Not long ago I asked my fellow blogger Brian from Babbling Books if he would be willing to do a guest post here on The Relentless Reader.
We chatted back and forth about possible topics and content. When we realized that Brian hadn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird (<~~My Review) we thought it would be a great idea for him to read that book and post his thoughts about it here.
There’s nothing quite like a friend reading something that you’ve loved. I was excited and a smidge nervous at the same time. Oh he’s going to LOVE it! Oh no, maybe he’ll hate it!
Brian, thank you for taking the time to read and record your thoughts for my readers. You are an absolute gem! (Please be so kind as to explore Brian’s blog!)
Without further ado:
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird is a classic American novel that is widely known both for the literary work itself as well as for the 1962 film version starring Gregory Peck. This book is almost universally praised and admired for good reason. This is simply a terrific read!
Set in rural Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s, this is a tale that illustrates both the wonders and the horrors of life. The narrator is “Scout” Finch. Though only a child in years, Scout is in many ways a wise and hyper-perceptive person. The narrative chronicles several years of Scout’s childhood along with that of her brother Jem, and her friend Dill. The character of Scout is extraordinary; she is a social critic who, in my opinion, far exceeds the wit and intelligence of the often-cited social denigrator Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Scout’s character is only matched by the immense persona of her father, attorney Atticus Finch.
There are two main threads to the plot. First, within the children’s world, there is the seemingly ominous presence of a neighborhood house, inhabited by the mysterious and unseen hermit, Boo Radley. Stories of Boo pervade Maycomb. Unsubstantiated myths about his activities range from rumors of him peering into windows at night to tales of him devouring neighborhood cats.
The second thread involves Atticus’s criminal defense of Tom Robinson, an African American man falsely accused of raping a white woman. For siding with Robinson, the Finch family comes under fire from many of their fellow citizens. However, a few sensitive and perceptive neighbors support both Robinson and Atticus.
Atticus clearly represents Lee’s conception of a noble person. He is honest, fights for justice, is empathetic and intelligent. In addition, he is an engaged and caring father, and much more. He is a person who is confronting evil. His is not just a showdown with evil where the good guys have a chance of winning, but is a conflict with the chronic evil that does not go away easily. This is the Jim Crow American South. The malevolent forces of racism and hate are shown not only to win victories, but they win victories over good again and again. Lee accurately and effectively describes an environment where African Americans are oppressed in horrendous ways. They are murdered by the state, violently attacked and cheated by white people, to name just a few outrages. When either they themselves or sympathetic whites advocate for justice, these forces of good inevitably lose.
Atticus, a virtuous man who recognizes and understands these barbarities for what they are, is a brilliantly crafted character. There are several strains on his personality and his philosophy that bear closer examination.
First Atticus is obviously a Christ – Like figure. He preaches understanding and love for even the worst of human beings.
When Scout asks him if it is OK to hate Hitler,
“It is not, it’s not okay to hate anybody.”
Atticus, both in words and actions, is also a proponent of turning the other cheek.
When Bob Ewell, a vicious and reprehensible character who is the instigator of the false charges against Robinson as well as an abuser of his own daughters, spits in Atticus’s face, our hero’s initial comment is
“I wish Bob Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco,”
Later he actually tries to understand and analyze why Ewell is so angry towards him.
Throughout this work, Atticus is shown to endeavor very hard to understand others, even when they behave abominably.
Another angle to Atticus’s character is an almost unbelievable stoicism. He seems utterly unflustered and unflappable when things go terribly wrong. His manor is calm and he does not despair, even when it is apparent that circumstances will not turn out right in the end and when all seems lost.
Furthermore, he advocates and pursues right actions even if he believes in their futility. Before Tom Robinson’s trial even begins, Atticus understands that a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion. An innocent man will be convicted. When Scout inquires as to why he is defending the case anyway, Atticus explains how it is simply necessary for himself and his family that he act in a virtuous way.
He goes on to say that the outcome is not an issue.
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,”
Atticus’s philosophy seems to reflect certain Hindu and Buddhist concepts relating to Dharma, where correct action must be taken with no actual regard for outcomes in the physical world.
Finally, there is actually an elitist streak to Atticus’s beliefs. Though fiercely against discrimination based on race, religion and ethnicity, he is a strong advocate of a Meritocracy. He challenges the idea that government and society should strive to place people who have lesser intelligence and abilities into equal positions with the more intelligent and able,
“Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. There is a tendency in this year of grace, 1935, for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.”
Though I mostly concur with the above statement, Lee later seems to criticize public assistance and work project programs. In my opinion, this aspect of Atticus’s, and therefore Lee’s, political and social beliefs are a little on the simplistic side. Of course, I will never agree one hundred percent with any one philosophy!
Lee has crafted an extraordinary character that advocates a surprisingly complex value system. In many ways he is the template of a virtuous human being coping in a world where evil is prevalent and is not going to be vanquished quickly or easily. Since not everyone is familiar with this story, I will not give away the ending; but Atticus’s empathetic virtue is rewarded in a surprising, redemptive and satisfying way.
There is much more to this extraordinary novel, including a championing of empathetic and compassionate values, an exploration of gender roles, an analysis of fear of the unknown, and much more. This is a warm, witty and humorous story that ultimately provides a positive view of the world. However, this is a positive message within a world where very bad things happen all of the time and evil sometimes reigns for long periods of time. Lee is not afraid to illustrate some of the horrors of existence in her portrait of reality. To Kill a Mocking Bird is one of the few books that I would say is a must read for everyone!
Brian lives on Long Island, New York with his wife Catherine and a very spoiled cat. In addition to reading he loves the outdoors and can often be found in the fields and forests in all sorts of weather. Brian loves to cook as well as eat all kinds of food and beverages. He is particularly fond of artisanal cheese and craft beer. His blog posts can be found at Babbling Books.