Harper Lee

 

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

So much harder to rate classics: I don’t know if its reputation made me bump it up or down.

Definitely a worthy read though.

The narration is assured and consistent throughout. The voice shows the influence of Twain: it’s not played nearly as much for laughs, but the dry humour is there (interesting that Twain is definitive America, but his understated turns of phrase seems the opposite of what people (generally negatively) class as American, as opposed to British, humour. But there are so many exceptions – Rich Hall, Joseph Heller – and Little Britain, Carry on etc.). Lee also uses, but doesn’t overuse, the child’s perspective to comment on social mores, effectively damning those who condescend to Scout. Atticus is an out and out hero, but (again, despite the huge icon this book is in the States) he wouldn’t get a lead in most American TV shows or movies today: he avoids violence, and he (spoiler – although, really, can you do spoilers for a book this well-known? Of course you can: if you haven’t read it, skip this paragraph) loses his defining court case. This is a parable about integrity, but hardly abstract: given its 1960s American target audience, it’s hugely specific on what counts as moral and immoral behaviour regarding race.

Lots of things mean it couldn’t be written today. Not just dated protocols, but the vilification of the welfare class characters, and the assumption that the alleged rape victim is lying, while the hero grills her in the witness box. In his belief in ideals, and even in the basic goodness of people who can, at times, act appallingly, Atticus also runs contrary to our more conflicted contemporary heroes. Although the characterisation of church people as smug and hypocritical is an evergreen.

It’s interesting how large a place the Boo Radley subplot is given. Several things are clearly important to Lee, and one of them is the toleration of difference (except if you’re trailer park different?).

Apparently she’s a fan, and there is something of C.S. Lewis in her world view. Integrity comes first, and it’s mainly a fight you need to win over yourself. Part of that is not merely dismissing people even if they dismiss you: a vital part of Atticus’ heroism, and a lesson he deliberately teaches his children (and by extension, the readers), is that there’s more to admire in others than you may initially see, or even that they might initially see. A key scene is where Scout, as a child, guilessly reminds one man in a dumb lynch mob of his humanity, which turns out to be far more effective than a hail of bullets. Some social justice advocates have rightly pointed out the danger of this attitude – that reducing everything to a personal journey may divert you from clearly demanded physical action. But Atticus is also highlighted as a deliberate force for social change: even though he was pretty convinced he couldn’t win the court case, he still felt he had to stand up and make the case, and that this was an important step towards a better day. Who knows what the social effect of the book was, but I suspect it was significantly persuasive.

 

September 2015