Module 15: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird was published by Harper Lee in 1960. It is loosely based on Lee’s childhood and memories she has of her father and a case he defended when she was 10 years old. Since its publication, it has been frequently banned in public schools and libraries for offensive language, racism, and blunt discussion of rape, but it has also produced one of the most honorable and loved characters in fiction in Atticus Finch.

SUMMARY

The novel is narrated by Scout Finch, a young girl who lives in Alabama with her brother, Jem, and father, Atticus, along with their housekeeper, Calpurnia. It details several years in Scout’s childhood during the Great Depression and focuses on experiences related to two very different people in the town of Maycomb, Alabama — Boo Radley, who is a recluse and mysterious figure in the town, and Tom Robinson, who is a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Boo Radley is a legend in the town who is the subject of many rumors, the worst being that he is a prisoner in his own home after getting into trouble with local boys. He is rumored to have gone crazy — one story that Scout and Jem have heard is that one day Boo was sitting on the floor cutting papers with scissors when he calmly reached over and stabbed his father’s leg with the scissors. No one had seen Boo Radley since and it’s a game among the children to run past the house and avoid the pecans that fall out of the trees in the Radleys’ yard, sicne they’re poisoned. Atticus instructs Jem, Scout, and Dill (their friend who visits his aunt in Maycomb every summer) to leave Boo alone when he catches them daring each other to run up and touch the Radleys’ porch.

On their way to school one day, Scout notices something shining from the knothole in a tree in the Radleys’ yard and discovers that someone has left small presents, including chewing gum in foil, yarn, and dolls shaped like Jem and Scout. Scout thinks that Boo Radley has been watching them from his window, and thinks that maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

During this time. Atticus is appointed the lawyer for Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman from a poor family. Atticus accepts the case and defends Tom as he’d defend any other client, much to the disbelief of the town. Scout finds herself getting into a few fights at school when other children taunt her and call Atticus a “nigger-lover”. Atticus maintains that defending Tom is the right thing to do, which Scout and Jem agree with.

Atticus does not want Scout, Jem, and Dill to watch the court proceedings, so they sneak into the colored balcony and watch with the black citizens of Maycomb. Atticus proves that Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell are lying — Mayella and Bob say that Tom hit her on the right side of her face and held her down as he raped her; the doctor also testifies that the right side of Mayella’s face had been beaten. However, Tom Robinson is physically incapable of having hit Mayella on the right side of her face, as his left side is paralyzed from an accident when he was a teenager and the muscles in his arm were ripped up when his arm got caught in a cotton thresher. Atticus proves that Tom was trying to help Mayella, whom he felt sorry for due to her economic circumstances and friendless nature, when Mayella made sexual advances on Tom; Bob Ewell came home to see her flirting with a black man and beat her.

Despite the proof in front of them, the jury convicts Tom and finds him guilty. As Atticus leaves the courtroom, the people in the colored balcony stand as he passes. Dill, overcome by how rude the prosecuting attorney is, runs out of the courtroom crying. Jem and Scout follow him and run into the town drunk, who reveals that the bottle he drinks out of is actually soda — it’s easier for people to accept how he lives (with his black wife and children) if the townspeople think he’s a drunk and therefore not responsible for his actions. This is one of the first occasions that Jem and Scout that people and situations aren’t always as they appear.

After Tom’s conviction, he is sent to jail, and despite Atticus’s promise and work on an appeal, Tom is shot and killed when he tries to escape. The editor of the paper compares the conviction and killing of Tom Robinson to the killing of a mockingbird, which is a metaphor that Scout is familiar with — when Atticus gives Jem a gun, he tells him that he can shoot anything except for a mockingbird, as mockingbirds are innocent songbirds and only exist to bring beauty to the world. Scout realizes that Tom, and perhaps Boo Radley, are like mockingbirds.

Even though Tom is convicted, Bob Ewell is humiliated and upset with Atticus for revealing all of his faults in court. He vows revenge and spits in Atticus’s face when they meet on the street. On the night of the school play, when Jem and Scout are walking home (Scout in a ham costume), they are attacked in the dark. Scout is shoved to the side and can’t escape her ham costume, so she can only hear noises, which include a lot of scuffling and then heavy breathing. When she manages to break free of the ham, she sees a man carrying an unconscious Jem to the Finch house.

When she gets to their house, Atticus is calling a doctor. The doctor arrives and gives Jem a sedative and sets his broken arm. The sheriff, Heck Tate, arrives and tells Atticus Finch that Bob Ewell has been found stabbed with his own knife. When the sheriff and Atticus ask Scout what happened, she notices the mysterious man standing in the corner of Jem’s room and realizes that it’s Boo Radley who saved them.

Atticus and the sheriff decide that it is in both Jem and Boo’s best interest to claim that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife in the struggle with Jem — they know that if the word gets out that Boo saved the Finch children, the women of the town will bring him casseroles and fawn over him, which would be torture for the reclusive Boo. Tom died for no reason and now the man who was responsible is dead, is how the sheriff sees it.

Scout walks Boo home and he disappears into his house. Scout reflects that she never sees him again after that. She considers what life must be like from Boo’s perspective. She’s sad that she and Jem never repaid Boo for the gifts he left for them in the tree. She stands and looks at the street from the Radley house and imagines the town how Boo saw it. When she gets back to their house, Atticus is sitting by Jem’s bed and is reading a book, so she asks him to read to her. As she is falling asleep, Scout mumbles about a character in the book to prove that she’d been listening, but it also juxtaposes her encounter with Boo Radley:

“An‘ they chased him ’n‘ never could catch him ’cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an‘ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…”

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

IMPRESSIONS

I love this book. I really can’t talk enough about how much I love it and will be searching for the rest of my life for a man exactly like Atticus Finch and when I find him I will marry him.

The book paints a truthful picture of a Southern town and the racial injustice that exists. I’ve never understood why people, Southerners in particular, try to ban or become offended by portrayals of racism in America. It DID exist and people WERE ridiculously horrible to each other. It’s the same with the Holocaust deniers — why? It takes away from the picture of Southern hospitality, perhaps that’s it. However, this book showcases a spectrum of prejudices, as it details the prejudices of both whites against blacks and whites against whites of a lower economic and social classes.

To Kill a Mockingbird is on banned lists for offensive language and racism. The offensive language, I found, is nothing that would make one blush, other than the talk of “niggers” and “nigger-lovers” and the discussion of the rape of Mayella Ewell.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

In her first novel, Harper Lee writes with gentle affection, rich humor and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama. … It is an easy going but narrow minded community, whose foot-washing Baptists feel perfectly free to denounce Miss Maudie Atkinson, a passionate garden-lover (for whom the scent of mimosa is “angels’ breath”) because “anything that’s pleasure is a sin.” At the other extreme stand men like Atticus Finch, a high-esteemed lawyer and legislator and the embodiment of fearless integrity, magnanimity and common sense. … The dialogue of Miss Lee’s refreshingly varied characters is a constant delight in its authenticity and swift revelation of personality. … [but] The praise Miss Lee deserves must be qualified somewhat by noting that oftentimes Scout’s expository style has an processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness quite out of keeping with the narrator’s gay, impulsive approach to life in youth. Also, some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least on eye toward Hollywood. Movie-going readers will be able to cast most of the roles very quickly, but it is no disparagement of Miss Lee’s winning book to say that if could be the basis of an excellent film.
New York Times

Two other novels have turned up which may be classified as respectable hammock reading, if anybody reads in hammocks anymore. Walk Egypt by Vinnie Williams is well-written soap opera, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. . . .

To Kill A Mockingbird is a more successful piece of work. It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. Miss Lee has, to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility.

The book’s setting is a small town in Alabama, and the action behind Scout’s tale is her father’s determination, as a lawyer, liberal, and honest man, to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl. What happens is, naturally, never seen directly by the narrator. The surface of the story is an Alcottish filigree of games, mischief, squabbles with an older brother, troubles at school, and the like. None of it is painful, for Scout and Jem are happy children, brought up with angelic cleverness by their father and his old Negro housekeeper. Nothing fazes them much or long. Even the new first-grade teacher, a devotee of the “Dewey decimal system” who is outraged to discover that Scout can already read and write, proves endurable in the long run.

A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.
The Atlantic

LIBRARY USES

I would force every patron of the library to read this book if I could. There are so many uses — book talks with teenagers, displays for banned book week, displays for summer reading, excerpts to introduce studying civil rights and Jim Crow in history classes.

REFERENCES

Adams, P. L. (1960, August). Review of to kill a mockingbird. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.cardinalstage.org/critical-responses-to-the-nove

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York, NY: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Lyell, F. (1960, July 10). One taxi town. The New York Times.. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/archival/19600710tkamreview.pdf

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