GAN Quest: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Equal under the law…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Scout Finch and her older brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become fascinated by the story of the neighbour they have never seen, Boo Radley. After getting into trouble in his youth, Boo’s father has kept him in the family home all this time and, although he’s now a man, Boo still stays hidden from the world. Unsurprisingly all kinds of rumours and legends surround him, and the children develop an almost obsessive desire to see this mysterious figure. Meantime Scout’s father has reluctantly taken on the task of defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Many in the town think he should have refused to take the case, but Atticus Finch believes that all men have the right to equal justice under the law. Over the couple of years covered by the book, Scout will learn much about the prejudices and cruelties and kindnesses of the people in her small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

As with so many of the classics, I first read this long ago when the world and I were young, round about the late ’70s, I’d imagine, and my late teens. Of course back then it wasn’t really a classic yet – it had only been published less than twenty years earlier in 1960. Oddly, my major memories of it have always centred on the Boo Radley storyline rather than the Tom Robinson one, so at that time, had I been asked, I don’t think I’d have mentioned race specifically as the major theme of the book. I’d have said it was about how society demonises difference, how justice can be distorted by prejudice, and how poverty brutalises us. Over the years, as its status has grown, and as racism has become a subject much more to the fore over here than it was back in those more innocent-seeming days, I’ve accepted rather unthinkingly that this clearly is one of its major themes and felt for a long time that I should re-read it rather than relying on my frequent watches of the film (which I also think says more about Boo than race).

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by night fall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Re-reading it now with all the current arguments around race in America in the forefront of my mind, it’s hard to see Lee’s portrayal as being as enlightened and forward-thinking as I’m sure it seemed back when the book was published. To modern eyes, her black characters seem to be very much a product of white wish-fulfilment. They are ‘good’ because they are respectful and subservient; they are intellectually inferior, not just through lack of educational opportunities but through ‘laziness’ and lack of ambition; and they are entirely passive, relying on a white knight to defend them, and not only in the legal sense of that word. Even Calpurnia, the Finches’ maid, though more educated than most black people in the town through her family’s long association with white folk (as servants obviously), comes across rather as the stock black character of older American fiction, whose main function is to show how kind (or sometimes how cruel) their white masters can be if they choose. Calpurnia knows her place and accepts it gratefully, though it’s a lowly one. It is of course a sympathetic depiction of the black characters, but one that jars a little now. There is no challenging of the innate superiority of whiteness here – merely an encouragement to treat ‘good’ black people better.

Even Atticus, generally held up as the pinnacle of just men, clearly doesn’t think of black people as in any way equal. He believes they have constitutional rights under the law, but that’s pretty much as far as he goes. There was an outcry a couple of years ago when Lee’s second book (which I haven’t read) came out and appeared to show Atticus as racist – while I wouldn’t go anywhere close to saying that about him in this book, I didn’t feel he could really be seen as fighting for equality either. Those of you who have memorised all my reviews (What? You haven’t??) will know that I criticised that other American novel always hailed as an icon of anti-racism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for portraying black people more as pets to be treated kindly than humans to be treated equally. I fear this book left me with the same kind of taste, though a less bitter one.

Other aspects of the book have stood up better to the passage of time, I feel. The writing is wonderful, particularly Lee’s use of various levels of dialect to differentiate class and social status. Although I have reservations about the black characters, the white characters ring wholly true, as does the town of Maycomb which becomes a character in its own right. Boo’s story is still a great commentary on society’s wariness of “difference”, although I found the ending a little too neat – the point made a little too pointedly, perhaps – on this re-reading. This time around I was more moved by the rape storyline than Boo’s, though more because of Mayella than Tom.

“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”

(Men may have been equal in court, but I wonder if Mayella thought women were.)

Mayella’s story (the alleged rape victim) is devastating in its portrayal of the powerlessness of women denied education and opportunity, and the trial scene must surely be one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the English language. Trying to avoid spoilers means I have to be a little vague here, but Lee does a marvellous job of showing both accuser and accused as victims of the white patriarchy. The callous treatment of Mayella both at the time of the rape and during the trial, (yes, even by Atticus), and the way she is then left in the power of the father who has been shown as a violent bully, if not worse, made me wonder who was actually lower down the social order – the black man or the white woman. Of course, Lee makes clear that poverty plays a major role here; one of the major strengths of the book is the comparison Lee draws between black and dirt-poor white people in terms of how they are treated by society, and of the subsequent resentment of the white people – Mayella’s father is more offended that Tom should have dared to feel sorry for Mayella than that he might have raped her. It’s a searing depiction of the sense of what we now call “white entitlement” that remains at the root of much of the race-related division in American society today.

So, although I found Lee’s portrayal of the black characters more than a little problematic, I think it’s fair to say that the major themes of the book – the inequalities inherent in the justice system, prejudice against difference, white poverty, the powerlessness of under-educated women – all still have much relevance to the race debates going on today, and to contemporary American society as a whole. Judged in its totality therefore, the book fully merits its place as a classic.

* * * * *

I listened to the book this time on the Audible audiobook read by Sissy Spacek. For my taste, she speaks too slowly and I ended up speeding it up, which worked better. But otherwise, I think she gives a wonderful reading, every word clearly enunciated, every character beautifully interpreted and every emotional nuance ringing true.

* * * * *

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

Achieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

Yes, despite all I’ve said, it undoubtedly gives a very clear depiction of race relations in the ’30s, and of attitudes towards race in the ’50s, so – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

Yes, though the question of race has been written about over and over again and will continue to be, this feels original to me because of the comparison drawn between the relative statuses of black people and poor white people; and the question of equal application of justice under the law feels original to me to for the time. Achieved.

Must be superbly written.

I love the writing and storytelling, and although I don’t think the prose has the same power and impact as that in the two books to which I’ve previously given The Great American Novel status, Beloved and American Pastoral, I’m still going to say – achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

I’ve said in the past (Beloved) that since “to some degree the whole of American society is still suffering from the after-effects of its foundation on slavery” it could be argued that books that tackle the subject of racism against the descendants of slaves in some way reflect the entire American experience. However… the small-town setting of this is too restrictive and the depiction of the black people is unfortunately too patronising for me to convince myself that this one does. I think what it captures is the white American experience. Therefore… not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * * * *

Book 14 of 90

 

52 thoughts on “GAN Quest: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  1. What a thoughtful discussion, FictionFan! You have a very well-taken point, too, about the way that Lee portrays both accuser and accused here. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, the book doesn’t quite stand the test of time. But to me, it is a classic on a lot of levels, not the least of which is the writing style. There’s also the way Lee has of showing all of this through the eyes of a child. That’s not easy to do, and still make the young character anything like believable.

    • Not many books completely withstand the test of time, especially when they address the big social concerns of their day. But that’s what makes them so interesting to read – what they say about then and now – how far we have or haven’t come. Sometimes finding a book’s attitudes outdated is a good thing – I’d rather be where we are now, with all its problems, than where we were in the 1930s or 1950s. The writing is great – she sustains all the different voices, including Scout’s, without a hiccup, and I must say Sissy Spacek did full justce to that aspect.

  2. A wonderful assessment. You make a good case for some aspects of the book that are not so wonderful. This is one of the best novels written with the best realized child characters. Many authors writing children’s books were clearly inspired by Scout.

    • Thank you! Yes, I think the way she sustains Scout’s voice is wonderfully well done – it can be really difficult to keep a child at the appropriate level of vocabulary and insight for his or her age, but Lee gets it right with Scout. And by having the linking bits told by grown-up Scout we don’t have to miss out on a more adult viewpoint and language too…

  3. I didn’t read this until about three years ago and was very concerned when I did because I knew that I was supposed to see Atticus as the great hero and I didn’t. I had the same qualms that you have. When I then came to read ‘Go Set A Watchman’ literally days before the Europe vote I thought it was so much closer to the truth and prophetic of what I thought was going to happen at our polls. No one in our reading group agreed with me but interestingly one of lecturers in American Literature did. It may not be anywhere near as well written as Mockingbird but it is truer to the spirit of the South at that time, which is probably why the publishers sent her back to re-write it.

    • I think attitudes to books tend to be set by when we first read them. Back when I first read this, over here in the UK I think there was a kind of feeling that America had sorted itself out in terms of race. We didn’t get news coverage the way we do now, so only people who really paid attention would have known that the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s had only moved things on a little. Today we’re more aware of the issues, I think, because we get much more international news coverage – and the internet, of course. I’m pretty sure I thought Atticus was much more heroic than I do now, (though I still admire him), and also that the black characters were realistic and sympathetically portrayed – we were at a time when we were still laughing at hideously racist sit-coms over here, after all. I may try again to read Go Set a Watchman – I abandoned it fairly early when I first tried, but largely because I didn’t like the narration on the audiobook version I’d got.

  4. You make some interesting points, FF, but I don’t know that I wouldn’t classify this one as a GAN. Of course, I wasn’t alive when this was supposed to have been written, so I can’t say whether she “got it right.” However, from what I’ve studied, I do believe she portrayed a time and place pretty accurately. It must have been somewhat shocking for a prestigious white attorney in a small town to take on the defense of a poor black man accused of a horrific crime against a white woman. And to think that a family had to “squirrel away” one of its members who “wasn’t right in the head” is more than sad. Still, we all should study history, or we might be doomed to repeat it, right?

    • It’s that pesky fifth criteria – I agree that it’s a GAN, but not The GAN, purely because I don’t feel it’s broad enough in scope. But that’s not a criticism of it – it does what Lee was trying to do, and does it very well. I agree it would have been shocking in a small town, but I suspect white lawyers routinely defended black people in big cities, which is kinda why I think this book is talking about a particular part of America rather than the whole country. Boo’s story is much darker than I had remembered – I had kinda thought his Daddy was a good guy who was just looking after his son, but this time I began to wonder if he’d been more concerned about his reputation than Boo’s welfare. A great book – one that stands up well to re-reading.

  5. Points well taken, but I have to agree with Debbie in that I also think this one is deserving of GAN status. When you say that the small-town setting is too restrictive, do you mean in the way the people think? From what I’ve read and seen, I actually think that the depiction of the small town is pretty typical for its time and place and thus rather universal.

    • As I said to Debbie, it’s that pesky fifth criterion – I agree the book is a GAN, but to be The GAN it has to say something about the whole American experience and I feel this one is very specifically about small town America. That’s not a criticism – it’s what Lee was trying to do and she does it very well, but the books I’ve give The GAN status to seem to me to be more about the whole American psyche somehow. It’s always going to be subjective though. All I mean about it being too restrictive is that, although I think it’s completely convincing about small town attitudes, it leaves me not knowing at all what attitudes were in the big cities in the North – so it restricts itself to a subset of America. Does that make sense? American Pastoral talked about Vietnam, the generation gap, the ’60s social upheavals, the immigrant experience – themes I felt that affected all parts of America. And Beloved addressed race and the impact of slavery at a more fundamental level which therefore felt more universal… to me!

      • Thanks for the clarification. Your explanation makes perfect sense. I will have to read American Pastoral now. (And in reading your response to Debbie, I will also have to see if I can find out how many white lawyers (willingly) defended black people in big cities in the 1930s. My first impulse would be to say that didn’t happen routinely, but I have no facts to base that on.)

        • American Pastoral is a phenomenal book. I’m not always a Roth fan – I dislike him at least as often as I like him, in fact, but in this one I think he really does achieve The GAN status. (I’d love to know if you manage to find out. I must say one of the things I hadn’t remembered at all about TKAM is that Atticus isn’t really ‘willing’ either – he is appointed by the court to defend Tom, and it’s only his belief in the legal system that makes him go ahead. He makes it quite clear he’d rather not. But having agreed to do it, he then does his best for Tom. I think he’s a more nuanced character than I had remembered him as.)

  6. I should reread this book too. Like you, I read it as a teenager – although for me it was around ’61 or ’62 – and my memories are of the Boo storyline. I wasn’t much interested at that point in any lawyer/court proceedings.

    • Yes, I think it’s odd how perceptions of it seem to have changed over the years. I still think the fact that it starts and ends with Boo’s story makes that seem like the major theme, though with the interest in race questions having come back to the forefront, there’s no doubt the whole trial story seems more relevant today. I must say it stands up very well to re-reading, if you get the chance… 🙂

  7. Interesting review. I read this I think in about 1964, when we were getting a lot of news abut the Civil Rights movement, desegregation, etc., and when we were just beginning to spot that we had similar problems and prejudices, albeit on a smaller scale. I saw the film almost simultaneously (unusual for me!) and felt that the court story came over better on film. Mind you, any character played by Gregory Peck was going to be a hero.
    The depiction of the black characters was pretty typical of the time, even in childrens’ books – if you read unrevised versions of things like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins, you would recognise the types in Mockingbird.
    I haven’t reread this for decades – too scared, and I haven’t even considered reading the sequel.

    • It’s odd – while writing the review and thinking about the comments people have left, I think Lee was a little backward-looking in her portrayal of black people, but incredibly forward-looking in the way she shows the tensions between poor whites and blacks. I’m pretty sure I’d have given that little thought in the ’70s but it stands out starkly now in light of the current state of play in America. The portrayal of black people in this didn’t make me cringe the way they did in Huck Finn – I thought she was very sympathetic to them. But there’s definitely an undercurrent of them being inferior and of it being up to white people to determine their future. I can quite understand why Goodreads is awash with 1-star reviews of it from young people, especially young black people, calling it hideously racist. I don’t agree, but I get their point. It stands up well to re-reading though – still very thought-provoking,

  8. It’s been ages since I read this one, but I’m like you in the sense that I can’t help but ignore the inequality that women also faced at that time. Every time I am reminded of a book like this I thank my lucky stars I was born now, in Canada! I suspect I might feel that same way with many of your GANT books.

    • Mayella’s story is really quite shocking, and made me very glad I live here and now too – we still have some problems with institutional sexism, but at least we make an effort nowadays to support women a bit better in rape trials. Though we still have a long way to go. It’s funny – in the earlier books, the American attittude to women seems quite forward-thinking in comparison to the UK, but it seems to reverse round about 1920 and we’ve overtaken them. I’m always surprised at just how unequal such a modern country as America still is…

  9. I’m not entirely comfortable with the portrayal of Calpurnia either – she does seem to be there as a token of how black and white can live together yet she is still a servant.

  10. I re-read this a year or two ago, it really stood the test of time for me. You are right about Atticus though, and when I read Go Set a Watchman his character fully emerged. That controversial prequel served as a fascinating companion read for me.

    • I had decided not to read Go Set a Warchman for fear it spoiled my memories of this one, but after this re-read I realise my memories had become kind of idealised. Now I’m keen to read it and see how Atticus is handled – actually he’s a more interesting character for being more nuanced than I remembered him, I think…

  11. I’m loving your quest for the GAN, long may this series continue! I also read this first as a teenager and but most remembered Jem reading to Mrs Dubose while she kicked her drug addiction. As a country child, I remember feeling horrified by the use of drugs which were considered by the adults around me to be the worst thing anyone could do. We had a few eccentrics in our area so I don’t remember being as intrigued by Boo and the racism went over my head. I do remember feeling sorry for Mayella, as there were a similar stories I heard growing up, everyone ‘knew’ the father was a drunk and a bully, but no one felt they had the right to intervene. I remember telling my parents they should ‘do something’ but Dad saying not our business (reminds me of similar feelings while reading The Dry). Agree with your assessment of TKAM telling the small town story.

    • Aw, thank you! 😀 Funnily enough I had totally forgotten about the Mrs Dubose storyline – in fact, I’d forgotten how many kinda side stories there are in the book running alongside the main ones. But I suspect her story also fed into my general feeling the book was about ‘difference’ rather than race specifically – I was impressed this time round by how Lee made us dislike her and then feel sorry for her. I found Boo a fascinating character, but it’s possible that was more from the film, which I may well have seen before I read the book. Yes, we might get irritated at the way the state seems to intefere so much in how people bring up their kids today, but stories like that remind us why they do! I felt heart sorry for Mayella – and while I admired Atticus for preventing Tom from being lynched, I couldn’t help wondering why no-one was sitting outside Mayella’s house preventing her father from beating her, or worse. I do like small town books – that sense of everyone knowing everyone else’s business makes for some great stories…

      • Jane Austen wrote small town stories, too. I understand why one won’t be your GAN, but am glad they make the list.
        My experience is small communities (as a child, things may have changed) is of minding your own business and looking the other way, but in the city people are more likely to intervene, possibly anonymously.

        • I grew up in the suburb of a big city which I think was more small-town in attitudes than big city. I have the feeling there was a lot of looking the other way there too, though I suspect people would have interfered if they’d thought anything really serious was going on. It’s always half-amused me that here you used to have to apply for a licence before you could own a dog, but anyone could have kids…

          • Perhaps looking the other way was normal for those times, rather than localised to the city or the country.
            Same here, people need a licence for a dog, but any fool can have kids… although we don’t have television licences anymore.

            • Hah – we got rid of dog licences but still have TV licences. Which is good because moaning about the BBC is a part of our national culture – we’d be lost without it… 😉

  12. Ooh, we haven’t had a GAN candidate in a while! And a very worthy one too. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and then a few years later fora second time but it’s been a while and you’ve got me wanting to re-read it. I haven’t read her second book and am not quite sure I want to.

    • Ha – I know! My detour into Russia has kinda knocked the GAN reading off this year, but it was fun getting back to it. I had decided not to read Go Set a Watchman for fear of it changing my opinion of Atticus, but actually this re-read has made me realise he’s much more nuanced than I remembered him anyway. So now I’m quite keen to see what he’s like in the other one. Now all I have to do is find the time to actually read it!

  13. Great post! I find it interesting that when you read it as a young girl that you remembered most the storyline regarding Boo. I first read TKAM when I was about 14 or so, and the storyline with Boo was the one that I really remembered from the book. I think part of the reason for me had to do with Scout’s ham costume.
    When I first read it, I really liked the book. When I read it about 10 years later, I picked up on more of the race aspects of the book, and I really loved it. And then I read it a third time, right before I read Go Set A Watchman, and I didn’t love it as much. I’ve never quite understood the love for Atticus that so many people have, so his portrayal in GSAW didn’t destroy me like it did some. I’d recommend reading GSAW at some point. Mockingbird’s a better book, but there are some interesting parts of Watchman that are worth reading.

    • I wonder if it was that race wasn’t such a big thing back then – over here at least – and I definitely feel I thought the Civil Rights movement had sorted everything out in America. Ah, nice to have been so young and innocent!

      I think my love for Atticus is more to do with the film than the book – actually I think over the years the film has almost completely overwritten the book for me, so I’m glad to have finally re-read it. I had decided not to read GSAW on the ground that I didn’t want it to spoil Atticus for me, but I now realise Atticus isn’t really like what I thought anyway. So now I’m quite keen to read it and get more insight into Lee’s thought processes…

      • I think I’ve only seen the movie once, and that was back after I read the book for the first time! I should watch it again.
        I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts if you read GSAW!

        • The movie’s great. I always think it’s one of the best book adaptations – the little girl who plays Scout is wonderful. I really must try to fit GSAW in before the details of this one fade again…

  14. I’ve been guilty of lazy thinking on this one, I feel – I read it at school in the 80s and have held it up in my mind as a good example of equality etc all this time without re-reading or re-examining it. I should re-institute my Month of Re-Reading and address this again. This – “it undoubtedly gives a very clear depiction of race relations in the ’30s, and of attitudes towards race in the ’50s” makes a lot of sense.

    • Me too, Liz – I’ve been content to accept the reputation it’s built up and relied on the film – which is excellent, but no film ever has all the nuance of the book. It’s definitely worth re-reading – I suspect the way we feel about race questions has changed so much in the last thirty years that you might find you read it differently now too. And it still makes great reading… 😀

  15. Agree with everything you said here, FF. The 2nd book is quite a revelation. I reviewed it for Copperfield Review when it first came out two years ago.

    • I had decided not to read it because of the mixed reviews, but now I’m intrigued… I think even in the original Atticus is more nuanced than he normally gets credit for.

      • Yes, I agree with out about Atticus. Don’t believe the hype about him being a racist. Harper Lee was were merely reflecting attitudes of the time. a bit too accurately for the liberal establishment’s comfort.

        • Yeah, I think there’s a tendency to label people a bit too much these days – it gets to the stage where almost any classic becomes difficult. Where possible, I try to compare them to their own contemporaries rather than mine…

  16. I’m late to the party on this one, but I kept the notification of your post in my inbox because A) I wanted to know what you thought about this book that is required at some point in almost every single high school English classroom, and B) To Kill a Mockingbird was pulled from the reading list in Mississippi just this week. I was surprised when you wrote that you focus on Boo more than the rape case because that’s really what I remember, too. Apparently, high school me was more excited about a strange guy who won’t come outside than a court case. Wait, I’m not surprised now that I re-read that. I don’t remember there being so much alliteration. From the quote you shared: “bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square.” Hitched/Hoover, Flicked/Flies, Sweltering/Shade/Square. It’s a lot. Did all the alliteration bother you, or did you enjoy the sounds?

    • I’m not big on general censorship but there’s a part of me that feels censorship in schools is OK – so long as it’s carefully controlled. You’ll be able to tell from my review that I didn’t think this was a particularly good representation of black people, so I can see their point – though I’d probably have it set for older teens and be sure to have a good discussion over it. But I do still think it’s actually more about Boo, and difference in general rather than race specifically. Ha! I fear I didn’t even notice the alliteration till you pointed it out – I’m not very analytical about prose (though I am about subject matter). Generally I just feel something’s “well written” or “badly written” – I guess I’d get a failing grade, huh? 😉

      • I notice how the words and sentences go together frequently because I have training in it thanks to my MFA program. Sometimes, noticing how one word doesn’t really belong is incredibly frustrating and slows down the reading process. For instance, I hate when a person repeats the same word in a sentence (small words, like articles and conjunctions aside). Can’t they HEAR it? Or SEE it? Gah!

        • Yes, sadly, I’m more likely to pick that up – in general, I only notice the writing if it either annoys me or makes me go wow! Most of the time, if I don’t notice it, I just assume it’s well written and don’t look any further than that…

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