful view that the impossible just takes a little longer!

    • You know, I was thinking a lot about codes and their potential inescapability as I was writing this review. I wondered the same thing – could we ever escape them? And then, I thought that the great 20th century movements of identity politics – feminism and postcolonialism – were both fundamentally about authenticity, and how essential it is. The code always reveals itself as a grab for power over others, and whilst we may not be able to escape them, I do think they are worth challenging and resisting, to at least keep as much air circulating as possible. I tend to think that codes deform as much as they offer us people to be, and that finding out who we are is perhaps the essential task of being alive. It takes a lot of courage to do that, for sure, and it isn’t easy. But I do think that people always have the potential to be their best selves, and it’s believing that we’re imprisoned in states where the things we want are not available or not permitted that makes us go wrong. I’ll certainly join you in thinking that the impossible takes a little longer – I’ve certainly got my own impossibles that I’m keen on!🙂

      • A Coat

        By William Butler Yeats

        I made my song a coat
        Covered with embroideries
        Out of old mythologies
        From heel to throat;
        But the fools caught it,
        Wore it in the world’s eyes
        As though they’d wrought it.
        Song, let them take it
        For there’s more enterprise
        In walking naked.

  10. Wow, you have turned the novel into a descendant of Émile, with Atticus in the role of the Tutor, concocting increasingly preposterous and artificial scenarios to lead, or trick, his pupils to the correct conclusion. I mean, “pretends drunkenness to help out the townspeople who want to hate him,” that’s wonderful. I had no idea the novel was so insane.

    The flip of Teresa’s idea is good, too – the South is so crazy, people do not have hidden dark sides, but hidden good sides!

    I disagree strongly with the characterization of Huckleberry Finn as “gentle” or “slow.” I find it zippy and a bit cruel. The Adventure of Tom Sawyer is also less zippy and less cruel, although I still would not call it gentle or slow. I have not read Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

    • Alas, I have not read Emile, but I will happily take your word for it. To be accurate, Atticus guides the children through his interpretation of Mrs Dubose, but the encounter with Mr Raymond happens when Atticus is in the courtroom and Raymond is alone with the children. But yes, there are a lot of intriguing portraits in the novel of small town individuals, and they have a lot of layers, shall we say.

      Ha, yes, I loved Teresa’s point and your flipside scenario is great too.

      I had to think a fair bit about why I felt the book was slow. I think it’s the way I react to episodic fiction, which often feels to me like stuff happens, and then more stuff happens. My main interest is in the ideas of the novel and the way they influence the main narrative arc. I can get frustrated with the series of episodes that don’t seem to get me any closer to what interests me most in the act of storytelling. That’s just me – there are lots of ways to read, that’s just the one I naturally gravitate towards. As for cruelty, Mockingbird is very very kind in its unfolding and in all honesty it’s been a while since I read the others so the details are gone. I don’t recall much violence in them, but I could be wrong!

    • “Two or three minutes later the murdered man, the blanketed corpse, the lidless coffin and the open grave were under no inspection but the moon’s. The stillness was complete again, too.” The end of Ch. 9, of the serene, peaceful Tom Sawyer.

      • Mmm-hmm, but I don’t find that in itself makes Tom Sawyer a novel of graphic violence. I believe ‘gentle’ was the word you originally took issue with, and it is not synonymous with either serene or peaceful. To me that description is gentle on the reader in the way that James Ellroy is not, for instance.

      • Yes, but what leads up to that corpse? That part if more in the spirit of Ellroy.

        Or, to be as literal as possible now, I included the gentle closing of the chapter as a joke. The earlier part has Tom & Huck witness a corpse-robbing and knife-murder.

        I just reread the book – there is lots of violence!

      • If you’ve recently reread it then of course – I must have been in my early teens when we read it at school. A LONG time ago.😉

  11. You’ve reminded me to re-read this before the big publishing event of the summer. Let’s hope it’s not a disappointment. Enjoyed your review.

    • I hope that too! This must be the longest time span between published novels for any writer, which inevitably sets up a lot of expectations. I do hope Harper Lee will have managed to write a really good book, even if it’s not a great one.

  12. I did love Atticus…such a caring father, and such wisdom, but a couple of times he surprised me too. I think Lee was trying to show that everyone is a product of their society and the thinking of their profession, their culture and their time. Even as we see the net we are caught in it too. Sometimes it is a safety net and sometimes it is a trap.

    • Yes, I think you’re quite right, Tricia. I agree – Atticus is as much bound by his society as he is free from its prejudices, which is inevitable. I like what you say about safety nets and traps – absolutely!

  13. I adored this book as a teen and don’t recollect having an issue with Atticus, yet perhaps I would translate certain parts of the story contrastingly on the off chance that I read it again as a grown-up.

    • Yes, I think I haven’t been clear enough in that I don’t think I have an issue with Atticus either. I found myself feeling sorry for the enormous burden of responsibility he is carrying for his community. One of the town’s people tells Scout that he is essentially being good and fair for everyone because no one else can brings themselves to behave like that. And that made me want to look closer at his reasonings and his teachings. I think he’s a saint, but I think that’s a tough thing to be, and one that has limited influence. Can we take the best of Atticus’s teachings and avoid the worst of his burdens?

  14. i read it much later on and loved Scout and Atticus particularly: but I didn’t think about the details of the nuances and subtexts (well, nothing like as much as you have here) so thank you so much for this; it makes the book a far more complex thing (even if only in memory).

    • The beauty of a classic is that it has all kinds of depths and that’s why its lasted such a long time. I just cannot resist digging down into books – that’s the one of the best pleasures I get out of them. Thank you for your lovely comment!

  15. >>What Atticus wants Scout and Jem to do is never show their feelings. They must at all times maintain a veneer of politeness and respect, no matter what they feel.

    I disagree with this, I think. What he wants is for them not to be owned by their feelings; for them to see, as they are feeling anger or sadness or whatever it might be, that the people at whom those emotions are directed are fully people, and are not just the one thing (black; mean about Atticus; racist; drunk) that’s incited those initial feelings of anger/sadness. It’s not that he doesn’t want Scout to stand up for what’s right when her classmates say racial slurs; it’s that he wants her to do it in a way that’s thoughtful both of the classmate and of the people she’s defending (i.e., not by beating the kid up). He wants them to recognize a mode of conflict resolution that depends on words, not violence.

  16. I thought the same when I went to read it, I was completely unaware of how much of the book should be about Scout’s Southern childhood.

    “this novel cannot believe that humans can live without a code, and that’s the most intriguingly problematic thing about it.”
    I hadn’t thought of the book in this way – and now I want to go and reread it. I think in this sense it is very of it’s time.

    • That is exactly what surprised me – how much book there was outside the trial itself – I just wasn’t expecting that and it made me want to think about what was going on outside the Finch family!

  17. I came to this book rather late, about five years ago or so. I loved it.
    I’m very disapppointed in her for writing another one. I don’t even think I’ll read it. The only thing just as bad would have been if the Beatles had reunited. I loved the idea of someone writing only one great book and nothing else and always wish, many others would have done the same . . .

    • Apparently this book was the original book that Harper Lee submitted to publishers. Mockingbird came from her discussions with an editor who saw the potential in the Scout strand of the story. So it’s not a brand new story – more like going back to the beginning.

      • Yes, something like that. And also because the book and its history were both so unique. How many authors are content – sure you could argue she suffered from a major writer’s block – with one great book only? That’s gone now.

      • I’m just fascinated to know where To Kill a Mockingbird came from. It will complete the picture for me. I see it as part of the original, but also as is shown in these comments, our understanding of a book evolves as we move through life, and authors don’t stay still either. The history and the original book will still be intact, in my opinion, but I can see yours too!

      • “Harper Lee” the brand may be publishing again, but Harper Lee the person may have had nothing to do with this upcoming book, except that she wrote it 60 years ago.

        The Beatles are not reuniting – rather the Silver Beatles demos, with Pete Best on drums, are about to be released by their agent.

  18. I enjoyed this review, even though I don’t agree with it in its entirety. But that’s the great thing about discussing books. You said, “such a mode of behaviour ends up by supposing that only vile and unpleasant things lurk beneath the surface of human beings.” That doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the heart of this book. There are so many quotes which show as much. “We’re paying the highest tribute you can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.” or “Atticus, he was real nice.” “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” And I think you missed a point when you said Atticus found himself incapable of believing in his son’s innocence. No. He found himself incapable of believing that the mockingbird could do anything but sing its heart out. The mockingbird was, of course, Bo Radley. It’s about time for my 10th re-read of this book. I need a new copy, though.

    • Absolutely – books are wonderful that way, and I think the really great books have all kinds of facets and mean something more every time you return to them. I completely agree that Atticus is always and unfailingly compassionate. I should have said more about the ways in which he is admirable. But when I looked at the characters who were not Finches, I suppose I was surprised by how ornery and bad-natured they were, and even the polite ones, like Aunt Alexandra and the women she lunches with and Scout’s teachers, showed their politeness was a thin veneer. But I don’t understand about Atticus and Jem at the end, so please do explain further as I’d like to get that. To me it just sounds like he’s stubbornly sacrificing Jem.

  19. I have loved this book since the first time I read it when I was 14. And maybe it’s my crush on Atticus blinding me, but I can’t say I really agree with your view of him, but that’s ok! Kind of like Jenny and Grad, I’ve always seen Atticus as a deeply caring and compassionate, well-reasoned man. He is trying to teach Scout and Jem to see more than just a mean old lady or a drunk man or black skin. He is trying to teach them to see the whole person and to understand the reasons behind why people behave as they do. I don;t think he ever insists on hiding your true feelings, only don’t be governed by them; reason first feelings second.

    The book is also very southern and very small town. I have family who grew up in some of them and I have visited a few. So when I read the book it feels very familiar in many ways, like I have been there before, which sometimes make it hard to have an “outside” perspective and reading yours was really interesting🙂

    • Yes, I don’t think I was clear enough in my review. I should have said that I do think Atticus is admirable – I think he’s a saint, in fact, which makes him a hard act to follow. Why aren’t we all Atticus Finches? We should be – reason first and feelings second doesn’t sound so hard, and yet somehow it is. I did wish he’d drag his kids over to nasty old Mrs Dubose, make them apologise properly and then say to her, if you have a bone to pick with me then let’s have it out now between us, and do not involve my children. But I might have been watching too much Good Wife!🙂 It must be lovely to read a book that speaks so pefectly to one’s memories,

  20. Chipping in a little late but my book club just discussed this today. Big dissent on what Atticus really thought went down with the stabbing. My personal take is that he knew Boo did it and raised the idea of Jem as a smokescreen. The theme of sacrifice was big in that family and I think he knew his boy would ultimately be get off. We all thought that Atticus was a wonderful parent. In a way his indirect ways of teaching his children good values remind me a bit of Albus Dumbledore. You couldn’t always see his long game either.

    • Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

      From:”Tales from the Reading Room” Date:Fri, 9 Oct, 2015 at 21:29 Subject:[New comment] To Kill A Mockingbird

      Jill commented: “Chipping in a little late but my book club just discussed this today. Big dissent on what Atticus really thought went down with the stabbing. My personal take is that he knew Boo did it and raised the idea of Jem as a smokescreen. The theme of sacrifice “

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