Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Standard

To a lot of Americans,this might be a standard reference, something they might have to read in high school but I am not American and while I had somewhat heard of this book, I had little awareness of its themes and would not have guessed from the title. I just picked it up recently due to the current debate about the recent publication of Harper Lee’s older manuscript, Go Set a Watchman. Given that all the comments where in comparison of that book with To Kill a Mockingbird, reading it seemed to be in order.

The first thing that appealed to me in reading this book is how much of it is from the point of view of children. Given the Southern setting, the first book it reminded me of was Donna Tartt’s Little Friend. The story is told from the point of view of the little girl, Scout Finch, whose read name if Jean Louise, but who does not aspire to be a good girl and to have ladylike manners. It is told from her point of view but by a much older Scout who can comment on the gaps in the child’s understanding of reality. It thus present a view that is ingenuous as well as critical on race relations in the South.

Scout is the youngest of the two children of attorney Atticus Finch, living in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. Along with her brother Jem, she grows up without a mother, raised by Atticus and cook Calpurnia, who managed the children as they can, with much reproach from neighbors and relatives who claim that the children lack discipline and manners. On the other hand, we see from Atticus is a strong tendency to reason with his children and to allow them to experiment in order to draw lessons from experience.

All this sets the stage for discussions about racial relationships in the American South, in the early twenthieth century, around the Depression. A Black man is suspected of raping a young White girl and Atticus is defending him, believing him to be innocent until proven guilty, in a society prone to thinking that the man was guilty by reason of race. There is little proof available one way or the other but the man is found guilty by the all-White jury. The children struggle to understand issues of truth, equality, justice and fairness, and the social mechanisms that may lead a group of people to behave in ways that differ from the behaviors that the individuals within it would adopt left to their own judgement and sense of propriety.

The father of the young woman who accused the Black man of raping and beating her up threatens to get back at Atticus for ridiculing him during court proceedings. He later attempts to provoke him into a fight.

Mr. Ewell was a veteran of an obscure war; that plus Atticus’s peaceful reaction probably prompted him to inquire, “Too proud to fight, you nigger-lovin’ bastard?” Miss Stephanie said Atticus said, “No, too old,” put his hands in his pockets and strolled on. Miss Stephanie said you had to hand it to Atticus Finch, he could be right dry sometimes.

As much as Atticus thought this was the end of the story, Ewell does try to get back at him by attempting to attack the children, only succeeding to break Jem’s elbow. The attack is foiled by the intervention of a strange neighbor whose reclusiveness has obsessed the children all of their young lives.

The book also shows the loving relationship that exists between a widower and his two children. Not only does he care about their development as human beings and citizens in the changing American South, but there are constant demonstrations of tenderness between them that leads the children to know that they are loved unconditionnally and from which they derive a strong sense of safety. While the children sometimes disobey and defy their father, it is never done in a way that puts the relationship in question. Even the aunt that comes to live them and questions they way in which they are brought up comes to see that strength and beauty of that relationship.

Reference:

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Collings, Epub 2014 [1960].

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