TW/CW: contains mentions of rape, racism and racial slurs
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 by American novelist Harper Lee. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, this novel has become a classic must-read.
Set in the fictional city of Maycomb County, Alabama, the novel focuses on a town steeped in racism – like many towns in the Deep South throughout the 20th century. Here, hatred for the black community that lives and works alongside the white community runs prevalent. The entire novel is centred around one key event: the trial of a black man accused of raping a white girl.
What made this book so engaging for me was how Harper Lee chose the voice of a young white girl, Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, to narrate the entire story. Scout lives with her older brother Jeremy, ‘Jem’, and her father, level-headed lawyer Atticus Finch. Her narration of events interlaces and balances the trivial challenges of childhood with a serious court case that sets the entire, well-connected town on edge. Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus is the lawyer appointed to the defendant of this case.
In narrating through the eyes of a child, To Kill a Mockingbird aims to avoid prejudices, and Harper Lee even goes as far as to mock the irrationality of adult attitudes towards race and class.
After learning about Hitler’s advances in Germany during the time in which this novel is set, Scout notes how it isn’t right to persecute anyone – whether they be Jews or black people. Scout’s teacher, Miss Gates, is so blatantly hypocritical that Scout, just 8-years-old, sees through it straightaway. Through this, Harper Lee shows the illogical racism that many white people of Maycomb County inhibit.
“Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home – ?”
Atticus, in spite of raising his children by himself after their mother died from a sudden heart attack, raises Scout and Jem to treat everyone as equal – regardless of skin colour. Neither Scout nor Jem are explicitly racist, and Scout gets into fights defending Atticus after classmates and other adults call the lawyer a ‘n*gger-lover’.
“You aren’t really a n*gger-lover then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
As well as the importance of not being prejudiced towards other races, Atticus further teaches Scout not to fight her ignorant classmates. He asks that she keeps her ‘head high’ and ‘those fists down’, in spite of the ‘ugly talk’ she hears of Atticus.
Somehow, if I fought Cecil I would let Atticus down. Atticus so rarely asked Jem and me to do something for him, I could take being called a coward for him.
Spoilers Beyond This Point: Stop Here If You Haven’t Read the Book
Ultimately, Atticus loses the court case, in spite of Tom Robinson, the accused black man, being innocent. He didn’t rape nor beat Mayella Ewell, or do anything untoward to her ever – he was only ever kind to her, helping her out with chores and odd jobs at no cost.
But the odds were against him from the start; regardless of the crime, he most likely would’ve been prosecuted as he was black. All of the jury pledged ‘Guilty’, though Tom Robinson was innocent.
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in the court room, be he of any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments into the jury box.”
The innocence of the young shields them from everyday prejudices presented in Maycomb County, as well as the gossip-ridden, old-fashioned prejudice ways that run throughout the novel and against which Atticus attempts to fight.
“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of their life… whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, or how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
Whilst some think that To Kill a Mockingbird revolves around the white saviour complex – usually felt by white people who think they are entitled to act and save oppressed races – Atticus does not end up saving Tom Robinson. He tries, but fails. After Tom is sent to prison, he is shot trying to escape.
As opposed to a white saviour complex, I view this novel as portraying the importance of trying to help others, even though one might not succeed all the time. The way I see it is that fighting against injustices and prejudices is better than not fighting at all.
Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.
Despite the challenges of racial inequality that it focuses upon, I genuinely really enjoyed reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I found it to be really well-balanced and I particularly liked reading such difficult issues through the eyes of a child.
I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for their next read.
“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
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