To Kill a Mockingbird

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s hard to know what to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. It is, probably, the closest thing to a perfect book that I can imagine. When I saw that To Kill a Mockingbird was on the list, I instantly knew I had to re-read it. Like Lord of the Rings, I first read this book in my mid-teens. Unlike Lord of the Rings, I loved it from the start.

The book is about many things: growing up in the deep south, rape, racial and gender inequality, and what it means to be heroic. Despite the heavy-hitting themes, the book itself is filled with warmth and good humour. The character of Scout is incredibly sympathetic, and we see her transition from a childish world of bogeymen and fairy-tales to a nuanced grasp of the world around her.

Despite almost universal praise, there have been a few criticism of the book. One of the central problems is that the issues on show are so cut-and-dried there is almost no scope for discussion. It is incredible clear that Atticus is the only sane one, that Tom Robinson is innocent, that Mayella is lying – but that it is not her fault, for she has so clearly been threatened and damaged through her life circumstances.

(In fact, Mayella jumped out at me as a character on this read-through. She damns an innocent man, but her life is so utterly hopeless; it is insinuated that her father rapes her, that she is beaten regularly, that she is almost solely responsible for raising a houseful of children… when I first read this book, I was not very interested in her, except in so far as her story impacted Tom. On the second read-through I found myself horrified at the thought of what this young woman endured, and the contrast of her life to that of Scout’s.)

There is one other issue that has been highlighted. Despite racial inequality being at the heart of the book, the black characters themselves are not as complex or deeply written as even the most auxiliary of white characters. Tom is a victim, through and through, he seems to have given up on his own life without even the spark of defiance. Calpurnia has been described as a ‘contented slave’, and it is true that, despite having effectively replaced the role of Scout’s dead mother, she still fits firmly into the ‘hired help’ mould.

That, more than anything, dates the book. Today, a book about racism that did not contain several strong non-white characters would be rightly condemned. There is too much niceness in this book; Atticus says it is not right to hate Hitler, there is a strange attempt to help his children ‘understand’ Bob Ewell after Tom Robinson is killed, and there is no real attempt to break the institutional issues that have given rise to such circumstances. The rabid dog is rabid because of a disease; the town is racist because schools prevent intelligent children from reading. Because the government will not tackle generational ignorance. Because Mayella is left to live in unspeakable conditions. Because everyone turns a blind eye to the neglect and abuse of Bob Ewell, not to mention the strange behaviour of the older Radley and Nathan Radley. Because black people have their own church and their own seats in the jury room. Because of the way Mrs Grace Merriweather talks about the ‘poor Mrunas’ in front of children.

These are problems that may start to be solved by giving a black man a fair trial, and certainly Atticus appeared to risk his life. However, the deeper, knottier problems are not so easily resolved, and this book does not even attempt to answer them except with a sort of ‘everyone should be more like Atticus’ mentality. Perhaps the questions are too big and too far-ranging to be answered in a single children’s book, but nonetheless, we should be on guard against the idea that simply being nice will unpick those generational problems; the consequences of which we still live with today.

Having said that, this book has done a great deal of good and in its own way has attempted to challenge those deeper institutional issues simply by being published and read so widely. The key is to think of it as a starting place, and then to go forth and do better.

(Photo credit: Hart Curt)

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