This is the fist of a two part post on Harper Lee’s classic novel. In this post I will take about this book itself, the impact it had on me, and it’s relevance to other readings. In the second part, I will discuss this novel in relation to Go Set A Watchman.
I was fifteen or sixteen when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. It was high school, that great bastion of superficial drama that I still can’t seem to rid myself of eighteen years after graduation, where I first heard of Harper Lee’s novel. I was much closer to Jem and Scout’s age then than I am now. I can’t truthfully recall, but I was much less jaded back in the tenth grade than I am now. I probably would have believed then that Tom Robinson wouldn’t be convicted. Ah, the delusions of the young. Now if you will permit me one quick Harry Potter quote: “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” While we cannot take Dumbledore at his literal word, for Lord Voldemort does not exist in Maycomb, Alabama, we can still extrapolate from it: that which is avoided, is that which is feared even more. That, dear readers, is applicable to Mockingbird. That being said, I think that this is still a novel of hope. It if were not for the children, there would be no hope for anything.
Classical novels are classic for a reason. They are well written and usually quite accessible (though I would argue the contrary point if we’re discussing Russian literature). Mockingbird is an easy, if uncomfortable, read, told from the point of view of Scout Finch, a young girl. If newspapers are still to be believed, this is a prequel to Lee’s recently published Go Set A Watchman. If true, it makes Mockingbird all the more remarkable. Such a powerful novel written on request? Impressive.
The children are the key to this story because of their lack of cynicism and hypocrisy. Why, poor Dill got physically sick at now the prosecutor was treating Tom Robinson. None of the adults, except perhaps his own neighbours, even batted an eye at Tom’s treatment. They shunned Mr. Raymond, with his alcohol filled coke bottle, him and his ‘nigger-wife.’ What did Dill do when he discovered Raymond’s secret? Not faint. He laughed. He and Scout did not run crazily up and down the streets when they learned the truth that Mr. Raymond put on an act that he was drunk to help the townspeople accept that he chose to be with a coloured woman. What a perfect example of the occupational malleability of children, and that hate is a learned and not innate response to difference.
I have only yesterday started reading Go Set a Watchman, and will have comments on that later, but I have read that Atticus is depicted as a racist. This is disappointing on the surface, however it made me wonder about how he was not depicted as a racist in this novel. Assuming this wasn’t an error, and I have confidence in Lee as a writer that it was not, I can see one of two reasons for this apparent discrepancy, and they could each be true in part. Atticus was a man of great character and morals. Perhaps he was racist, but when called on to defend Tom Robinson, he did it to the best of his ability because he knew no other means. Setting a good example for his children would come of that. The other option, and certainly could overlap, was that he chose to act the way he did to help better his children. Kids learn by example, if he realized that his own beliefs were wrong but could not change them, he at least had the ability to show his children a better way to act. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but a puppy is no problem. Atticus at one point tells his children that he got started late, perhaps too late to change his ways, but still able to provide a better path for the kids?
Way back in 1935 they could feel that change was coming, with the jury being out as long as it was, and not just convicting right away. We also see that it does not come only with the ebb and flow of the tide. We are able to effect change. When the mob shows up at the jail to kill Tom, Atticus is there to fend them off, but so are his children. Jem refuses to leave. Scout, for her part, singles out someone she knew and started talking to him, eventually breaking mob mentality and sending everyone home. Perhaps she is a psychologist in her adult life, because she certainly got through the anonymity thing.
I wrote elsewhere about fear, and repeat myself enough already to not want to do it again, but I think the same thing applies here. There is a reason they say fearful dogs are the most dangerous: fear is a great motivator but can cause us to act rashly and irrationally. And in the deep south, circa mid-20th century, fear of the ‘coloureds’ was high. Fear and hatred. The black people were great scapegoats for all manner of crimes. They were looked down on as savages, inhuman, trash, animals, you name it, what happened when Tom Robinson made the mistake of saying he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell? Outrage. How dare a nigger feel sorry for his betters, even if that white woman entrapped him? Disgusting.
Robinson represents the African American people as a whole, and the unjust system that they had to endure, are still having to endure. it is disgusting to think that fifty, nearly sixty years on from To Kill A Mockingbird, progress in many respects is going backwards. #blacklivesmatter is an important and sadly necessary movement. I am even more revolted by the ignorant asses who start the while lives matter, too whine. Not the point at all, you arrogant fucking pricks. Millenia of history have shown that white lives matter, and we still live it every minute of every day. Perhaps if we would take our heads out of our asses long enough to look around we would see that we are not the only people on this earth.
Unfortunately, justice for the likes of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley only come in fiction.
What angers me most is the total, TOTAL hypocrisy of the Maycomb residents. Scout’s teacher in one scene is lamenting the terrible fate of the Jews who were being persecuted by Hitler, but could not recognize just as bad an injustice in her own town? The Ewells were only white trash when they were talked about by other white folk. If a colored even ‘felt sorry’ for her, he was guilty.
‘Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting or escaping. he likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children . . . “ (p. 275).
And it is. It really is!