So. Much. To. Like.
An endless recess of things to discuss, turtles all the way down.
There is something just perfect about “To Kill a Mockingbird.” No matter the specific element, it dually can augment the whole or brightly stand alone. This gives meaning to every point in the novel, leaving no page to waste.
[story.] Set in a fictional Alabama town in 1935, the viewpoint of the story is from Jean Louise Finch — also known as Scout. She has imaginative summers with her brother Jem and friend Dill. Most of their focus is on the mysterious neighbor Boo Bradly as there are many rumors about him, but they have never seen him. As summer closes, Dill returns home, and the kids begin school.
Scout and Jem’s dad is Atticus Finch, a local lawyer. He is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Scout gets in fights at school due to other students teasing her about her father.
The coming of age, Boo Bradly, and Tom Robinson story lines arc together as the Finch family has to ride out Robinson’s trial and the communities’ reaction.
The adventures of Scout allow us to take on adult things with child-like innocence. Through this lens, we can get up and close with some things that might otherwise make us recoil.
Morality. Atticus Finch is the Socrates of the contemporary United States. He espouses a Jesus like virtue: protector of the golden rule and willing to sacrifice for his ideals. The title of the novel is lifted from a longer passage:
“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
There are several mockingbirds in the novel: Boo Bradly, Tom Robinson, Mrs. Dubose. They are all in positions of weakness just going about their business, and to take advantage of that weakness is the ultimate sin.
So why do people take advantage of those power hierarchies, otherwise known as “killing a mockingbird?” Bob and Mayella Ewell, the accusers of Tom Robinson, have nothing to call their own except the power structure inherited due to the color of their skin. They virtue signal this hierarchy to gain temporary recognition, knowing full well that their moment of importance is temporary and fleeting; everyone in the town thinks they are trash.
Courage. Two disparate examples of courage are juxtaposed between each other in the book: when Atticus shoots a rabid dog and when the children take care of the neighbor Mrs. Dubose.
- Jem is fascinated with guns and views them as a symbol of bravery. He is disappointed in his dad for not shooting guns and is somewhat embarrassed. When a rabid dog enters the neighborhood, people give Atticus the gun. He shoots the dog with one shot. Jem’s interpretation of his dad immediately changes; he views him as brave and strong again.
- Atticus requires the children to take care of Mrs. Dubose, a sick neighbor next door. Mrs. Dubose hates the children and says nasty things to them each time they pass, so the idea of actually going to her house to read nightly is an anathema. At first, she is barely cogent during the stories, but gets remains more lucid overtime. Unbeknownst to the children, she was kicking her morphine habit before she died.
After her death, Atticus explains why he made them go read to her in her last days:
“I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
“She was the bravest person I ever knew.” Not the man with the gun, but the people fighting on principled values. This is the ending of Part 1 and is a preview for Atticus’s own plight in Part 2: defending Tom Robinson even though he knows he’s licked before it begins.
Justice. Tom Robinson is on trial for a crime he didn’t commit, and it’s obvious to everyone watching. He is, nonetheless, convicted in the courtroom with judge and jury. Atticus waits behind until most leave after the verdict, but he’s not alone: the African Americans all stay behind in the balcony reserved for colored people. As he’s leaving, everyone stands up and Reverend Sykes says:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
The act of standing up for Atticus leaving is one of respect, but it is respect for his commitment to justice. Standing while the judge enters and exits is customary in court proceedings in America, and it is supposed to signify a certain belief that the judge embodies the value of justice. The courts did not fulfill their obligation to Tom Robinson in this manner, however, as social hierarchies trumped this value.
This moment shows that people will always respect those who aim for true justice, and that it does not require an institution for someone to embody these values.
What a delightful book. It is truly an American classic.
Other People’s Takes:
- Bookish Byron: “The narrative didn’t draw me in, and I found myself getting bored quite frequently.”
- 13blog: “I don’t want to spoil the moments of reading but every time I think about it, I get goosebumps all over my body and I start to shiver.”
- Show This Book Some Love: “I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this book. I felt sucked into the story almost immediately, and felt that the child narration made this book so much more powerful.”