To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee.

It’s very difficult to review this book because I’ve had to read it for professional purposes. That means that I’ve already read what other people have said about it, and have often found myself agreeing with them. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird has been described as episodic. I have to agree. The book begins with Scout, Jem and Dill trying to entice the mysterious Boo Radley from his house or fabricate games around the Radleys. Then comes “Scout at School” in which Lee satirises the education system. Even when Tom Robinson’s trial first appears on the horizon, it’s interrupted by other episodes.

Other critics thought the book had one eye on Hollywood, and there are certainly episodes such as Scout hearing Atticus cough while Jem is out recovering his trousers; or the tension when Scout manages to nobble a lynch mob by bursting into their midst and babbling on about Walter Cunningham’s entailment, which are designed for Hollywood.

I don’t know who the audience for this book is meant to be. Its moralising seems a little heavy-handed and naive for the modern world, although Atticus’ message of understanding does not lack relevance even if his talk about walking around in other people’s skins makes him sound like Hannibal Lector. The book’s frequently allusive style is not, I imagine, to the taste of modern children. The hagiographical interpretation of the text, which can be seen in guides such as Sparknotes or Cliffnotes, must test the patience of school children who have been cajoled into enjoying this.

What of the characters? As I’ve said in the past, characters work well if you can relate to them. While I admire Atticus as an improbably consistent paragon, he would almost certainly love all those uplifting, inspirational maxims which appear on G+. Miss Maudie is a decent old stick even if she isn’t as old as the book portrays her. The rest of the town seems to be divided into the good and the bad (although Atticus would probably not think that way). As Scout learns at the end of the book, most people are nice when you finally see them. Thus the characters all play their required parts.

What of Scout, Jem and Boo Radley? Scout seems to be used as a vehicle for moral stories such as Atticus’ injunction about trying to understand others. Her perception of her father as a rather weak, passive sort of man is overthrown in the same chapter when she discovers he had a reputation as a marksman in his younger days (even if there’s another moral lesson to be learnt). Jem understands more than Scout and is more sensitive than she is. She also frequently undermines his pretensions to bravery. Boo Radley is a largely mysterious character who remains in the shadows even after he comes out into the open at the end of the book. Where Atticus is like some high-level religious figure, Boo is a kind of guardian angel, who can only interact with the children indirectly, and comes down from heaven to save them from Bob Ewell.

I found the dialogue a little stilted at times when Lee needed a character to say something to move the action on and it didn’t matter how odd it sounded. To some extent I think Lee, like other adult writers, just can’t write authentic dialogue for children (although the reader is spared the kind of overly clever one-liners which Hollywood children are always firing off). I believe it was Scout who said that Uncle Jack didn’t understand children because she had none. I wonder whether the same observation could be levelled at Lee.

In the end, I don’t know what to think about the book. It’s not a volume which has me saying to myself that I’m glad I read it; nor do I regret having read it. Perhaps it’s like Kerouac’s On the Road about which I concluded that it was a product of its age which might appeal to a certain kind of audience, but had no appeal for me. (I assume that Catcher in the Rye probably also falls into this group.) I have come to the book rather late, having missed out on reading it when I was at high school. (I was in the wrong class.) I’m not sure, though, that I would’ve been any more taken by it thirty years ago than I was today.

Appendix

A.

I see that I’ve had visitors looking for irony in To Kill a Mockingbird. I would not have thought that that would be too hard to find. It’s ironic that

  • Scout is looking forward to going to school, but doesn’t like it.
  • Scout and Jem think their father’s a bit useless when, in fact, he’s an excellent marksman.
  • Miss Maudie doesn’t seem too bothered about the loss of her house.
  • Atticus can still chat to Mrs Dubose without rancour in spite of her pro­nounce­ments about him which led to Jem massacring her camellias.
  • Boo Radley is the children’s guardian angel when their assumption is that he’s a monster
  • Atticus effectively demolishes the case against Tom Robinson, but loses it anyway.
  • Miss Gates decries Hitler for the persecution of the Jews, but is revealed to be a racist herself.

But remember, kids, you should be doing your own work and not relying on me to find the answers for you.

B.

I read somewhere that To Kill a Mockingbird was originally a series of short stories, which may explain why the book feels disjointed.

C.

I find myself liking Atticus less, even although he is meant to be admirable because of the nature of his character and his consistency. I think I prefer my paragons to be a little more human. It’s tempting to write some fanfic in which Atticus is placed in a position where he must act in a fashion contradictory to his nature.

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