Some of the best stories ever to be written have been both a celebration and indictment of a society, an often times nuanced glance at the horrors we abide by.
Harper Lee’s to first novel is a celebration of family, friends and community. But it’s also an indictment of the racial and class prejudices that have seeped into every single nook and cranny of life, whether it be in education, the courts or simply day by day life in general.
In to Kill a Mockingbird we get an unapologetic view of the American Soul and an examination of like in the South during the Jim Crow era. The novel itself is a Bildungsroman, as the subject matter deals with the protagonists formative years or spiritual education.
In this case the protagonist is a girl named Scout, a six year old just starting school. The narrative itself is presented in a retrospective narration, which I find welcoming since I cannot stand the indirect speech style that people such as James Joyce use when they’re writing from the children’s perspective.
The story takes place in the mid 1930’s, before WW2 came into effect and after the Great Depression where millions of Americans fell into severe poverty. It follows the day to day life of Scout and her brother Jem, who out of sheer boredom start to make plans to harass their weird neighbour, a shut in by the name of Boo Radley.
Along with the gossip of the town they’re able to construct this bizarre caricature of the man, who they claim to be a psychopath who stabs people and eats raw squirrels. In reality, the man just grew up with overtly shitty parents and hung out with a bad crowd (mainly in spite of his parents) which lead him to be thrown in a jail cell until he almost died. So the solitary confinement, alongside living among these religious zealots, created such emotional damage to the man that he sought to shut himself off from the world.
Boo Radley, like all of the characters, is based off of actual people from Harper’s childhood. Like Scout, Harper had a brother and hanged around with her neighbour every summer. Her father was a Lawyer who often times defended black clients. It’s believed that the character of Tom Robinson and the further events detailed in the novel came about from Harpers own experiences as her father defended two black clients accused of robbing a store.
Although the crime that Tom Robinson had been accused of is a lot more dire. He was accused of raping a white woman. As Atticus (Scout’s father and Tom’s attorney) described, there was little to no real evidence so it was literally just his word against two white people’s.
The novel has a lot of charm to it, despite it’s heartbreaking message. The idea that despite the severe lack of evidence and the obvious illogical claims of the accusers, a jury will still convict an innocent man purely out of their own prejudices held against his people.
The movie adaptation of thenovel is probably one of the best adaptations ever to be seen. Usually when you make a film based off a book the film maker will barely grasp the whole concept of the book, cut out these vital scenes and just present this deadpan equivalent to an otherwise great story.
But in To Kill a Mockingbird, they not only do justice to the book but also make a great standalone movie. Granted I think the movie makes a lot more sense to the people who’ve read the book, but a passerby can find equal enjoyment in it as well.
Obviously they cut a lot out, such as the whole subplot with Atticus’ sister moving in so that she could make Scout into a “proper lady“, alongside the whole thing with Mrs. Dubose and Jem, which really starts off his journey from a carefree ten year old to an aggravated pre-teen who is slowly but surely realising that the world and the people around him kinda suck.
One of the main issues I have with the film is that they cut out the scene where Scout and Jem are taken to a black church on Sunday by their house keeper as their father is too busy working. It’s this scene that is essential to tarnishing Jem and Scout’s racial biases that they have been conditioned to posses from growing up in this kind of environment.
Racism itself is a disease and the way to treat it is with exposure to the people you are prejudiced against. It’s very difficult to hate a man you know. So with Jem and Scout being exposed to more and more black people and observing how they live, their preconceived notions are gradually diminished.
There’s a number of characters that didn’t make the film which I’m really peeved about. One of them being Atticus’ brother, who is this suave Southern doctor and an otherwise sound guy. I really wished that the newspaper editor Mr Underwood would have shown up, because I pictured him as this really racist Kevin Spacey. But above all else I really wished that guy Mr Redmond showed up.
He’s probably my favourite side character. He’s basically this old rich white guy who hangs around black people and has a wife (I don’t know if they’re legally married, but they’re basically married) and kids. He let’s on that he’s a severe alcoholic so that the other people would be like “Oh, he hangs out with black people cause he’s a train wreck” when in actuality he genuinely loves them but he hasn’t the energy to explain that to these pack of Racists.
He’s basically the epitome of not giving a fuck.
I think the movie in and of itself did an excellent job dealing with the topic of Race, but the book itself deals with so much more. The main subjects outside of race are both class and gender. Although everyone on the town is either middle class or one paycheck away from severe poverty, the community really has a rigid class system.
Being a small town, everyone knows each other and thus everyone has been prescribed their own stereotypes. The Finch’s are a poor yet noble family, the Cunninghams are a poor yet stubborn family who will receive no support in the name of pride, while the Ewell’s on the other hand are the scum of the earth. Dirt poor, benefit scrounging, illiterate morons. In America these kinds of people are often referred to as White Trash.
Although many would argue that engaging in any stereotype, no matter how banal, is inherently bad- Harper Lee does seem to have a point. George Orwell, in 1984, said that “if there is hopes, it’s in the Proles” the working class majority. But he recognises that hope is ultimately futile because the Proletariat are so ignorant that they are inept at acknowledging that they’re even being oppressed, so the Revolution will never happen.
Speaking anecdotally for a second, I’ve met a great variety of people throughout my short life. I realised at a young age that in those formative years, from like one to ten, if a parent doesn’t install a sense of discipline, respect, manners or even a healthy work ethic into their child- then they’re practically doomed.
From the moment they step into school they’re filled with such resentment that they’ll become a disruptive student and thus squander their education. Although it’s true that some people can gradually change over time to form good and healthy contributing members of society, most of them don’t. Most of them are fucked from the get go and are doomed to live their life as a waster.
In the Ewell’s case, they too are fucked from the get go. Every year they’re required to go though one day of school- but no more, the state doesn’t see any reason in forcing these kinds of people into an education they’d just squander. But despite their severe poverty, Mr Ewell and his children are some of the most Racist characters in the book- especially since they’r the ones who doomed Tom Robinson in the first place.
It’s kind of like how Sinclair Lewis put it; “Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down upon.”
That’s partly why I feel that Atticus’ sister is such a vital character to the book, because she plays this cold stuck up bitch trying to force Scout to conform to societies expectations. She expects Scout not to hang around people such as the Cunningham’s because they are poorer than her and therefore are deemed inferior. She’s expected to wear dresses, hold her tongue and stop engaging in fights because she’s expected to conform to their societies gender norms.
Scout being a tom boy doesn’t see any sense in wearing dresses, or keeping quiet or not getting any fights. Because while others may thrive in these typical roles, Scout is suffocated. Her personality is not something that can just conform to what people expect her to be.
That’s basically what the novel is about, the deterioration of innocence and the gradual acknowledgement that truth, empathy and honour is a form of purity that must be maintained at all costs. That’s why he most important quote of the novel is this;
“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird… Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
So like most writers, Harper Lee uses imagery to convey a concept in a simpler format. There’s several Mockingbird’s in the novel. Tom Robinson is one, since he’s a good man who’s only crime was pitying a white woman who he helped with house chores. Scout and Jem could be considered Mockingbirds since they are good kids growing up in a morally deformed society that bullies them for their Father’s bravery.
But probably one of the most notable Mockingbird’s is Boo Radley, the shut in who becomes the hero at the end of the day. The Southern Gothic tropes are turned on their head as the initially perceived monster, Boo, becomes the kids saviour. He escapes prosecution because although the crime is grave, the victim deserved it. Prosecuting a man for doing the right thing would be like killing a mockingbird, removing a good heart from an otherwise heartless world.
The main tragedy I feel with the book is not only the sad end for Tom Robinson, but how things just go back to normal immediately. Life doesn’t hold still for these horrors, they’re such a regular occasion that people quickly forget about them. That’s what really scares me about to kill a mockingbird, how people can just move on as if nothing horrendous had happened at all.
In conclusion, To Kill a Mockingbird is an astounding book with a heartwarming yet tragic message of both hope and despair. I can’t recommend enough for you to both check out the novelisation and the movie.