Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Classic Project Extras: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is arguably one of the great American novels. The reason this book wasn't on my Classic Project list from the beginning is that I've already read it. Like most people my age, I read it in school, but I picked it up again as inspiration for my new novel which will be part of the "Southern Literature" genre that Harper Lee's masterpiece exemplifies.

So here's a Classics Project Extra of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I read this in my early teens, I fell in love. Harper Lee has both a mastery of the language and the ability to tell moving stories. But in rereading this as an adult, there was a lot I missed in the first reading.

Even though Scout, the main character, is younger than I was when I read the book, as a reader I related more to her point of view and saw the world through her eyes. Given my age and the fact that it is written in first person, that's understandable. But now, as an adult, it's fascinating to see what I missed. I had little to no understanding of most of the adults' true motivations or the full depth of material. I missed most of the winks and nods that Harper Lee deftly wove in and that Scout, too, missed entirely.

One thing that struck me on this read-through (that the first time I accepted without question) was the casualness with which Scout views oppression. I grew up in a small Southern town that still had de facto segregation, so Scout's world wasn't too far off from my own. Now, with a decade of detachment from that small town, the institutionalized racism is shocking and intense. Before, much like Scout, I understood that that was just the way things were. Now it colored my reading with a darker hue.

Which brings me to perhaps the crux of the book.

Most people see To Kill a Mockingbird as Harper Lee's love letter to her father, and as a daughter of a terribly impressive and admirable man, I empathize with that facet of the novel, but for me there is a much more pressing issue presented.


In the book, Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is the defense attorney for a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman. Her father defends his client despite the town's condemnation. He demonstrates the innocence - or at the very least the reasonable doubt of guilt - of his client, but the jury still finds the man guilty.

This is shown as a very small victory because the jury took so long to decide the defendant's fate. The book shows the hard struggle and sometimes inevitable defeat of the fight for equality, and I think that is all many readers take away from the trial.

Near the end of the book there is an incident where a recluse known as Boo Radley kills a man to protect Scout and her brother. Atticus and the Sheriff decide not to report the circumstances of the death because they don't want to force Boo Radley into the spotlight. Atticus tells Scout that forcing him into court would be the same as killing a mockingbird - destroying something precious that doesn't hurt anyone. So the death is reported as an accident and Boo Radley's name goes unmentioned.

Now I don't disagree with either of these lessons. 1) That even if you know you're going to lose, there are some fights worth fighting. 2) That the weak need to be protected for their own good but also for the good of the protectors.

What struck me was the intense juxtaposition between these two incidents. Tom Robinson, a black man, was forced to go to trial and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Boo Radley, a white man, actually killed a man, and - though it was obviously in the defense of children - the truth is again hidden but this time to his benefit.

I'm still struggling to process how very wrong this situation is. Part of me truly understands Atticus and the Sheriff not wanting to get Boo involved, but at the same time this compromise of truth is tainted by the white privilege that Boo enjoys. Would the sheriff have been so understanding if a black man had killed a white man in defense of black children? Would Atticus? I would very much like to think they would, but I can't help but feel they wouldn't.

I know this makes the characters flawed and real, but if feels like the book doesn't even see extreme wrongness of the situation. Scout certainly doesn't and I really can't tell if Harper Lee did. The disparity and the lack of awareness illustrates the problem with institutionalized racism. Even the "progressive" characters fall easily into the established system of privilege and oppression.

I will read this book again as a parent and I will enjoy it as I did this time and the time before. As a child, I thought Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was complex and nuanced. As an adult, I find it even more so and I have solid faith that each time I read it, I will find new, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing facets. And that's pretty much the ultimate compliment for any book.


  1. Powerful analysis. I have not yet read it from my current adult perspective. You ask some very tough questions and I can't help but agree with your suspicions as to the answers.

  2. I have heard about it but never did read