To Kill A Mockingbird is arguably one of the most iconic works of American literature. Written by native Alabamian Harper Lee, it captures many aspects of the South in the 30s, from the rampant racism to the extreme social inequality, all seen in their small community in Maycomb, Alabama. It also tackles important issues like good vs. evil and the destruction of innocence. Overall, To Kill A Mockingbird is a captivating book for the ages…
I definitely enjoyed reading this book. It had its ups and downs for me (which I’ll get into later) but it was enjoyable and its unconvoluted style (thanks, Scout!) allowed me to actually read it and find deeper meaning without my eyes rolling into the back of my head after one chapter. The few things to discuss:
Black and White #1: Good vs. Evil
TKAM tackled a lot of heavy subjects, all of which I think can be summed up around the topic of “human nature.” Is mankind inherently cruel? Is there some good in all of us and if so, how does it show?
While there are some bad things in TKAM (oh, you know, racism, police brutality, classism, murder, rape…) it’s themes are overwhelmingly feel-good-y. We see a lot of tropes such as bad guy dies [for his sins], that weird kid no one talks to (Boo…) ends up being alright, etc… not only that, but the main themes revolve around dignity, morality, and respect. For example, when Atticus says:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus stands for the morally ‘good’ in the book. He is still a part of the community, yet goes against many of them to advocate for what he believes, no, what he knows is right. Even if he knows he just put a target on his head. But even when he is attacked, i.e. when Bob Ewell spits on his face, he takes the high road, maintaining that basic shred of human decency that adults are generally expected to have (but often lack, if you’re asking me).
And he believes in this traits of compassion so fiercely that he does whatever he can to teach them to his children, thus the “you can never really understand a person…” quote. He treats them with respect, never raising his voice or beating them, but he still gives them a stern talking to when they misbehave. This reflects on the children at many points, but especially at the end of the novel, while the kids loved to make wild stories about Boo, as kids do, painting him as a monster, they were willing to accept him after he saves their lives. All because they learned about compassion through Atticus.
Black and White #2: Literally Black and White
However, some people are just not willing to learn. Take Bob Ewell. If Atticus stands for the good, Bob Ewell is certainly the evil. He lead a crusade against a black man that has done nothing but help his family simply because he felt as if he was wronged (try being a black person in the 1930s, Bob…). He remains a coward until his very last seconds.
Which could possibly explain why Lee made a big deal out of the school scene where Scout explains to the teacher that the Ewells choose not to go to school. They are also the dirtiest, poorest, most reprehensible family in town (mostly talking about Bob here, considering he’s the man of the house…). It’s not just access to education, because clearly they had that- it’s the fact that they had the opportunity, but pass it off.
A lack of education isn’t just what makes us think that pyramids were built to store grain— It’s what spreads disease. It’s what makes us murder someone in cold blood. It’s what makes us start wars. Oh, and it’s what makes us elect complete idiots. An unwillingness to learn allows the mind to be poisoned by bias. There is no true reason as to why things like sexism, racism, and homophobia exist– but at the same time, prejudice will always exist.
It existed in 1932 in Maycomb, Alabama. It exists in 2018 in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. And it’ll exist in thousands of years when we’re all cyborgs who travel to the moon for fun. So maybe mankind really is inherently cruel. Maybe we are all irredeemable and doomed to spend eternity in the fiery depths of hell. But most likely, it’s that delicate balance between good and evil within each of us that keeps the world spinning.
Scout, the O.G.
I feel like the answer to the above questions would not be as clear and perhaps completely different if Scout was not the narrator. Her perceptiveness of the world around her leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind, yet her childlike innocence allows you to form independent opinions. Her narration is completely unfettered from the shackles of bias, these preconceived thoughts about race and class that society imposes on us as we mature– whether we like it or not.
One of the most interesting scenes to me was the court scene. The juxtaposition between the adults in the room and the kids in the room clearly illustrates the divide that innocence creates. All of the kids (at leas the one’s we’re exposed to, anyways– Jem, Scout, and Dill) crave justice in the Robinson trial.
“It was the way he said it made me sick, plain sick.”
“He’s supposed to act that way, Dill, he was cross—”
“He didn’t act that way when—”
“Dill, those were his own witnesses.”
“Well, Mr. Finch didn’t act that way to Mayella and old man Ewell when he crossexamined them. The way that man called him ‘boy’ all the time an‘ sneered at him, an’ looked around at the jury every time he answered—”
To them, it’s clear as day that Atticus won the case and Tom Robinson is not guilty. Which suggests that justice is an intrinsic quality– it’s that damned transition into adulthood where adults have learned to be unjust.
Some things are just plain as day. But then why can’t people wrap their heads around things like Ferguson? They’re not blindly innocent like a child, but some things are difficult to process and we are all extremely stubborn by nature. Wait, you’re telling me that the same police force I saw saving a puppy from a gutter in a Facebook video last week has also been engaging in senseless and horrific killings of innocent black people for the past hundred years? Not if I turn my TV off they aren’t…
You can probably point to the part where Scout realizes that the world isn’t all hunky dory and not everything can be solved by the old-fashioned fisticuffs:
“How could this be so, I wondered, as I read Mr. Underwood’s editorial. Senseless killing—Tom had been given due process of law to the day of his death; he had been tried openly and convicted by twelve good men and true; my father had fought for him all the way. Then Mr. Underwood’s meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.”
Which brings me to the point of killing a mockingbird, a central point of many of our lit circle discussions that I’d like to explore further.
I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but 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. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
You can examine many things as the mockingbird- overall, it’s associated with the cruel and pointless aspects of our world (so… all of it? Just kidding. Maybe.). The world that allowed Tom Robinson to be sent to jail solely for the color of his skin, the world that blamed all the bad things on one recluse simply because they did not know enough about him. Or maybe, the sin is killing children’s innocence in itself. But as cruel as this may be, there will always be evils in the world. Children must be exposed to them eventually- sheltering kids produce adults who are comically unaware of the environment around them, which is all too dangerous, especially in a democracy like ours. Perhaps killing mockingbirds is a part of human nature, however cruel it may be. We all grow up in the same world, but it’s up to us what we do with it.