To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

curly wolfI had some problems with To Kill a Mockingbird.

One of my summer reading projects has been reading Harper Lee’s novel in tandem with Truman Capote’s first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. (See earlier posts here and here.) The two authors, who knew each other as children and remained close friends well into adulthood, each based a character on the other in their first novels. The character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird is commonly agreed to be based on the young Truman Capote.

There were a couple of points in To Kil a Mockingbird when Harper Lee’s characterization of Dill seemed prophetic. Of the three children in the book, Dill is the one who cannot stand to witness what happens to Tom Robinson in the courtroom.  The miscarraige of justice and the ill-treatment Tom recieves reduce Dill to uncontrollable tears.   Is this an echo of how the grown-up Truman Capote felt about Perry Smith the murderer whom Capote wrote about in In Cold Blood.

The day after the trial, Jem and Scout’s aunt takes Dill to task for his bad attitude towards  his own aunt:

“Don’t talk like that, Dill,” said Aunt Alexandra.  “It’s not becoming to a child.  It’s–cynical.”

“I ain’t cynical, Miss Alexandra.  Tellin’ the truth’s not cynical, is it?”

“The way you tell it, it is.”

As the child goes, so goes the man, but this sure sounds like the adult Truman Capote who got himself into so much trouble repeating things his high society friends told him in cofidence.  Later, in one of Dill’s final scenes, he tells Jem and Scout that he wants to become a clown when he grows up and work for the circus:

“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.”

I know that I’m reading things into the text that the author never intended, but both of these passages strike me as summing up the later years of Mr. Capote’s life so well that I can’t help but think of them as prescient.

But I said that I had some problems with To Kill a Mockingbird. I have no problems with the book as literature, nor with its place in the cannon.  It’s a terrific book, one that deserves the high opinion most readers have of it.  But, I do have a few issues…

I’m willing to overlook the saintly portrayal of all the black characters in the novel, the nanny who loves the white children she cares for like they were her own and seems to have not much of a life outside the white home where she works; and the Christ figure of Tom Robinson, the innocent many falsely accuesed of raping a white girl.  False accusations like this one are firmly rooted in American history, there are too many real life cases to take issue with this portrayal.  That the black characters serve the plot more than they do their own interests fits well enough within the confinces of the book’s child narrator, though it would have improved the book if the black characters had been given enough depth to have faults like the white characters did.

But it always bugged me that the accuser is a lower class person.  Does Mayella Ewell have to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder in order for the novel to work?  Why, in a town full of men and women willing to hang an accused black man without trial, does the accuser come from the group everyone looks down on more than everyone, the group even Tom Robinson pities?  The trial suggests that Mayella made overtures towards Tom Robinson because no other man ever showed romantic interest in her since she is so poor;  it’s even suggested that her father may have sexually abused her as though this is not an unexpected thing among the poor people in town.  I kept thinking of Dorothy Allison’s wonderful novel about poor white southerners Bastard Out of Carolina and how it opened the eyes of so many readers about what it’s like to grow up poor the rural parts of the American South.  To make the black characters sympathetic, do the poor characters have to become monstrous?

My second problem with To Kill a Mockingbird comes late in the book when Scout talks to Atticus about why blacks cannot serve on juries.  Afterwards they joke about why women can’t be on juries, how their gossipy natures would lead them to behave inappropriately.  This is just laughed off, accepted as true without discussion.  Even by Scout, who ought to have put up a fight about that issue.  I expected better of Atticus.

To Kill A Mockingbird makes a good point about racism in America, but it does so in a way designed not to make too many people uncomfortable.  The really bad racists are people like the Ewell’s, not people like us, not like people who would read To Kill a Mockingbird.

None of these issues make To Kill a Mockigbird a bad piece of literature. It’s still a wonderful book. It very likely went as far as a novel could have gone in 1960 which was still a president away from passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, still facing a country that regularly lynched its black citizens.  The last officially recorded lyching in American happened in 1968.  Congress failed to pass any anti-lynching legistlation until 2005.  So, I’m probaby being harder on To Kill a Mockingbird than I should be, but these things bothered me this time around.

That said, I really did enjoy it.

 Tomorrow, I’ll post my full review of Other Voices, Other Rooms. 

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6 Comments

  1. Aaron Brame says:

    I agree almost completely with what you said here. Having taught it for four years straight, I became intimately familiar with the book, and found that the good characters were far too good and the evil characters far too evil. There are a few conflicted souls in there, but the reader knows who he is supposed to be rooting for.

    Still, an incredible book.

    I got my first teaching job at the age of 23, just a few weeks before the school year started. Everything was terribly hectic, and I was exhausted at the end of every day (you remember how it was to be a rookie.) We were reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and, though I had read it years before, I hadn’t had the chance to read it carefully in preparation for class. I stayed about 50 pages ahead of my kids and was planning as I went along. Well, I was completely shocked to read that Atticus LOST the case! What?! I had to finish reading it quick.

    1. I re-read it, in part, because my district has been re-doing the required reading list which has Mockingbird as a grade nine book, and I thought it should be a grade eight book. I wanted to see if I know what I’m talkig about based on what I remember from reading it 30 years ago.

      As far as reading level and interest level, I think it would work for grades 7 to 9, grade 6 if you have a very high level group, but I don’t know now. Having read it, I came away with these issues that really bothered me, even if I could get past the language used in the book. I’d love to talk to some of the ninth grade teachers who use it, but I kind of burned that bridge arguing over MacBeth which both the tenth and the eigth grade wanted. It went to grade ten even though the 8th graders LOVED it this year.

  2. Teresa says:

    I haven’t read this since 11th grade, and I liked it but have never felt the abiding love for it that many do. I wonder if I’d read it earlier, which seems to be the norm now, whether I would have gotten caught up in it more.

    I’ve been pondering your point about Mayella and the fact that she’s poor. I do get tired of the depiction of poor southern whites in fiction, and you may be onto something in that it allows Lee’s likely readers to distance themselves from the racism. Yet I also think that dynamic of people at the bottom looking for someone below them to lash out against is pretty real, and Mayella is, from what I remember, depicted somewhat compassionately, once we learn her history.

    1. I’m sure that the dynamic you speak of is real,and it is desribed in the book by Atticus in a conversation with Scout, but neither Mayella or her family is given a full level of compassionate depiction. They are a pretty monstrous group.

      Beyond this point, what really bothered me about this depiction is that so many of the false allegations levelled against black men were levelled by the middle and upper classes. This was by no means something just lower class people did in 1960.

  3. Jim Randolph says:

    I never had to read it in school so got to it much later in life. It was fine, but I’d already been won over by the film first so that’s what I always think of. We named our daughter Harper because we liked the main character in another book but many assume that it’s because it’s of this author and I don’t disabuse them of the notion because I’m pretty sure the author who named her character was thinking of Harper Lee so…there you go. Anyway, it’s a good name.

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