Atticus Finch gives this advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this classic novel – a black man charged with attacking a white girl. Through the eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Lee explores the issues of race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s with compassion and humour. She also creates one of the great heroes of literature in their father, whose lone struggle for justice pricks the conscience of a town steeped in prejudice and hypocrisy.
First published: 1960
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been on my “must-one-day-read-because-duh list” for ages, but since I didn’t have a copy and there were so many other books I still had to read, it wasn’t bound to happen anytime soon. However, after the announcement was made that Go Set a Watchman was to be published this summer, my interest was once again sparked and I figured I should get my hands on a copy of the book ASAP. I managed to do just that in London a few months ago (and isn’t it pretty?! I love the cover!). I read the novel a few weeks back, and it left me so impressed. I completely get why this is such a huge novel, and I think everyone would benefit from reading it.
Firstly, let’s talk about Scout. At the start of the book, Scout is about six years old, and I think she is the perfect narrator of a story like this because of her age. She is still so young and isn’t aware yet of the way the world works. There is still so much she has to learn and the reader gets to be a part of the learning process, which I think is a masterful way of storytelling. I liked Scout pretty much from the beginning, but she completely and irrevocably won me over when she states:
Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
I was very impressed by how well Harper Lee manages to capture the voice of such a young girl and make it seem completely authentic. Scout slowly learns more about racism and injustice as she encounters both in her daily life, and soon she comes to the sad realisation that life is inherenly unfair. At the same time, she is still a kid and thinks up the most amazing games with her older brother and their friend Dill. The main themes are ever present, but at the same time there is still room for humour and lightheartedness in Scout’s life as well as the usual problems kids face such as fighting with her older brother Jem over petty stuff.
Jem is four years Scout’s senior and as we see Scout grow older, we see Jem go through a transformation of his own. By the end of the book he is thirteen years old and he has a much better understanding of how the world works. This inevitably leads to a lot of disappointment for him: he gets very angry with everything and feels extremely powerless and helpless as he sees his dad trying to do the right thing. I thought this was a very good representation of growing up and learning about the issues that have segregated people since the dawn of time. It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around as a child and it was very interesting (and at times sort of heartbreaking) to see Jem (and Scout too) struggle with this.
And then there’s their father, Atticus Finch, who tries to raise his children in a town (or world) drenched in prejudice and racism. Atticus is my kind of hero: the silent, strong one, who is not afraid to admit to his flaws and weaknesses and knows what he stands for. That’s what I admired most in him: he is so sure of what is the right thing to do, even though it might harm him. I completely understand Atticus’ prominent role in literature, he is an amazing character.
What stayed with me about this novel is how relevant it still is today. While things might have improved since the 1930s, which is when this novel takes place, there is still so much prejudice and hypocrisy in the world. Harper Lee addresses what sadly seems to be a timeless issue (just look at what is happening in the US right now, #BlackLivesMatter) and that really struck a chord with me. So much of the plot of this novel would be almost directly transferable to a setting in 2015, and that’s a rather confronting thought. It’s also one of the reasons why I think everyone should read this novel. That, and the fact that it’s just really, really good.