I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in my early twenties. It had been out for ten years or so, and Harper Lee’s description of superstition, ignorance and institutional prejudice seemed remote – almost quaint. In the wake of the white supremacist rallies in Viriginia and videos of police officers singling out African Americans for harsh, sometimes deadly, treatment, this story of small-town Alabama during the Depression era seems uncomfortably, even scarily, familiar.
Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is loosely based on the author’s family and childhood friends, one of whom was Truman Capote, as well as an event that took place near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, when she was 10 years old. It’s set in the fictional town of Maycomb and its main protagonist is a six-year-old tomboy who closely resembles the young Harper Lee.
Jean Louise Finch – nicknamed Scout – and her older brother, Jem, live with their middle-aged, widowed father, Atticus, and their black cook, Calpurnia. Atticus is a thoughtful, compassionate man, and encourages his children to look at the world through a humanitarian lens. When they ask why he’s taken on an unpopular case, defending a black man accused of rape, he explains that before he can live with other people he has to be able to live with himself: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Early in the story Scout and Jem befriend an odd young boy named Dill who comes to stay in Maycomb with his aunt every summer. The three of them embark on a campaign to “out” their neighbor, the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley, whom nobody has seen outside his house in years. Boo is one of the “mockingbirds” in the novel … a good person injured by the evil of others. The other is Tom Robinson, a black field hand being held on charges of raping a young white woman. It’s his word against hers, a situation that pretty well condemns him to the hangman’s noose.
The book is in many ways a study in courage. Most notably, of course, the courage of a small-town Southern lawyer to take on an unpopular cause – to defend a black man against the spurious charges laid by a white girl and her father. His attitude towards his client, along with his dignified comportment throughout the novel, has caused the name Atticus Finch to become a byword for moral integrity. But smaller acts of courage appear throughout the story, as when Scout is prepared to fight her classmates to defend her father’s name and an elderly neighbour sets herself to break a morphine addiction before she dies. A final courageous blow carried out by the reclusive Boo Radley saves the lives of the children and forces even Atticus to rethink the nature of justice.
Lee draws her characters with the sure touch that comes from long association with the type. Scout’s aunt, for instance, appears midway through the book, determined to “take charge” of the wayward tomboy and mold her into her version of a proper Southern lady:
“Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn.”
While this attention to type creates some colourful writing, it can also make for uncomfortable reading, half a century later. Bob Ewell, for instance, the father of the girl who is claiming to be raped, is a personification of “white trash”. A drunken no-good who seldom works, he represents the dark side of the American south: ignorance, poverty, squalor, and hate-filled racial prejudice. His lonely, abused daughter, Mayella, who is obviously the victim of some crime, we know, is portrayed as being as bitter and racist as her father. One of the saddest passages in the book is her humiliation on the witness stand as Atticus slowly, even gently destroys her testimony. We are left feeling pity for her. We may not forgive her for what she does to Tom, but we wonder about her choices at a time and in a place where her options are hardly better than those of the black man she hates.
The point is that all these acts of courage – from the defense of Tom Robinson to the shooting of a rabid dog in the streets of Maycomb – have their flip side. Nothing is black and white, as much as the characters would wish it to be. The defense of a black man requires the degradation of a young woman; saving the life of two children involves covering up a crime. This kind of ambiguity permeates the novel. To my mind, it’s what lifts Mockingbird from what might have been simply a good coming-of-age story to the classic it undoubtedly is. If ever there was a moral story, this is it.
Lee herself was ambivalent about the success of her book. She was quoted as saying that, when it was published, she hoped for “a quick and merciful death” at the hands of the reviewers. What she got, of course, was immediate critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Not bad for a first novel, don’t you think?