Writer’s Wednesday: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Like The Bell Jar, which I shared with you last week, I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee one and a half years ago. It had been on my list of books to read for a long time, and it’s a shame I didn’t get around to reading it sooner, because it’s lovely. I watched the movie in an English class a few years ago, so I did know the story line, but books generally tend to portray the ideas so much better and more smoothly.
In my opinion, the first 1/3-1/2 of the book was rather dry and tedious to get through. I was honestly wondering how it had become such a classic. However, Harper Lee does a marvellous job of setting up the story for the second half of the book which is so amazingly well-written and thought-provoking. The themes are universal and just as important then as they are now.
How To Kill A Mockingbird is the story of Scout, a young white girl in a small town in Alabama, the deep South in the late 1930’s. Scout’s father, a lawyer, is charged with the defense of a black man, who’s been accused of raping a white woman. Through the questioning mind of a child, we too must try to understand the irrationality of the adult’s actions, especially as they relate to race and class.
Although racism and prejudicialness is still a problem in the US and everywhere else, the people who are judged beforehand might more so have become homosexuals, Muslims, the “others”. Rendering How To Kill A Mockingbird just as relevant today, as it was when it was published more than 50 years ago.
(When asking their father, Atticus, why he’ll defend the accused).
‘Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…’
‘They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,’ said Atticus, ‘but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’
(After Scout, her brother and their friend Dill managed to prevent a mob from attacking their father).
‘… A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr Conningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know – doesn’t say much for them, does it?’
‘I’ll say not,’ said Jem.
‘ So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ’em to their senses, didn’t it?’ said Atticus. ‘That proves something – that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children… you children last night made Walter Cunningham stand in my shoes for a minute. That was enough.’
(Asking Mr Raymond, who has chosen to live with a black woman and to stay with black people rather than white, why he pretends to be an alcoholic).
‘Wh – oh yes, you mean why do I pretend? Well, it’s very simple,’ he said. ‘Some folks don’t – like the way I live. Now I could say the hell with ’em, I don’t care if they don’t like it. I do say I don’t care if they don’t like it, right enough – but I don’t say the hell with ’em, see?’
Dill and I said, ‘No sir.’
‘I try to give ’em a reason, you see. It helps folks if they can latch on a reason. When I come to town, which is seldom, if I weave a little and drink out of this sack, folks can say Dolphus Raymond’s in the clutches of whisky – that’s why he won’t change his ways. He can’t help himself, that’s why he lives the way he does.’
‘That ain’t honest, Mr Raymond, making yourself out badder’n you are already -‘
‘It ain’t honest but it’s mighty helpful to folks. Secretly, Miss Finch, I’m not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live.’
I had a feeling that I shouldn’t be here listening to this sinful man who had mixed children and didn’t care who knew it, but he was fascinating. I had never encountered a being who deliberately perpetrated fraud against himself. But why had he entrusted us with his deepest secret? I asked him why.
‘Because you’re children and you can understand it,’ he said, ‘and because I heard that one -‘
He jerked his head at Dill: ‘Things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being – not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him.’
‘Cry about what, Mr Raymond?’ Dill’s maleness was beginning to assert itself.
‘Cry about the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.’
‘Atticus says cheatin’ a coloured man is ten times worse than cheatin’ a white man,’ I muttered. ‘Says it’s the worst thing you can do.’
Mr Raymond said, ‘I don’t reckon it’s – Miss Jean Louise, you don’t know your pa’s not a run-of-the-mill man, it’ll take a few years for that to sink in – you haven’t seen enough of the world yet. You haven’t even seen this town, but all you gotta do is step back inside the courthouse.’
‘I think I’ll be a clown when I get grown,’ said Dill.
Jem and I stopped in our tracks.
‘Yes sir, a clown,’ he said. ‘There ain’t one thing in this world I can do about folks except laugh, so I’m gonna join the circus and laugh my head off.’
‘You got it backwards, Dill,’ said Jem. ‘Clowns are sad, it’s folks that laugh at them.’
‘Well I’m gonna be a new kind of clown. I’m gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks. Just looka yonder,’ he pointed. ‘Every one of ’em oughta be ridin’ broomsticks. Aunt Rachel already does.’
‘Doesn’t make it right,’ said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. ‘You can’t just convict a man on evidence like that – yo ucan’t.’
‘You couldn’t, but they could and did. The older you grow the more of it you’ll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a court-room, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, or how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’
‘No, everybody’s gotta learn, nobody’s born knowin’. That Walter’s as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy. Nothin’s wrong with him. Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.’
Jem turned around and punched his pillow. When he settled back his face was cloudy. He was going into one of his declines, and I grew wary. His brows came together; his mouth became a thin line. He was silent for a while.
‘That’s what I thought, too.’ he said at least, ‘when I was your age. If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other? Scout, I think I’m beginning to understand something. I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time… it’s because he wants to stay inside.’
‘What does who want, Alexandra?’ Miss Maudie asked.
‘I mean t his town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves – it might lose ’em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re-‘
‘Be quiet, they’ll hear you,’ said Miss Maudie. ‘Have you ever thought about it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.’
‘Who?’ Aunt Alexandra never knew she was echoing her twelve-year-old nephew.
‘The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.’ Miss Maudie’s old crispness was returning: ‘The handful of people in this town with backgrounds, that’s who they are.’
…There was a brief obituary in the Coloured News, but there was also an editorial.
Mr B. B. Underwood was at his most bitter, and he couldn’t have cared less who cancelled advertising and subscriptions (But Maycomb didn’t play that way: Mr Underwood could holler till he sweated and write whatever he wanted to, he’d still get his advertisement and subscriptions. If he wanted to make a fool of himself in his paper that was his business.) Mr Underwood didn’t talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand. Mr Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in the Montgomery Advertiser.
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.
‘I mean how can Hitler just put a lot of folks in a pen like that, looks like the govamint’d stop him,’ said the owner of the hand.
‘Hitler is the government,’ said Miss Gates, and seizing an opportunity to make education dynamic, she went to the blackboard. She printed DEMOCRACY in large letters. ‘Democracy, she said. ‘Does anybody have a definition?’
‘Us,’ somebody said.
I raised my hand, remembering an old campaign slogan Atticus had once told me about.
‘What do you think it means, Jean Louise?’
‘”Equal rights for all, special privileges for none!”,’ I quoted.
‘Very good, Jean Louise, very good,’ Miss Gates smiled. In front of DEMOCRACY, she printed WE ARE A. ‘Now class, say it all together: “We are a democracy”.’
We said it. Then Miss Gates said, ‘That’s the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Dictator-ship,’ she said. ‘Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Pre-ju-dice,’ she enunciated carefully. ‘There are no better people in the world than the Jews and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.’
Have you read How to Kill a Mockingbird? What did you think of it? Any favourite quotes?
Please let me know if you have any book suggestions for me.