J.D. Salinger wasn’t the only author to disappear from the spotlight after their breakthrough hit. Harper Lee, convinced that nothing could surpass her landmark novel on race and justice in the deep south, wrote little after To Kill a Mockingbird. Still, we can’t reel too much over what had not been written, as few other books have become so important in the education of America through literature. While it’s set in the 30’s, its subject matter came at a pivotal moment in American history, where the civil rights movement was just beginning to emerge.
To Kill a Mockingbird is told by Scout, a young girl growing up in Alabama during the Great Depression. At first the novel embraces many of the hallmarks, or I guess you could say stereotypes, of Southern literature. She focuses on family and lineage, as well as on the gradual decay of a region haunted by secrets, treachery and murder.
The novel is centered around atticus Finch, Scout’s father and a lawyer representing the young Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping the daughter of Bob Ewell, an alcoholic recluse. When the accusations fly, a lynch mob gets formed to kill Robinson, but it is ultimately stopped when Scout begins talking to one of them. Once the trial begins, the alcoholic’s claims get unravelled by Finch, and it turns out that in all likelihood it was Ewell who beat his daughter. Nevertheless, Tom gets convicted by the jury and later suffers the consequences of trying to escape. In the end, however, Bob Ewell vows to seek revenge on Atticus, and decides to attack Scout and his children on Halloween. Luckily, though, they get spared by their quiet neighbour Boo Radley before they get hurt, and Bob gets stabbed to death.
This novel deals with pertinent issues that were affecting America at the time, so it is surprising how Harper Lee tells the story, that is, through the eyes of a young girl. This is less of a documentary account and can almost be read like an 18th century gothic horror, or even a movie script. Lee uses gothic elements to establish the setting and to characterize the chaotic reaction of the locals. The novel has an almost eerie tone, which pairs well with the hysterical motives of the mob, who seem to be possessed by what can be only be supernatural forces.
But we can’t ignore that this novel is primarily about race. What I looked for when reading this book was how Lee uses literature to formulate a narrative of acceptance. This novel is of course taught in secondary and elementary schools, and has retained its place as a moral benchmark.
One thing that Lee does is she makes several of her main characters young children who must learn about prejudice. As they develop into fully-grown adults, Atticus questions whether the next generation should relearn outdated forms of racism. In contrast to the young is a society marred by social and physical decay. This is a south stuck in a past of lucrative plantations and unlimited wealth. But now that the wealth is gone and slavery is long abolished, why should these children adopt old ways?
Lee also points to the church as being complicit in these prejudices. Aunt Alexandra’s missionaries, who represent the active spreading of Christian messages, lack the virtue to support their truisms. Unlike them, Atticus is a man who stands up for the persecuted out of principle, and from Lee’s perspective represents a better version of christianity, especially for the children to follow.
What this ultimately boils down to is what duty people have in their society. This is not just a novel about both the public and private spheres, and explores the lives of outcasts like Boo Radley, as well as rejects like Tom Robinson. Lee understands that there are barriers between people, but Atticus insists upon understanding others by walking in their shoes and imagining themselves as others.
To Kill a Mockingbird has retained a fixed identity based upon the relevance of its subject matter at the time, but recently there has been a fair amount of criticism about its treatment of black characters and even some of its white characters, who some have cited as being submissive or little more than caricatures. The pressing question is whether as readers we should accept the middle-class ideal purported by Atticus Finch, or rather reject such a notion for simply normalizing various communities all unique in their own way. I believe, though, that this novel has succeeded because of its simplicity, and that is what has allowed both children and adults to identify with the subject at hand.