The passing mention of Harper Lee in yesterday’s post prompted me to import this piece first published on the old Macabre Republic blog in 2010 (in honor of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s golden jubilee). A work of multi-faceted brilliance, Lee’s novel can be viewed…
I.As a coming-of-age tale. Over the course of the novel, narrator Scout and her older brother Jem learn various life lessons–about human nature, contemporary society, and the conflict that often develops between the two. Scout encapsulates this process of physical/intellectual maturation near the end of her narrative, when she recounts: “As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, expect possibly algebra.”
II.As an example of Southern Gothic. The Radley Place–gloomy, decayed, den of a legendary grotesque–is the epitome of a Southern Gothic domicile, a “dark house” worthy of Faulkner. The character Miss Maudie also strikes at the heart of American Gothic when she offers: “The things that happen to people we never really know. What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets–”
III.As a mystery. Boo Radley is a ready-made bogeyman figure for the neighborhood children, but is the infamous recluse really still holed up inside the house, and what would it be like to meet him in the flesh? Such questions have captivated not just Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill, but also legions of Lee’s readers.
IV.As a comedy. Scout’s pluckiness and innocence typically make for a hilarious combination (this girl is living proof that kids say the darnedest things). I would even go so far as to claim that Lee’s novel helped shape the revered holiday comedy A Christmas Story: both employ a formula in which an adult narrator wryly comments on his/her childhood escapades (in this light, it’s interesting to note that Scout and Jem receive air rifles as presents one Christmas–prefiguring Ralphie’s memorable gift in the Bob Clark film).
V.As a portrait of racial prejudice and small town small-mindedness. “There’s something in our world,” Atticus tries to explain to Scout and Jem, “that makes men lose their heads–they couldn’t be fair if they tried.” Lee critiques the irrational racism that transforms otherwise upstanding citizens into lynch mob members and blind, unjust jurists, but the author also champions those who manage to transcend a provincial/prejudicial viewpoint: “The handful of people in [sleepy Maycomb, Alabama of the 1930s], 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,” according to Miss Maudie, “with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”
VI.As a courtroom drama. These riveting scenes comprise the central chapters of the novel. The case itself is an absolute powderkeg: black fieldhand Tom Robinson has been accused of the ultimate transgression–raping a white woman. By trial’s end the distinction between right and wrong, winning and losing, grows quite muddied: the defendant is convicted, yet the plaintiffs are the ones who end up looking guilty.
VII.As a profile in courage. Atticus Finch demonstrates his fortitude throughout, and not just in physical terms (e.g. facing off against, and shooting down, a rabid dog). Disregarding public opinion, this widower resolves to raise his two children in what he believes is the right way. Most impressively of all, Atticus defies town censure in his willingness to serve as Tom’s defense lawyer; he commits himself to a case he knows he stands little chance of winning (because of the prevailing racism). Real courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Atticus makes this statement in reference to Mrs. Dubose’s determination to kick her morphine addiction before dying, but the words apply just as well to his own character.
VIII.As a summertime idyll. “Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.” Scout later elaborates: “summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking.” Summer is finding ways to while away the day in play (is it any wonder Scout, Jem, and Dill fixate on the Radley Place and invoke the mysterious Boo as the subject of their various games?).
IX.As an exploration of gender roles. Aunt Alexandria wages an arduous campaign to get the tomboy Scout to dress and act like a “lady.” Also, notions of Southern chivalry–the placement of the white woman on an imaginary pedestal of untouchability–are what make the incident between Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell so scandalous. The latter broke “a rigid and time-honored code” of Southern society when she attempted to miscegenate with Tom (whom she then fashioned as a rapist to cover her own shame).
X.As an examination of social class. Maycomb doesn’t just break along lines of black and white; there is a distinct stratification to Caucasian society itself–the ostensible nobility (land-owning families of respected name), the rural riff-raff (like the Cunninghams), the white trash (such as the lowly Ewells, who, appropriately, live alongside a garbage dump). Jem attempts to explain these gradations to Scout, who replies, “Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Jem, though, disillusioned by the outcome of Tom’s trial, counters: “That’s what I thought, too, 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?” Speeches such as this illustrate that Lee’s novel broaches the subject not just of racial equality but of general human decency towards others.
XI.As a morality tale. The theme of senseless slaughter of the innocent is foregrounded by the title, and resounds in the book itself when Tom meets his sad demise. But a more redemptive note is struck at novel’s end, when Boo’s killing of Bob Ewell (who himself was attempting to murder Jem and Scout) is covered up. To thrust the reclusive Boo into the limelight by revealing his involvement in Ewell’s death would be a “sin.” Sheriff Heck Tate impresses this point upon Atticus, and Scout follows it up with: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
XII.As Halloween literature. Let’s not forget that Ewell’s climactic knife attack occurs on a dark street on Halloween night, as Scout and Jem are returning home from the holiday celebration at the schoolhouse. The festivities there include apple-bobbing, taffy-pulling, a costume contest, a House of Horrors, and ghoulish games: the children are led into a darkened classroom and “made to touch several objects alleged to be components parts of a human being. ‘Here’s his eyes,’ we were told when we touched two peeled grapes on a saucer. ‘Here’s his heart,’ which felt like raw liver. ‘These are his innards,’ and are hands were thrust into plates of cold spaghetti.” Obviously, Maycomb County is also October Country.
XIII.As a seminal influence on other writers’ works. The echoes can be traced in texts such as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King’s Cujo, Richard Laymon’s Halloween short story “Boo” (in the anthology October Dreams), and Joe R. Lansdale’s Edgar-winning novel The Bottoms. To Kill a Mockingbird, itself indebted to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, thus forms a central link in the evolutionary chain of American Gothic literature.