I haven’t read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird since I was a teenager. All that I remembered about the book was the court case, Boo Radley, and the immortal line about it being a sin to kill a mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is a richer book than I thought it was. I finished it on Monday and scenes and ideas are still sparking for me. I’ve since read that the literature on this book is sparse, relatively speaking. But there’s so many ideas and characters to explore.
I won’t waste time on a summary of this book. If you haven’t read it, you should. So, I want to jump right into the ideas that are still roaming around inside my noggin. First, feminism of all things. Scout Finch has a lot of models of womanhood around her. There’s the strident and militantly proper Aunt Alexandra. There’s the quirky neighbor Maudie. And there’s the elegant and strong Calpurnia, the Finch family’s housekeeper. Throughout the book, Alexandra and Calpurnia try to mold Scout. Maudie doesn’t do much other than threaten Scout when the girl is about to cause some kind of property damage. As I read the book, I saw Scout grow and not necessarily for the better. At the beginning, Scout is an unapologetic tomboy. She rebels against dresses and the strict manners others try to push on her. I love early Scout. She’s the kind of kid I would have been if I’d had more guts. By the end of the book, Scout has learned–painfully and dragging her heels every step of the way–to hold her piece, to present herself as the kind of girl her Aunt and Calpurnia want her to be. I found the transformation very melancholy. As I finished the book, I wondered what Scout would have been like as an adult. Would she continue to kowtow? Or would she hold on to her spark until she could be herself?
I can’t write about To Kill a Mockingbird and not talk about racism. But I forgot how much classism plays a part in this book. At several times in the book, different characters lay out the hierarchy of Maycomb. For everyone except the African Americans in the community, there’s someone to look down on. Only the outsiders don’t know how the system worked. Everyone in the community has stereotypes for each other because the families have all been around for over a hundred years. A lot of behavior is dismissed as, “Well, they don’t know any better” or “That’s just how they are.” The classism and racism are deeply ingrained. Only a few characters seem to rise above it. When the jury takes hours to come back with a verdict for Tom Robinson, you feel a little bit of hope that it’s not a forgone conclusion–at least until Lee smacks you upside the head with the inevitable. It’s clear by the end of the book that it’s going to take a long time for Maycomb to change their attitudes, if they ever manage to change them.
As a corrollary to this idea, the community does seem to be able to change those attitudes on an individual level. You can change a person’s mind, given the right methods and motivation. It’s the community as a whole that has a hard time changing. Lee shows us this in the scene where the mob confronts Atticus at the jail where Robinson is held. When Scout singles out Mr. Cunningham, the entire scene changes. It’s a brilliant piece of writing.
Moving on. The trial of Tom Robinson is a gut-wrenching miscarriage of justice. With a decent jury, the case would have been tossed out of court and the Ewell family would have faced some investigation. In spite of the best efforts of the judge and Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson was facing the ingrained racism and classism of Maycomb. The Ewells were higher in the hierarchy. The community had terrible ideas about African American men. The jury failed to see through the transparent lies of the Ewells. It’s so painful to read. I wanted to climb inside the book and shake every member of the jury until their teeth rattled. How could they not see the truth when Atticus put it right there in front of them?
As much as I love Scout, what really makes this book for me is Atticus. He’s the embodiment of a quiet hero. He does the right thing no matter how hard it is because it is the right thing. Atticus knew he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up if he failed to do his duty by Tom. Facing down the scorn and hatred of his community is harder than going off and fighting an enemy. It must have broken Atticus’s hear to see the depths that his neighbors could sink to. And yet, the experience doesn’t break him, even though he lost. He’s still the same steady good man as he was before. That’s strength. As a Taoist or Buddhist would put it, Atticus can bend without breaking. He’s a character type that sadly doesn’t appear much in fiction. Both in real life and fiction, we could use more people like Atticus.