To Kill a Mockingbird by: Harper Lee – A novel.
AGE: 13+ // GENRE: Fiction // PAGE COUNT: 281 // RATING: N/A — I will not be rating this novel.
*The summary is from Goodreads.*
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it. “To Kill A Mockingbird” became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.
Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, “To Kill A Mockingbird” takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.
Hello! Welcome to another review!
I define a literary triumph as a body of work that provokes me to deeply consider its perspective, its overtones, for days on end. To Kill a Mockingbird elicited such a response. A critical and perceptive approach, Harper Lee explores the racial injustices and the class disparities that plague a Southern town amid the Great Depression. But at its root, To Kill a Mockingbird traverses the complexities of the human conscience and the difficulties of understanding alien perspectives and experiences. Despite the inflammatory essence of the novel, it remains subtle in its projections. Lee eludes righteousness and correctness in her characters as she challenges the cast to question their complacency and comfort.
The mockingbird is a vocal listener and observer; it echos—it mocks—the sounds, the sentiments, the internalized biases of its subjects without regard for or the understanding of the implications of such sounds. Metaphorically speaking, a mockingbird inherently reveals one’s prejudices and ultimately behaves as a reflection of oneself. To kill a mockingbird is not only to suggest the loss of innocence (as is a common translation of the metaphor), but to compromise one’s accountability and integrity. Throughout her novel, Harper Lee introduces such a metaphor as a depiction of the root of our morality and our perception of justice—the latter a blurred line between the fact of the narrative and Lee’s problematic representation.
Harper Lee was a white, Alabamian woman whose father, Amasa, was a practicing lawyer. In 1919, prior to Lee’s birth, Amasa was appointed as the defence lawyer on the case of two black men charged with murder; the two men were convicted and consequently hanged. Atticus Finch, the defence lawyer introduced in To Kill a Mockingbird, is evidently a depiction of Lee’s father. Thus, Lee’s perspective, her experiences, and her privilege have influenced this novel accordingly. Through the eyes of a youthful white narrator, Lee organically illustrates the ignorance and uncritical awareness that accompany a white child’s birth in a prejudiced Southern society. She writes vividly of the clarity Scout experiences concerning the racial injustices within her town, as well as—to a greater degree—the deep-rooted prejudice she maintains. Lee is sharp in her critique as she resists illusions and romantic notions.
Bob Ewell, the father of an impoverished, disreputable family, wrongfully accuses Tom Robinson of raping and beating his eldest daughter. Despite being widely regarded as white “trash” within the town, Ewell wields more influence in the courtroom than Robinson, the black man from a similar neighbourhood. Race’s ability to disrupt all other disparities in the courtroom ultimately divides the townspeople into white society and black society, thus undermining the hierarchies within each society and reducing the court case to mere skin colour. Jem, Scout’s brother, vocally opposes Robinson’s conviction; Scout, on the other hand, remains a silent observer. There is a haunting passage in the novel wherein Scout is relieved to discover that Atticus had not expressly sought out the Robinson case, but was appointed to it—a mere professional obligation. Scout’s complacency and indifference are not qualities I was attuned to while reading the novel. She is unable to disengage herself from her white perspective and privilege—a quiet plight that is reinforced in starker tones as the novel progresses—and is thus unable to psychologically humanize Tom Robinson.
Dill, a friend of Jem and Scout’s from Meridian, Mississippi, offers a more impassioned response to the white prosecutor’s cruel reception of Tom Robinson. Unlike Scout and Jem, Dill leads a life tainted by instability and poverty. His perspective on the unjust racial treatment of Tom Robinson challenges Scout’s complicity, to which she replies, “Well, Dill, after all he’s just a Negro.” Dill’s capacity to humanize Tom Robinson despite the townspeople’s passivity is born of Dill’s alien identity. His outsider perspective allows him to readily empathize—through a nonracial lens—with the inferior and foreign identity Tom Robinson and the entire black community are likened to. This serves as a refreshing reminder that complicity in systemic inequality can only be disrupted by an outsider’s perspective or that of the oppressed.
I have read a variety of critical and complimentary reviews of To Kill a Mockingbird. The vast majority of the positive reviews are written by white writers and the more disapproving pieces are written by both African-American and white authors. There has been a surge in reviews in recent years amid our volatile political climate. Naturally, the critical commentary has drained my confidence and thus weakened my exploration. As I strive to remain sensitive and understanding, uncertainty seeps into the very pores of my thought. Teachers are prohibited from teaching this novel across countless states and provinces, but I frankly do not agree with this censorship. Rather than condemning the novel, I suggest the boards improve the curriculum and approach To Kill a Mockingbird from a different angle: it should not be used as a tool to educate students on racism, especially if the students are of African descent. Rather, dissect its coming-of-age tale and its exploration of the human conscience. I am not blind, however, to the severely problematic and inappropriate elements of the novel.
By casting Tom Robinson as the victim and Atticus Finch as the white saviour, Harper Lee perpetuates a humiliating portrayal of the black community and, in turn, romanticizes the white community. Not only is Robinson depicted as the ignorant black person, Lee allows him to become a commodity, a convenience to the novel, in the interest of the white cast. By failing to offer Robinson independence in his character and in his narrative, Lee does not successfully humanize him, but allows him to assume the role of the sufferer and serve the novel at her will by fulfilling his racial obligations. Moreover, prior to Robinson’s trial and following his conviction, Lee offers no insight into his family’s perspective or that of any black person. I understand that To Kill a Mockingbird is loosely based on Lee’s childhood and is thus written from her racial and societal perspective; however, I do not believe it to be fair or appropriate to write a novel that focuses, in part, on the trial of a black man and concentrate entirely on the perspectives of a white cast.
Equally disturbing, there are several passages from the novel that cast the white characters, especially Atticus, as the protectors and the black people as the ignorant, childlike population to be protected. “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance,” Atticus says. This quote in particular infantilizes the black community. Atticus does not refer to these white people as ignorant, but rather “low-grade,” although he assumes the entire black population is inherently ignorant. Further racialized condescension emerges each time a white character refers to Robinson as a “boy” and Ewell (the plaintiff) as a “man.” Although Robinson is significantly younger than Ewell, he is married and has several children.
The conclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird further insults Tom Robinson’s character—or lack thereof. Not only does he and the trial remain unmentioned in the closing chapters, the justice system is undermined by Atticus, Robinson’s defence lawyer, and the sheriff in favour of a white man’s protection and their comfort. Justice for Tom Robinson not only remains unfulfilled, but Atticus proceeds to perpetuate systemic inequality, thus jeopardizing the black community and conveniently glorifying his integrity. I do not often encounter a controversial novel that leaves such an imprint on my mind. Although I do not strive to defend Lee in areas of the novel I consider misguided, we must recall that this novel was published in 1960. The early reviews of To Kill a Mockingbird were congratulatory and the commentary did not concern race (of the reviews I have read, that is). That said, I find it difficult to distinguish between Lee’s shrewd intellect and critical exploration of the South, and her unawareness and thoughtlessness. I do, however, believe this novel was written with the utmost care and observation, and embodies Lee’s critical commentary on race, class, justice, morality, and the prospect of change in the quiet Southern town of her birth.
As always, thank you so much for reading!