A book review
This novel, written by Harper Lee in the 1950s, is about prejudice. It is one of the most powerful books ever written on the subject, mostly because the story unfolds through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch ("Scout"), a 9-year-old girl, growing up in Alabama. Her father, Atticus Finch, believes in equality and education, but the impoverished, largely uneducated community around her mostly does not.
More accurately, the story is told in retrospect by a grown-up Jean Louise, as she recalls the years of her childhood. This allows Lee to insert restrospective explanations into the book and to use longer words and more difficult concepts than would be appropriate for a nine-year-old narrator.
Set in the deep southern United States in the depression years of the 1930s, where people still remember the Civil War, the main storyline covers the trial of a fine, church-going, honest black man—Tom Robinson—for the alleged rape of a 19-year-old white girl, Mayella Ewell. Mayella is the eldest daughter of Bob Ewell, a man who can only be described as the worst kind of white trash. In the deep south in those days, no trial jury would ever favour the word of a black man, no matter how upstanding and honest, over that of a white man, no matter how violent, corrupt and mean-spirited. Atticus is the town lawyer and is assigned the task of defending Robinson.
Beyond this simple storyline, however, Lee skillfully develops her characters, first describing how the innocent Scout perceives them, and then gradually filling in the details of the various characters’ lives, so that we, the prejudiced adult readers, slowly come to realise their position in society. She slips in tiny details that Scout sees as incidental, but that we, the grown up readers, recognise as defining the character's place in society. We discover that society chooses to shun some people and revere others, not because of their intrinsic character, but all too often for other, less attractive reasons.
Mayella, for example, is portrayed as a victim of wider circumstance. She is lonely, struggling to find beauty in an ugly world; the victim, we are shown, of harsh physical abuse from her father. We, along with the trial jury, are left to imagine what other abuse he might have inflicted upon her. Robinson, recognising her plight, shows her the only friendship she has ever known. She tries to seduce him, but things go horribly wrong and she ends up accusing him of rape. An accusation entirely without foundation.
Although skin colour plays a dominant role throughout the book, many other small details remind us that prejudice lies everywhere. A posh aunt comes to town and, in true Southern style, she instructs the tomboy Scout in the fine gradations of how one should treat members of the various strata of society. The book even touches on Adolf Hitler and his own massive prejudices, though I have to say this short passage somehow distracted me from the gripping main narrative.
So the book takes apart a whole society and reveals, through the eyes of an innocent 9-year-old, where we have got it wrong. As if this were not enough, Lee goes further, examining many of the minor players in the drama, pointing out where they have character flaws, and simultaneously highlighting areas of prejudice that they could overcome, if they so chose. Her primary argument is that prejudice is a matter of will; that we choose to be prejudiced. We might not choose our parents, or our places in society, but none of these factors excuses a person who refuses to use their own eyes to see the world for what it really is, as opposed to what we like to pretend it might be.
The storyline therefore follows Scout Finch through the events of her 9th year, as she slowly realises that the world is not all innocence and purity, and that some people are motivated by forces other than goodness, kindness and honesty. Her father, Atticus Finch is the defence lawyer. He and his children are abused by some of the uneduated townsfolk, but his courage is admired by the few educated liberals in town. Atticus shows in the courtroom that the story hatched by Mayella and Bob Ewell is clearly a pack of lies, but the jury still finds Robinson guilty.
In a different context, Atticus tells his son Jem that true courage is knowing you are beaten before you start, but doing the thing anyway. Atticus knew before the case was given to him that he could not win it, but he still defended Robinson to the best of his ability. This, says Lee, marks the truly courageous from the ordinary person.
One of the key story lines in the book is the emergence of the character of Arthur (Boo) Radley. In a sense, he becomes an allegory for Scout's growing awareness of other people. Early in the book he is a figure of fear and mystery. Towards the end, Scout meets him and she takes him by the hand, as a friend. As the narrative has progressed, Scout has grown from a child, with childish concerns, playing childish games, into a young woman, who faces her fears, controls her emotions and views the world from a more adult perspective.
The message of hope carried in the book is that despite her debut into the adult world, she has avoided absorbing the prejudices of the community around her. Scout becomes our hope for a more tolerant future.
A personal note
I first read this book in the 1970s, as a high-school student. If there was one subject I was terrible at, it was English literature. I think it is the only examination I have ever failed. However, something happened during that exam. I started really reading the book, probably for the first time. During that exam, I came to understand something of the power of the words contained in this slim volume. Maybe I passed after all, despite the miserable mark on the bottom of the paper.
I was at the time an innocent 16-year-old. I knew nothing of politics, and still less of the politics of race. Alabama was a foreign place, no different from California or Afghanistan in my limited imagination. The name carried no associations of slavery, segregation, and white plantation owners exploiting black labour in those far off days. Similarly, as a child of very white, very middle class parents, I had no experience of the kind of person Bob Ewell represents. I was as innocent as Jean Louise Finch in her 9th year when I first glimpsed some of the power behind this book.
Now, having re-read the book in my 45th year, I can see all the sub-plots, understand most of the jokes, and realise the impact this book must have had when it was first published in 1960. It won a Pulitzer prize (1961, fiction) for its combination of powerful argument, charm, humour and honesty.
One of my favourite jokes has Scout's brother, Jem, building a snowman caricaturing Mr Avery, a neighbour, and then disguising it with female accoutrements. All the adults could see the joke, and referred to the snowman as a hermaphrodite. Scout, not having the vocabulary, heard the word as 'Morphodite' and used it in context at a later date, to great hilarity. I would never have seen that joke, even as a 16 year old. Very intelligent writing there, emphasising Scout's ability to make a grown up point, despite her apparent innocence.
Almost every review of this book refers to a passage in chapter 10, when Atticus Finch gives his children air rifles and warns them never to kill a mockingbird, because mockingbirds do no harm and sing beautifully. The standard interpretation is that the mockingbird represents innocence and Tom Robinson is the Mockingbird of the title, as he does no harm and brings a great deal of good to the community. And yet, in the end, he is shot in an almost thoughtless act of violence.
Personally I think the more important quote comes in chapter 3: "If you can learn a simple trick, you'll get along better with all sorts of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." For that is the key to overcoming prejudice: understanding and education.
In the final pages of the book, Scout finally sees the world from Boo Radley's point of view. Not only does she stand on his porch, looking at the world as the Boo would see it, but she remembers the events of the book, and re-interprets them from Boo's point of view, realising all he has done for her, and reflecting that she never gave him anything in return. It's a lesson we could all learn.