Thursday, November 19, 2009
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
What is there to say about this book that hasn't already been said? I mean, it's one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the last fifty years, and is considered a classic of American literature. It's required reading in nearly every high school in America - and at the same time it's a regular guest on the American Library Association's "Most Banned Books" list.
A lot of minds, many better than mine, have turned their thoughts to this book, and have no doubt picked every last shred of meaning, metaphor and symbolism from it. So what's left for me to say about it? Sure, I can talk about how it's a classic coming-of-age tale, about how Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small, insular town in Alabama, saw her world shaped and changed by the goodness and integrity of her father, Atticus. We can look at the family dynamics of the story - a family without a mother, save for the surrogate matriarch roles played first by the maid, Calpurnia, and then by Aunt Alexandria, Atticus' sister. We can analyze how the power in that family structure changes and shifts, and ultimately rests in Atticus' capable hands.
Or we can look at the elements of symbolism in the book - the mad dog, foreshadowing the vicious Bob Ewell, whose hatred for Atticus costs him his life. Or the title, as we wonder throughout the book, "Who is the mockingbird?" Is it a person, even, or could it be something as intangible as Innocence? Of course we find out, in the end - it's the shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, who must be protected as a mockingbird would be.
And who is Boo, anyway? What does he mean to the America of the 1930s, in which the book was set? Or the 1960s, in which it was published? Or the Aughts, in which I'm reading it? Is he a metaphor for America at that time, too consumed by its troubles to venture out, yet willing to protect those it holds dear, an intentional foreshadowing of the Great War that lays only six years in the future? Or is he the ghostly antithesis of Atticus Finch, a man who does the right thing only once in his life, rather than every day?
It's also a defense of the American legal system. The trial of Tom Robinson is hopelessly unwinnable, but Atticus knows that it is something to be marveled at that Tom even gets a chance. A thin chance, yes, but in so many other times and places, Tom would have just been killed right on the scene of his alleged crime, and no one would have done anything about it. But in America, the courts are the great levelers. Even a black man, who in that time and that place was a citizen only on sufferance, can still have his day in court. He had very little chance, but with a lawyer like Atticus, who believes wholeheartedly in the purity of Law, he had a better chance than most. "Our courts have their faults," he says, "as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal." Without this system, however, even a man of Atticus' talents and integrity wouldn't have been able to help Tom Robinson.
I guarantee - someone, somewhere has thought about all of these things, and has probably written more about them than I ever could. And with more passion and skill. So I'll just write about what the book made me think, and hope I can put that into words that sound good to all of you.
I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.
As much as the book may be narrated by Scout, and Boo Radley haunts it like an unquiet ghost, the story is about Atticus - a good man in a small town who tries to do everything he can to make his part of the world a better place.
The central event of this book, which echoes from first page to last, is a trial in which Atticus has to do an impossible thing - defend a black man from charges of raping a white woman. By taking this case, Atticus knowingly risks his reputation, his safety and his life, as well as those of his family. It's hard for us here, in an age when the United States has a black President, to truly understand just how racially broken the country used to be. Not that everything is hunky-dory now - anyone who claims that the election of President Obama somehow solved the problem of race in America has a lot of re-thinking to do. But it was so much worse back then.
Atticus Finch is a man with an unshakable moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to make sure he does the right thing. He knows that he is a role model not only for his children, but for the people of his town - in several parts of the book, he's likened to a savior."We are so rarely called on to be Christians," says Miss Maudie, a rather progressive neighbor of the Finch's, "but when we are, we've got men like Atticus to go for us." He exhorts his children to spend time in another's skin, to really look at the world from their perspective, in order to understand why they do what they do. He values intellect and reason over emotion and fighting, but is not afraid to take action when it's absolutely necessary. He bears an immense responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the people of his town - black and white - but for his family, that he may raise his children to be good people as well.
Probably my favorite Atticus moment in the book comes in chapter eleven, with the redemption of Mrs. Dubose. A cantankerous old woman living down the street, Mrs. Dubose is a terror to Scout and her brother Jem. She eventually provokes Jem into a fury, whereupon he destroys her camellias, the punishment for which is that Jem must go to her home and read to her for a month. He does, as he's Atticus' son and therefore keeps his promises, but it's not a pleasant duty. She drifts off into nearly comatose states by the end of their reading sessions, which last longer and longer as what Jem believes must be further punishment for his crime.
It is only later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, that Atticus reveals the real reason Jem was sent to go read to her - so he could help her overcome a crippling morphine addiction before she died. She wanted to die free of her burden, and Atticus wanted his son to see what it means to truly be brave. It was important that Jem understand, before the trial got into full swing, that, "It's when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." Mrs. Dubose won, thanks to Atticus, and his son learned what it means to be brave.
The only real criticism I can think of with regards to Atticus Finch is that he's too good. It's hard to find a flaw in the man, other than his nearly unbending insistence on doing the right thing, even if it should put his family in danger. He's kind of like Superman in that regard - his greatest flaw is his unwillingness to compromise on what is right, even if it hurts those close to him.
Of all the flaws one could have, though, that's not too bad.
I am reminded that one of the greatest questions of philosophy is "Why should we do good?" Atticus knows why. Because it's the only thing he can do and still live with himself. He doesn't need to justify what he does to anyone else. He doesn't need to convince anyone that he's doing what is right. He only needs to convince himself. As long has he can look his children in the eyes, he knows that what he's doing is right, and that's all he requires. And perhaps he is an idealist, yes. But he's an idealist who lives up to his ideals, who lives through those ideals every day. He knows that what he does won't necessarily change his little town, much less the world, but he does it anyway. Because that's what living a good and honest life means, and that's what I learned from Atticus Finch.
What surprises me, honestly, is that this is the only book Harper Lee's written. It's so rich, so gripping, just so damn good that it's hard to believe she never had another story she wanted to tell. Her entry in Wikipedia says that she's written some essays and started a few novels, but never finished them, which saddens me. But then, perhaps some writers have countless stories in them - some of them great, some of them not - and others just have one. And in Lee's case, it was a humdinger.
If you're going into high school and you're reading this - you will be required to read this book at some point. I know how irritating it is to be forced to read a book, and I know that anything an adult tells you is good must automatically suck. Nevertheless, I'm going to ask you to trust me on this one and give it a fair shake. There's a lot to learn from this book, and it'll stick with you for years.
If you haven't read this one since high school - read it again. It's far better than you remember.
"The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
- Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikipedia
Harper Lee on Wikipedia
To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon.com
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikiquote
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The Boo Radleys on Wikipedia