It’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.