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Sunday, November 01, 2009

To Kill A Mockingbird

I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks. ~Scout, Chapter 23

Friends, this is the inaugural post of my Top 100 novel reviews: The Human Narrative Project. We are kicking off with a very special novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I thoroughly enjoyed my reading--it was a joyful and deeply thoughtful read.

Haper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic in American literature. It was an instant classic when it was published in 1960. Lee began her project as a collection of stories loosely based on her childhood in Monroeville, Alabama in the 1930s. After devoting herself to writing for four years, her novel became both a charming story of southern life and also a complicated description of southern racism, classism, justice, and equality. Published in 1960, we are only months away from Mockingbird's 50th anniversary, making this a timely moment to review and reflect on the novel's significance.

Part 1 of the novel centers on the life of Jean Louise Finch, aka "Scout." Scout navigates through the world of Macomb, Alabama. She is a lively and rambunctious young girl who prefers fighting and wearing pants to serving tea and wearing dresses. Scout, her brother Jem, and neighbor Dill combine their energy and imaginations to embark on wonderful childhood adventures

We also get to know Scout's father, Atticus Finch. He is a quiet and principled man, gentle and gracious to all. Atticus is the moral hero of the novel; he is bookish and works as a lawyer in town. Atticus's primary motto is that everyone should try to understand each other, to walk around in the other person's skin for a while and understand things from their perspective. This is also one of the primary messages of the novel. In the context of a southern society that is stepped in racism and classism, Atticus believes that all people have dignity and honor, just because of who they are.

Part 1 of the novel sets the background for Part 2. In Part 1, we primarily sympathize with the town. The novel is fun, humorous, and very entertaining. The narrative is engaging and humorous; Harper Lee is a remarkable story teller. But the divides between the races and various classes of Macomb also emerge in Part 1, and in Part 2, we primarily grapple with injustice, irrational prejudice, and what it might mean to do the right thing in this context.

Part 2 focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson. Tom is a black man accused of rape by Mayella Ewell. Her father, Bob Ewell, claims that he arrived at the house in time to witness the rape. The narrative leads us to believe that the accusation is false: Mayella tried to seduce Tom, Tom tried to leave the scene, and Bob Ewell came to the house in time to view this cultural taboo. In a rage, Bob Ewell beats his daughter, and they together agree to accuse Tom of rape. Atticus does his best to defend Tom, planting seeds of doubt in the jury's mind by exposing holes in the testimonies of Mayella and Bob and presenting circumstantial evidence that makes it unlikely that Tom could have caused Mayella's injuries. Despite Atticus's reasonable and honorable defense, the jury does not acquit. Although Tom is as innocent as a Mockingbird, the jury finds him guilty. Atticus whispers to Tom, gathers his coat and hat, and takes his "lonely walk down the aisle."

The children (Scout, Jem, and Dill) watch the trial from the segregated black section of the courtroom. They take it very hard. Scout and Jem cannot understand why someone who is innocent could be convicted. Tom Robinson gives up. While in the prisonyard, he tries to escape and is shot.

The novel ends with a rather odd sequence of events. Bob Ewell swears revenge on Atticus for humiliating he and Mayella in the trial. One night, while Jem and Scout are walking home in the dark of night, he attacks them. Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor, stabs and kills Bob Ewell. The Sheriff and Atticus discuss the matter. The Sheriff is adamant: It would be a sin to expose Boo Radley to public scrutiny. The conclusion is that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife.

What strikes me in a profound way about Mockingbird is the way we are forced to engage the tension between our ideals (the way things should be) and the reality of living in a broken system. How does one respond to a system that seems to refuse to budge? Atticus is "looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds." (Malcolm Gladwell, p. 28 of The New Yorker, August 10 & 17, 2009) Atticus appeals to the heart, he lives a life of grace. He refuses even to condemn those who are a part of this broken system. They have blind spots, but they are still people. Everyone is broken. Atticus still choses to live in Macomb, to live honorably and treat all people with dignity and respect. Atticus embodies the words of Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world.

On the other hand, what happens when people reach a breaking point? When they just won't take injustice anymore, and they stand up and fight it to the death?

Or what of those who believe that passively living in Macomb, Alabama is itself a way of allowing the system of injustice and prejudice to continue?

This is a tension that the novel forces us to engage: Do we appeal to the heart? Or take up arms? In fighting injustice, it is often difficult to see whether progress is being made, and it seems almost impossible to understand in the present whether or not we have made the right decision in how we engage the struggle.

Yet for me, the very way in which this question is formed and the flow of the narrative all suggest that this is very much a white novel. The central characters are white. They have the power, they hold all the cards. The black characters are mostly static and helpless: they are at the mercy of whether the whites will do the right things. The narrative never really explores the hearts and minds of any of the black characters, not to the degree that it engages Atticus, Scout, and Jem. That this is a white novel is not really a fault of the novel, but in my opinion it is a crucial point. The Black Power movement (and others) of the 1960s questioned the notion that blacks must wait for whites to give them permission to be empowered. This notion itself is one of the most fundamental ideas that must change before equal power and rights can be assumed. As a novel and narrative, Mockingbird operates within the paradigm that the whites must empower the blacks. The positive side of this is to force whites to take responsibility for injustice.

There is a certain element of deconstruction at work here. By this, I mean that there is a certain paradox and contradiction at work. On the one hand, those in power must seek to empower those who are treated unjustly. On the other hand, the very idea that one can "empower" another human being is mistaken: we all are empowered and must take power. In the very act of empowering, we are assuming an inappropriate stance towards others who are in fact our equals.

Mockingbird also challenged me at a very fundamental level. It is a novel that hits us in the gut. In a broken system, there are no right answers. There are no "correct" solutions. There is not neat and tidy way to wrap things up. Systems of injustice and oppression grow over time, they dehumanize. They create superior classes and races: "us" and "them." As time goes on and on, this brokenness cannot be undone. There is no ideal that will fix things. Sometimes we are idealists, striving for the good. Mostly we are pragmatists, just doing the best we can.

So we keep striving. Something calls us to give ourselves. We try to "walk around in someone else's shoes." But mostly we stumble.


Herman said...

Amazingly I just finished reading this too ... great minds or something. An excerpt:

"Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that's all," said Miss Maudie. "Wouldn't you stay in the house if you didn't want to come out?"
"Yessum, but I'd wanta come out. Why doesn't he?"
Miss Maudie's eyes narrowed. "You know that story as well as I do."
"I never heard why, though. Nobody ever told me why."
Miss Maudie settled her bridgework. "You know old Mr. Radley was a foot-washing Baptist--"
"That's what you are, aint it?"
"My shell's not that hard, child. I'm just a Baptist."
"Don't you all believe in foot-washing?"
"We do. At home in the bathtub."
"But we can't have communion with you all --"
Apparently deciding that it was easier to define primitive baptistry than closed communion, Miss Maudie said, "Foot-washers believe anything that's pleasure is a sin. Did you know some of 'em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell?
"Your flowers, too?"
"Yes ma'am. They'd burn right with me. They thought I spent too much time in God's outdoors and not enough time inside the house reading the Bible."
My confidence in pulpit Gospel lessened at the vision of Miss Maudie stewing forever in various Potestant hells. True enough, she had an acid tongue in her head, and she did not go about the neighborhood doing good, as did Miss Stephanie Crawford. But while no one with a grain of sense trusted Miss Stephanie, Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She had never told on us, had never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private Lives. She was our friend. How so reasonable a creature could live in peril of everlasting torment was incomprehensible.
"That ain't right, Miss Maudie. You're the best lady I know."
Miss Maudie grinned. "Thank you ma'am. Thing is, foot washers think women are a sin by definition. They take the Bible literally, you know."
"Is that why Mr. Arthur stays in the house, to keep away from women?"
"I've no idea."
"It doesn't make sense to me. Looks like if Mr. Arthur was hankerin' after heaven he'd come out on the porch at least. Atticus says God's loving folks like you love yourself--"
Miss Maudie stopped rocking, and her voice hardened.
"You are too young to understand it," she said, "but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of - oh, of your father."

And a final one - just for fun.

Calpurnia evidently remembered a rainy Sunday when we were both fatherless and teacherless. Left to its own defices, the class tied Eunice Ann Simpson to a chair and placed her in the furnace room. We forgot her, trooped upstairs to church, and were listening qietly to the sermon when a dreadful banging issued from the radiator pipes, persisting until someone investigated and brought forth Eunice Ann saying she didn't want to play Shadrach any more - Jem Finch said she wouldn't get burnt if she had enough faith, but it was hot down there."

Jonathan Erdman said...


Awesome! What a coincidence!

Those are some classic quotes. It's funny about the footwashing Baptists telling people they are going to hell for planting flowers and not reading their Bibles enough....wow. It would be funny if it wasn't true.

The novel is so endearing. I think that Harper Lee is a genius.

tamie marie said...

So....what were your personal favorite parts of the book? And why?

Cynthia said...

Just finished the book. Yes, it was wonderful. Certainly on my favorite book list. This book chronicled the lives of some truly authentic people.

I drowsily started reading Gilead last night. Only a couple of pages in so I could change my mind on this, but I would say that John Ames, while deeply thoughtful and perceptive, never really became an authentic person. He seems to have alot of regret at the end of his life.

daniel hutchinson said...

Great review Jon. I enjoyed it more than the book! Which always seemed sartorial and sardonic to me... but maybe that's because we were forced to read it in high school.

Jonathan Erdman said...


My personal favorite part was that we read the book together, of course!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Interesting thoughts about Gilead....I will be curious to hear your thoughts once you finish it. For me, I was a bit on the fence about the novel, but once I finished it, I kind of felt the full force of it.

I didn't necessarily think of Ames in terms of authentic or inauthentic. That's an interesting angle.....making me even more curious as to what your final take will be on John Ames!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thank you much my friend.

Any plans to read some of the upcoming novels with us?

daniel hutchinson said...

Hi Jon,

I'd love to jump in especially with the novels by Afican authors, of which I note you have a few on your list.

I would hope to persuade you to drop Disgrace and choose a better work by J.M. Coetzee - maybe The Life and Times of Michael K or Foe, or even The Master of Petersburg which would be an interesting counterpoint to the Dostoyevsky you chose.

Disgrace is definitely one of Coetzee's lesser efforts. Although if you do read it you will read a bit about Grahamstown, which is where I live!

Jonathan Erdman said...


I was looking forward to Disgrace because of the plot line....but I'm open for you to make a case for the other novels. That is, for switching out Disgrace for another Coetzee novel.

Awesome that he talks about Grahamstown. Very cool.

Hey, as a side question.....will you be attending any world cup matches?? How is the football mayhem over there?