Wednesday 9 February 2011

Revisiting Books... To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

OR... Things To Kill A Mockingbird has taught me

I just finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird for about the millionth time, and I found myself, as I am want to do lately, copying out important, meaningful and moving quotations from the book, in a way I haven't done since I first read it when I was 16, for my GCSEs. Even that experience (having to read it rather than just reading it for pleasure) didn't put me off the spectacularness that is this book. Since I'm pretty sure the majority of people will have already read, loved and analysed this book to death; I'm not going to give you a regular book review, but rather a look at the things To Kill A Mockingbird have specifically taught me (as I learn along with Scout) and through this why the book means so much to me, all with the help of those trusty quotations I wrote down as I read. So, here goes!

1. You should outwardly conform so that you can basically do what you want
This is something that Atticus avidly does, as he holds so many unconventional views for 1930s Alabama, but still remains a vital and loved part of the town. Until he does something that nobody wants him to, of course. This wisdom he passes onto Scout, as makes a bargain with her- she goes to school, and they can carry on reading. I think this is quite an important piece of information to have, since it's all about compromise- as long as other people think you're doing what they want you to, then you can pretty much do as you please!

2. You should be empathetic towards others
This is something I probably already knew, but Lee just distills it into the perfect sentiment
"'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it'"
This is something that constantly helps Scout understand the world around her, and as she becomes confused about why people act the way they do, she is able to look back upon this and be empathetic to their circumstances. She most notably does this with Boo Radley:
"Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."
It is perhaps this more than anything that enables Scout to get through the whole awful summer, as she has to really consider why people are acting the way they are, even when there is no logical or rational reason for them to do so.

3. Guns are evil
"'[Atticus] told me havin' a gun around's an invitation for somebody to shoot you'"
No novel has formed my beliefs about gun control like To Kill a Mockingbird. This is, in a nutshell, my own theory on guns- if nobody has them, then nobody can get hurt. This is a far better attitude to have, in my mind, than believing that if you don't have one then everyone else will, and so it is kill or be killed. That really doesn't seem to lead to a very peaceful society now, does it? Especially if you haven't considered things from somebody else's point of view...

4. What courage really is
"'I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew'"
Atticus' perception of courage should come as no surprise, since he models his own actions on those of Mrs Dubose (without her cantankerousness, cruelty and racism, of course). But this is really something to consider- you're not really brave when you're doing something that you know you will be able to do, but rather when you do something that you know is going to be extremely hard and you doubt you will be able to win. I think this is something that everyone could do with remembering every once in a while.

5. Forced womanhood is not cool
Scout seems to be pretty much the ultimate literary tomboy, so when Aunt Alexandra moves in and tries to start dictating her actions, it was never going to be good. I absolutely love this line
"I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me, and for the second time in my life I thought about running away."
The thing is, Scout is relatively lucky- most girls have these walls imposed upon them pretty much since birth, but then again, having them forced upon her now when she can understand what is happening must be pretty upsetting. She also has good, solid reasons not to want any part in the world of women
"Ladies seemed to live in faint horror of men, seemed unwilling to approve wholeheartedly of them. But I liked them. There was something about them, no matter how much they cussed and drank and gambled and chewed; no matter how undelectable they were, there was something about them that I instinctively liked... they weren't-  
'Hypocrites, Mrs Perkins, born hypocrites'"
I can't even begin to tell you how much I like this witty little bit of wordplay, but it also happens to be the truth- the white women in this novel (with the exception of Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra) do quite often contradict themselves, whereas the men seem to be upfront and say what they are actually thinking (even if this takes the form of a mob). It's really no wonder Scout doesn't want girl-ness forced upon her in this society.

6. It is important to protect the innocent
Atticus tries to protect his children from the horrors of the trial, he tries to protect Tom Robinson in his innocence, and he tries to protect the mockingbirds from his children's guns. Mockingbirds need to be protected because
"' Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'"
This clearly becomes a symbol of why it would also be a sin to kill Tom Robinson, and this is in fact clearly stated later on in the novel (I love books that make it easy for you!)
"He likened Tom's death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children"
And this is certainly the case- Tom never did anything but tried to make Mayella Ewell's life a little bit easier, and in return she (with not a little help from her father) took his life away from him. It's so entirely tragic, and really drives home the point that what is innocent in this world needs to be protected, and this in turn makes us all the more grateful to Atticus for being the one to try and do it,
"'Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we're paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It's that simple."
7. Prejudice is absolutely wrong and abhorrent
Yeah, I knew this before I read the book. But it really drives it home, so many times, and in so many different ways. It makes it clear that any assumptions based on race are logically incoherant
"'the evil assumption- that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their calibre. Which, gentlemen, we know to be a lie as black as Tom Robinson's skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some negro men lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around women. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.'"
Atticus really pushes the town to try and accept the idea that there is no fundamental between black and white people, and that there are no essential traits that apply to any race, and if you believe that there are then you're pretty ignorant. It is clear that, whilst Atticus does everything he can to try and change people's minds he is still realistic about the time and place in which he is operating
"'There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads- they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life.'"
"Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed."
The novel doesn't offer any positive conclusions about how to end this cycle of hatred and inequality, and this is perhaps because, at the time the novel is set, there wasn't any visible end to it. All we are left with is the minority of people who desperately wish that things would change for the better.

8. You have to go with what your conscience tells you
For Atticus, it would be so much easier to just half-heartedly take on Tom Robinson's case, give him the absolute minimum defence, and retain the love of the town. It is absolutely impossible for him to do this, since,
"'If I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again."
This, for Atticus, is a moral decision. There is no question that he has to do absolutely everything he can to stop Tom Robinson being prosecuted for this crime, because if he didn't it would haunt him the rest of his life, always hanging over anything else he tried to do. This he does even without approval from the great majority of the town, because
"'Before I can live with other folks, I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
In other words, you have to do what feels like the right thing for you, regardless of how popular this decision is, because otherwise, while you have everyone else's respect, you won't be able to live with what you have done yourself. This is what makes Atticus such an amazing character- he always does what is right, not what is merely popular, and as such has gained the respect and love of basically everyone who has read the novel, ever. And, believe me, he deserves that respect more than most characters, and most people in real life ever do.

1 comment:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, is a vintage tale of hate, prejudice, unity, and revelation. Narrated by the protagonist from a later age, Lee's story is vividly composed as Jean Louise comments on the experiences in the book. Despite her fond tone, the conflict takes place deep in the hearts of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch and her brother as they come to terms with the outside world. Weaved into the plot is daily life for the Finch family, ranging from encounters with estranged relatives to a reclusive neighbor.