Classics Challenge: To Kill a Mockingbird
Image from Wordery
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great American novels. Set in the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s this is part coming-of-age story, part historical drama, all told through the eyes of eight year-old Scout Finch.
At its centre is the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, who Scout's father Atticus is chosen to defend in court. But it's the underlying themes that have made this book a classic: issues of race, class and deep-seated prejudices are balanced against the innocence and curiosity of childhood, as Scout and her brother Jem experience first-hand the repercussions of their father's attempts to clear an innocent man's name.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
I guess I’m a rare adult reader of To Kill a Mockingbird as I never picked it up as a child and it was not one of my assigned texts in college. Somehow, even though I have always been fully aware of the book, I only had vague ideas about the themes before reading it.
Like most of the books in our challenge, I'm aware anything I do say of my experience of reading this will have been said many times over, by hundreds of people. So, I'll talk about what resonated with me the most. To me the main theme is the innocence of children and the innate courage that comes with that kind of innocence. The ability to see a society that's compartmentalised and rife with discrimination and to simply question it. With their idealistic view of the world, a natural desire to see the best in people and do what is right, sometimes children accidentally get right to the heart of an issue.
My problem with this book is that it is actually pretty slow at times, and on the occasions when it's not, it's an uncomfortable read. Even the more progressive characters still use language and have ideas that are completely outrageous to most these days. At times I wasn't even sure if I was enjoying the story. I don't find after reading it I now have the fondness for this book that so many people seem to have. I can see though, at its heart, it's about how children slowly learn to understand and accept the world around them. These particular children are lucky enough to have a father with a strong moral compass who allows them to question the world around them. He manages to instil a sense that, as they transition from innocent children to young adults, they can start to enact important change, no matter how small it might seem.
I feel that the fact that the novel is written from the point of view of a child is the reason why it is so timeless and loved. The occurrences of the book through the eyes of the reader are unpleasant and saddening, but we get to experience them through the innocence and purity of a child. Seeing the world through a child's eyes is something that we probably all wish it was possible to recall at times, and in this novel you get to do that for a moment.(4 / 5)
This is tough to write and I’m sure a lot of people who love this book will be appalled by what I’m about to say but I found it all a bit, well, *boring*. (I know, I know; Boo Radley would be sharpening his kitchen knife.) Over the past month I’ve picked it up and put it down again countless times, until I started to wonder, “Is it just me? Am I not getting it?” But that’s the thing, I'm pretty sure I do get it. I can appreciate that this is A Good Book. I just didn’t enjoy it all that much.
To confuse things more, I’m going to list the parts I liked. For a start, it’s written wonderfully. By telling the story through Scout’s eyes it taps into that universal feeling of childhood, when the world seemed brighter and less serious — the joy and restlessness of the summer holidays, the mysteries concocted from rumours that grow in the imagination and NEED to be solved, not to mention the constant WTF attitude towards the behaviour of adults.
Then we have Atticus, the socially and morally-conscious widowed lawyer bringing up two young children, who always acts with grace and honour even when people spit in his face. If there was a competition for the Best Dad in Literature, he’d win hands-down. The way Harper Lee handles his relationship with Jem and Scout is delicate and natural and I never questioned it.
Weak points? The pacing. Coming in at just over 300 pages, I should have been able to read this in a day but I struggled with the balance of events; the story takes too long to get to the court case then races to its conclusion. And, while I'm aware this might be my natural cynicism, I found a lot of it to be contrived. Atticus is almost too perfect, Scout a little too precocious. As much as I liked Boo Radley (in fact I'd have happily done away with the entire court case and focused on the kids finding out more about Boo) I couldn’t help but think of him as a slightly too-obvious plot arc; Scout surveying the town from his porch at the end is a satisfying conclusion in terms of her character development, but it’s also a conveniently neat way to show us how important it is, literally, to consider things from another person's perspective.
Not every book is going to speak to you, no matter how revered. Not every character is going to draw you in, no matter how well-written. And that’s ok. Harper Lee has written an important book that wraps serious historical, social and moral issues in a delicate and playful tale. Reading it today is a shocking reminder of how segregated black and white people were and the work that’s still to be done to change attitudes. But it’s also filled with hope for progress, thanks to the influence of people like Atticus. It’s a book that deserves to be read for years to come and I'm sure many more people will fall in love with its characters. It just isn't one that I can feel strongly about.(3 / 5)
We both read the Kindle edition of the novel but have featured this lovely 50th Anniversary edition. You can purchase the paperback 50th anniversary edition here.
Missed any reviews? Catch up on our classics challenge so far.