Let me just start by saying: I cannot believe this was not in my high school’s English curriculum.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a poignant coming-of-age story set in a town torn apart by discrimination, racism, and dangerous ignorance.
I’m glad I read it now. Its relevance today is both striking and disappointing—mainly because it’s a 55-year-old book about racism and bigotry still rings true. So much of the ignorance found in the people of Maycomb is still seen in people young and old today. I’d have hoped for more progress in that time. There have been steps, for sure. But the malicious mindset still exists. I’m getting carried away. Anyway.
It’s important to note, first, the context of the novel. It is set in 1930s Alabama, and was written in the 1950s (published in its final form in 1960). It is a novel written by a white woman. Harper Lee’s vested interest in exposing racial injustices does not alter the fact that her relative privilege does, in fact, change her perspective and her treatment of racial issues.
Instances of her privileged position are scattered throughout the book, mainly in the occasionally oversimplified moral discussions between Atticus and Scout. Often, when trying to teach his daughter acceptance and sensitivity, Atticus leans on stereotypes. Instead of condemning discrimination, he will say that some black people are good, and other are bad, just like all people. It confronts the wrong issue. By framing his explanations like this, he ignores the fact that black people aren’t afforded the right to be human and dynamic the way that white people are. This, along with the quiet, plot devicey characterization of Tom Robinson, makes for some uncomfortable moments, especially for modern readers.
At the same time, the novel is at its best when it’s discussing the nature of systematic hatred and bigotry. As the court case proceeds, the residents of Maycomb become increasingly divided, and tensions arise. Lee does an exceptional job of capturing the cycle of discrimination, and getting into the minds of racists. Scout is an incredibly smart, but is still a child. She’s not immune to ideologies or social norms. Luckily, she is discerning and inquisitive and brings such issues to Atticus, who gently sets her right. He never rationalizes problematic or harmful views, but does offer insight into the nature of how such beliefs spread, and why it’s important to not give in to them.
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”
Another highlight of the novel is Scout’s characterization. Rarely in my reading have I come across such a bold and dynamic young girl. She asks—usually demands—explanations of any and all injustices, from why she has to behave a certain way at school, to why name-calling and slurs are wrong. Her temper is met in equal parts with her sentimentality. One of the most unabashedly beautiful passages in the book, and among my favorite literary quotes of all time, has nothing to do with the trial, or injustice. It’s Scout musing on Dill affectionately, a child’s wonderment at the remarkable nature of humans and the way they think and feel. It is a quiet, private moment, but one so packed with sentimentality that I dog-eared the page:
“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions. He could add and subtract faster than lightning, but he preferred his own twilight world, a world where babies slept, waiting to be gathered like morning lilies. He was slowly talking himself to sleep and taking me with him, but in the quietness of his foggy island there rose the faded image of a gray house with sad brown doors.”
Seeing her perspective evolve throughout the story is strangely heartwarming. She begins the novel short-tempered and resistant. By the end, she’s witnessed firsthand a deplorable amount of cruelty and injustice, and has found her fire and passion siphoned into doing what’s right. I love seeing a young girl in literature being given the space to be dynamic and have a strong personality, something of which many female characters are robbed.
Overall, TKAM is a powerful work, both of and ahead of its time. Those who haven’t read it: I highly recommend it. Much of it mirrors what we see in our communities and on the news today, which is both sad and intriguing. Lee’s writing offers a lot of wisdom and, in spite of its shortcomings, is great food for thought.
Have thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird? Share away.