To Kill A Mocking Bird

Author: Harper Lee


To kill a Mocking Bird is Harper Lee’s only literary creation but it is a creation of epic proportions. I’m hesitant to even attempt a review of a giant such as this, since any which ways I’ll fall miserably short of doing it any justice. But as Atticus Finch said, “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 see it through no matter what.”

For all those who haven’t yet had the chance to read it, here is the plot summary:

The novel revolves around the tomboy, Scout Finch and her family as she narrates her childhood experiences in her hometown, in the backdrop of 1930’s America. Atticus Finch, her father, is a lawyer who has to defend an innocent Negro in a rape case that involved a “white” girl. The plot basically revolves around three themes: racism, social justice and last but not the least, the difference between Code of Law and what you feel is right.

I came across this book a few years back, during my college years and have already re-read it more than a dozen times. Every time I read it, I’m amazed by how the author has weaved innocence and wisdom, shrewdness and honesty, morals and societal judgement all in one splendid plot. It is a timeless classic that I’m sure, adorns many a bookshelf and book-lovers’ heart.

Critics of Harper Lee have exclaimed that the novel is a “naïve, idealistic….and rose-tinted eulogy” of an age that has seen social changes. The characters have all been accused to be uni-dimensional and the story, flat without any depth. Quite strong points there to argue, so I’ll take them all up one by one and try to be rational and unbiased in my approach.

The strongest critic out there would agree with me when I say that this book has been criticized for drawing a very straight and prominent line between the world of Good and Bad.  But sadly, I beg to differ; if anything, the book has done just the opposite and to prove it, I would present 2-3 points in favour of my argument.

Let’s go back to the moment when Atticus was surrounded by the Cunningham clans in front of the courthouse, and Scout came to his rescue. What followed was a change of intention and a change of heart, till the same Cunningham’s asked for a full acquittal for the Negro in the Jury bench. Were the Cunningham’s good or bad? Harper Lee doesn’t provide any straight-in-your-face answer for that, instead she leaves that on us to decide.

It was Atticus’ dry voice that said to Scout, “You never really understand a person…until you climb into his skin and walk around it”. Now strangely, that line doesn’t strike me as demarcating Good and Evil clearly in two separate worlds, does it?

Then again, Mr Dolphus Raymond, with his paper sack and two straws might be the epitome of evil for some, but it just goes on to show that there is much beneath the surface than we usually give credit for.

Throughout the story if there has been one prominent theme that came out time and again, it was this: what’s on the surface differs from what lies beneath. What we think of as good or bad might not be true for someone else. Scout’s perception of reality was constantly shifting; bearing witness to the fact that good or evil is relative to the situations that confronts us.

Now let’s take a look at the characters.  Atticus is a frail man with a strong moral, but his nature has failings as a parent. He is not our usual protagonist but an everyday man who has his own notion of right and wrong and tries to stick to them, whatever may be the consequence. Yet, in the end when he faces the conflict of backing his principles versus coming to the help of the harmless, old saviour of his children, he takes the second road, fully aware that somewhere it might not be right.

At first glance, Alexandra Finch seems to be the perfect answer for being the prototype of uni-dimensional characters but once we start peeling off the layers, we see, there is much more to her than just being the conventional, old fool. Whatever might be her own feelings, she is perfectly capable of understanding and empathizing with her brother on an issue that reeks of racism and social recognition. She just doesn’t pretend to be a lady, but proves herself so when she meets her guests with a brave face, after being told of Tom’s death, fully realizing what it would mean to her family.

Same goes for Old Mrs Dubose, who though cranky and eccentric, fought till the end to free herself of her Morphine addiction, something that cost her very life. Uni-dimensional, is it? I could take apart each and every characters named in the book and argue till I’m hoarse but I guess I have already proved my point.

For those who thinks TKAMB is naïve and rose-coloured, let’s try to reconsider that thought again, shall we? The narrative is that of a young adult, that reflects her perception and understanding of the world and the people around her. She might not always understand the things going around but she tries to do them justice in the only way she knew. “Naïve” is showing lack of wisdom or judgement. I guess the way Scout has tried to portray her remarkable perception through her 9 year old mind, especially in matters that even now shake us to the core, is quite advanced for that age, isn’t it?

The story has many different layers, approaching varied issues quite subjectively; right from how society perceive its recluse to how the pent up desire of a “white-trash” can lead to such frightful consequences. Let’s not forget, Mayella Ewell was also a victim of circumstances and society, even today, can only deign to feel pity for their kind.

It is once in a millennium that we are blessed with a book like this, one which we can savour every day and yet never outgrow it; and this is my way of saying thank you to one of my most cherished author. In spite of whatever its critics might have to say, this book never fails to lift me up. For all those who haven’t yet had the chance to grab hold of it, I hope now I have made you curious enough to give it a try.

[For today’s WTFW DAY 4, there is a book review to be done. Not surprisingly, I have started off a bit late in working on the task at hand but before I really begin hitting everyone with my usual dry rancour, I think it’s best to clear my conscience of any guilt that I might feel in reviewing someone’s else’s work. I truly believe that the best critic of an artist’s work is the artist himself. Others have no job poking their busy nose into something they might not even appreciate in the first place or even if they do, most times they won’t appreciate it to the fullest extent.

On hindsight, I was subconsciously putting off writing this review precisely for this reason. However, I really intended to take part in the WriteTribe Festival of Words in all sincerity, so I’ll take up this as a challenge and try to be true to both my feelings and the author’s.]