‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’. Thus goes a memorable line of one of the greatest and most beloved classics of all time, a chronicle of the journey of a little girl and her brother on the path to wisdom and maturity as they slowly come to understand the conflicts that simmer in the fissures of the seemingly placid community they live in.
When I began reading the book, I expected to be satisfied with it, and so I was. But I certainly did not expect it to be as fascinating as it is, to have made me cry and laugh out loud as many times as it did, to be so engrossing that un-putdown-able was the only epithet I could think to give it then.
The novel written by Harper Lee, based on the author’s experiences of growing up in southern Alabama, probes into the deep racial prejudices and class divides that existed just beneath the surface of the American society in the early 20th century. And yet, the tone of delightful humour that pervades the book, rich with irony, easily succeeds in endearing the characters of the town to readers – from the elderly town gossip, to the stern, motherly family cook, to the lovable cigar-chomping court judge.
The book’s ‘mockingbirds’ are the helpless, the innocent, the downtrodden of society, alienated for the differences they cannot help. Through the gripping court battle in which a black man charged with the rape of a white girl fights for his life and his honour, through the dramatic transformation of a shy, abused, maligned recluse into a heroic saviour, through the humorous, touching portrait of a strong woman who refused to abandon her love of nature despite religious resentment against her, Harper Lee’s ‘mockingbirds’ struggle to retain their compassion and humanity and make their way in a world that does not understand them because they are different.
To Kill a Mockingbird revolves around the Finch family, 8-year old Scout and her 13-year old brother Jem and their funny, sarcastic father, Atticus, who guides them in his gentle way into the knowledge of right from wrong. It is through the eyes of Scout – bold, innocent, enchanting Scout, Scout the tomboy who resolves to fight off any boy who dares disparage her father, Scout the sensitive little girl who sheds tears of grief when an innocent black man is wrongly condemned to the gallows – that we see the world of the Finches unfolding. As time passes and Jem grows into a conscientious, brave adolescent, we see his ideals shaken badly by the evil and injustice that he perceives during the trial of Tom Robinson. Humankind, with its ugly underbelly is revealed to the eyes of the two children. But redemption comes in the form of Boo Radley, the local ‘monster’, who, despite his demonization and vilification at the hands of the neighbourhood, turns out to be a gentle soul who has looked after the children all along like a guardian angel. Interestingly, the children’s fear of Boo Radley is depicted as a microcosm of a macrocosm. It is based on ignorance rather than knowledge, subtly reflecting the prejudice of the town against Tom Robinson — a connection mirrored in the use of the ‘mockingbird’ imagery for both men.
The novel can be interpreted as a scathing indictment of the intolerance of people towards differences – any kind of differences – in society, whether it be towards a different young girl who is humiliated for her refusal to conform to stereotypical gender roles, a quiet, humble black man who is hated, oppressed and ultimately has his spirit broken because he ‘had the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman’, a father whose children are made to suffer because he dares to violate the Dewey Decimal System while educating them, an introverted man who is punished for his reticence with his neighbours’ mistrust, or a woman who is taunted and jibed because she refuses to fall in with the accepted norms of her orthodox religion.
The theme of the loneliness of outcast’s criss-crosses across the entire plot. Sympathy is shown not just towards Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, but also towards Mayella Ewell. On first encounter, she may seem like an evil character, but the author points out that she is merely the symptom of poverty and discrimination, a person more battered and terrified inside than anyone else. In fact, she is a victim of society, as Scout reflects after listening to her speak in court – “As Tom Robinson gave his testimony, it came to me that Mayella Ewell must have been the loneliest person in the world. She was even lonelier than Boo Radley, who had not been out of the house in twenty-five years. When Atticus asked if she had any friends, she seemed not to know what he meant, then she thought he was making fun of her. She was as sad, I thought, as what Jem called a mixed child: white people wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she lived among pigs; Negroes wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she was white”.
The only way to understand Mayella, and to sympathise with her is to consider events from her point of view, as Scout does in carrying out Atticus’ advice to her never to judge a person until she has ‘climbed into his skin and walked around in it’. And this notion is echoed in the poignant ending of the book, through the beautiful juxtaposition of the past and the present, as Scout stands on the Radley porch and imagines life from Boo’s perspective as he silently watched over the two children through their childhood games and adventures and joys and sorrows and years of growing up.
The book has a way of keeping its readers involved and emotionally invested. One moment you’re basking in the golden glow of childhood innocence, the next you’re being hit by a moment of stark realism, and the very next you’re stunned speechless and at the edge of your seat after being wrung emotionally through a powerful, thrilling scene.
If there is any flaw I find in the novel, it is in the character of Atticus, who has been portrayed as a saintly paragon of virtue by Lee. He is the novel’s Dumbledore, Gandalf and Jesus Christ put together. But the impression I get is not of a comforting old man, but of a thoroughly whitewashed character simply too good to be true. And this very ennobling quality also distances him from real life. Atticus seems to have been spared the touches of realism that makes every other character in the book relatable and human.
Still and all, the real strength of the book is in its portrayal of characters, in its ability to make us love them dearly. I hadn’t made it through twenty pages of the book before I began to feel like I had known Scout and Jem forever, like I could reach out in front of me and be able to touch them. It takes both skill and heart to be able to create such vivid characters with such humour and affection, and that are the reasons, I believe, that the book stays with the readers long after they’ve read it. Another of the great merits of the book is that it never really explains the enigma that is Boo Radley. Doing so would surely have reduced the character, and tragically blunted the impact of his appearance. As it is, his life remains cloaked in mystery, and perhaps that plays the greatest role in making him one of the most influential and moving characters in the history of fiction.