by Harper Lee. Originally published in 1960. New York: Lippincott/Harper & Row. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002. 336pp. Paper. $12.95. ISBN: 9780060935467.
Reviewed by Richard A. Glenn, Department of Government and Political Affairs, Millersville University, Pennsylvania. Email: richard.glenn [at] millersville.edu.
It is a wise practice for book reviewers to disclose up front biases that may affect their reviews. So here is mine: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD has been my favorite fiction text since I first read it in an honors English class in eighth grade. I have read it regularly since. One of my most prized possessions is a signed copy of a first edition, inscribed, “To Richard . . . With best wishes, Harper Lee.” I have been to Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee’s hometown and the model for the fictional town of Maycomb. I have visited the courthouse, traveled the “route” from the elementary school to the Finch residence, and even have a piece of bark from one of the “trees” that sat on the edge of the Radley property. Atticus Finch is my literary hero. And I have never forgotten the novel’s lessons about tolerance and justice.
The novel is set in the depression-era South. Maycomb is a typical small southern town - the principal recreation is church (Protestant only); the climate is hot; and the races are segregated. The story is narrated by Jean Louise Finch. Scout, as she prefers to be called, is a feisty, preternaturally perceptive, and precocious six-year old. Her vocabulary rivals that of many college students. Scout’s playmates are Jem – her older brother by four years – and Dill Harris, a six-year old who lives in Meridian, Mississippi, but visits his aunt in Maycomb each summer. (Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Lee’s who lived with his aunt in Monroeville, served as the model for Dill.) Atticus – Scout and Jem’s father – is a simple lawyer, a part-time state legislator, and a respected father and community figure. He walks almost everywhere he goes. Calpurnia, the Finch’s black housemaid, is a stern, motherly figure; she has earned the confidence of Atticus and assists him in raising the children. (Scout and Jem’s mother passed away when Scout was two.)
Throughout their first summer together, Scout, Jem, and Dill execute various plans to get a neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley, to come out of his house. Their efforts are humorous but unproductive – in large part because they are too frightened of this “malevolent phantom” who has not been seen for fifteen years. According to legend, Boo once bit off his mother’s finger, is chained to his bed, and dines on cats and squirrels.
That fall, Scout enters first grade. Her adjustment to formal education is difficult. She especially does not like the new way of “teachin’” called the Dewey Decimal System. When Scout brags in class that Atticus taught her to read many years ago, her instructor informs her that she will take over that responsibility and “try to undo the damage.” The temperamental Scout [*336] sulks when she is told that her father “does not know how to teach.” She is also disappointed that her teacher is uninformed about the peculiarities of her students – such as the poverty-stricken yet fiercely proud family of Walter Cunningham. When Scout complains about these misfortunes to her father, Atticus offers her a “simple trick”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” (p.36).
Traveling to and from school each day, Scout and Jem pass near the Radley home. They routinely discover various “gifts” – chewing gum, Indian-head pennies, twine, a medal, and a pocket knife – in a knothole of a live oak tree at the edge of the Radley property. Their attempts to establish communication with the gift-giver are stymied when Nathan, Boo’s older brother, cements the knothole.
When Dill returns the next summer, the trio renews its efforts to extricate Boo. The efforts are never successful and regularly result in misadventures, like the time when the three got close enough to the Radley house to be greeted by a shotgun blast from Nathan. As he is fleeing, Jem loses his pants when they catch in the fence. Later that night, Jem returns to retrieve his pants. He finds the pants neatly folded on the fence with the torn fabric sewn up. That fall, as the siblings are watching a neighbor’s house burn, someone surreptitiously slips a blanket around their shoulders. They are convinced that Boo did it, and thus inform their father of their many adventures at the Radley’s place. Clearly, Scout and Jem are having difficulty reconciling what they have heard about Boo with his acts of kindness.
A second story-line begins when Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white girl named Mayella Ewell . Some have speculated that this story line is part-autobiographical (Shields, 2006). Lee’s father, a lawyer, unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of rape in 1919. Others suggest that the inspiration for Tom Robinson came from the case of Walter Lett – a black man accused of raping a white woman near Monroeville in 1934 (Bigg, 2007). When the ever-curious Scout asks her father if he is going to win the case, Atticus replies, “No . . . [but] [s]imply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win” (p.84). As a result of their father’s actions, Scout and Jem endure taunts from their schoolmates and dismay from their relatives. Atticus encourages them to respond with kindness. After all, he tells them, the term “Nigger lover” means nothing – “like snot nose” (p.117). The night before the trial, Atticus goes down the county jail to protect Tom from a lynch mob led by Mr. Cunningham, whose son Walter is a friend of Scout and Jem. Scout unwittingly engages Mr. Cunningham in a conversation about his son, which shames him and results in the dispersal of the mob.
During the trial, which Scout and Jem watch with the town’s black citizens from the “colored balcony,” Atticus demonstrates convincingly that Tom did not rape nor harm Mayella. He offers evidence that Mayella had come on to Tom; been caught by her father – the often drunk and temperamental Robert [*337] E. Lee (Bob) Ewell; and then accused Tom to escape her shame and her father’s wrath. The critical points in the trial come when Mayella admits that her father regularly assaults her; and Atticus shows that Tom could not have blackened Mayella’s right eye because of his crippled left arm. But “Christian judges [cannot] make up for heathen juries” (p.228); Tom is convicted. In one of the most poignant passages of the novel, the folks in the “colored balcony” rise as one as Atticus exits the courtroom. Scout is too focused on her father to see the tribute. “Miss Jean Louise,” Reverend Sykes says in a distant voice, “stand up. Your father’s passin’” (p.224).
Both Scout and Jem are disillusioned and retreat into despondency. A neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, attempts to console them: “[T]here are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them” (pp.227-228). Scout’s take is more juvenile yet equally insightful: “I know why Boo never comes out. He wants to stay inside” (p.240). Tom, tired of the white man’s chances, decides to take his own; he is shot while trying to flee prison. A townsperson compares his death to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds,” picking up on an earlier theme in which Scout is told that “it is a sin to kill a mockingbird [because they] don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us” (p.98).
Though Tom was convicted, Bob believes that he has been proven a liar and a fool. He confronts Atticus and spits in his face. Atticus does not respond; all he says to his family about the encounter is, “I wish [he] wouldn’t chew tobacco” (p.230). Bob intimidates Tom’s widow, burgles the judge’s home, and attacks Scout and Jem on their way home from a Halloween pageant. That attack occurs near the Radley property. Boo intervenes, fatally stabbing Bob. To protect Boo’s privacy, the sheriff insists that Bob stumbled on a tree branch and fell on his own switchblade. When the sheriff concludes his investigation, Boo wants to return home but he is scared to do so alone. Scout escorts Boo home, hand-in-hand. In the final passage, Scout, having realized Boo’s humanity and goodness, embraces her father’s admonition always to appreciate people’s good qualities and understand their bad ones.
I have never assigned TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in any of my courses. The novel addresses so many important themes, however, I think aspects of it could be taught in courses across a variety of disciplines, although perhaps better suited for high school than college students. The maturation of Scout and Jem could be the basis for a discussion on adolescent psychology – the growth, development, and behavior of children; children making sense of the world in which they live; and even the difficulties that children must face when thrown into adult situations. The philosopher could explore the co-existence of good and evil and theories of social justice. The novel could provide the student of American history with a better understanding of race relations and racial prejudice. A sociology class might be interested in the themes of class conflict and mob violence. “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand,” Atticus confesses during [*338] the trial (p.97). A professor teaching about the American South – with its rich and culturally complex history – would do well to consider the novel as a starting point.
English teachers assign the text more often than others. The novel has rich characters – some courageous and humble; others cowardly and proud; most all conflicted. The story is enjoyable – two plots traveling along parallel tracks until converging at the conclusion – and told from the perspective of a young girl whose childhood observations of adult situations have a way of sticking with the reader. The characterization – the interplay of the story line and the interaction between and among the characters – is effective. The elements of this novel – setting, character, plot, style, and form – enable the student to begin the process of becoming a critical reader by learning that there is more to reading fiction than simply being able to tell “what happened.” The novel is also full of wonderful aphorisms; the lines of the characters are memorable and worth repeating. “I never loved to read. One does not love breathing” (p.24); “A Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another” (p.52); and “Atticus was feeble. He was nearly fifty” (p.97) are three of my favorites. And the moral of the story – the importance of looking for the good in people – echoes across generations.
As wonderful as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is, I do not think it is an appropriate text to assign in political science courses. It is not about government; nor is it about politics. And it is most certainly not about law. While the trial of Tom Robinson is a focal point of the novel, the discussions of courtroom procedures and the law are far too simplistic for academic consideration. This is not a criticism of the book; the book was not intended for such purposes. The closest one gets to any topic worthy of discussion in a pre-law class might be the use (or misuse) of the jury system. While the jury system has been generally regarded by the public at large as a laudable instrument in the quest for justice, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD reminds the reader that the jury system has many shortcomings – most of which are amplified in cases with racial overtones. Herbert Spencer once called a jury “a group of twelve people of average ignorance.” Perhaps Harper Lee had a similar thought in mind when the jury, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, convicted Tom Robinson.
But if I were to assign the novel, I think it would be most useful in a course on civil rights and civil liberties. A section of that course, as I teach it, looks at the rights of persons, often minorities, who have been accused of crimes. Classroom dialogue is improved when students are familiar with the history of racial prejudice – in the public squares and in the courtrooms – in the United States. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is at the intersection of civil rights and civil liberties. I know that Tom Robinson is a character in a depression-era novel. But hundreds of real black men – from the Scottsboro Boys to Ed Brown to Emmitt Till to James Chaney – suffered real injustice at the hands of an all-white jury or in the hands of an angry white mob. Tom Robinson is as real to me as those persons. [*339]
Bigg, Matthew. September 23, 2007. “Novel Still Stirs Pride, Debate: “Mockingbird” Draws Tourists to Town Coming to Grips With Its Past.” THE WASHINGTON POST.
Shields, Charles. 2006. MOCKINGBIRD: A PORTRAIN OF HARPER LEE. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Richard A. Glenn.