Sunday, July 11, 2010
It is hard to believe that fifty years have passed since this book was sold. Over 30 million copies have been sold worldwide, and the movie version is widely considered as being one of the best book-to-film adaptations that have ever been done. Almost exactly twenty years ago, I had to read this book as part of my Honors English summer reading list. I can barely remember any of the other books, but this one has stayed vividly in my memory for over half of my lifetime. As a native Southerner, I thought I would discuss just what it was about this book that has moved me so.
Several readers, perhaps the majority of whom were born and raised outside the South, view this book as being a powerful condemnation of racism. It is certainly that and the race-tinged trial of the innocent Tom Robinson definitely lies in the central core of this story. But there are other elements about this book that I fear may have been glossed over somewhat in the discussions, elements that are close kin to the central racism theme.
Lee is a superb stylist. By showing three summers (and other seasons) of the lives of young Jem and Scout Finch (based strongly on Lee's own family) and the wandering Dill Harris (Lee's childhood friend, the author Truman Capote was the model for Dill), Lee speaks not exclusively about the insidious racism that was (is?) prevalent in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s, but also about human relationships, our abilities to deceive ourselves into thinking that what we believe and do is correct, and how hypocritical we can be as a society. It is not a pleasant subject to read, particularly if one has grown up in a region where the remnants of this class and race-based hypocrisy remain, but it is a very powerful read, due in large part to Lee's abilities to use her three youthful protagonists, the near-saintly father figure of Atticus Finch, and other townspeople of the imaginary Maycomb, Alabama to underscore so many points about how humans (mis)treat and fear one another.
Whenever I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, I am always reminded of how complex the characters are. It is easy to condemn several of the characters here for being misogynistic or racist, but Lee paints a much more complex portrait of characters such as Aunt Alexandria, Mrs. Dubose, Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, Walter Cunningham (the father), and other Maycomb adults. As seen through the eyes of young Scout (who is between 6 and 9 during the course of the story, set in 1933-1935), we learn about how even the same religious faith can divide a community, how the appearance of good manners is at least as important, if not more so, than actual respect for those less "well-bred" in the community, how humor and laughter can be a balm, how the bravest battles can be fought by those who know they have no chance to whip the enemy, how being beholden to no one can lead to resistance, even if it's temporary, against one's upbringing in regards to race, and so forth. Lee infuses her narrative with so many little, personal characteristics that it was no surprise to learn recently that so much of this tale, especially that of the lawyer father, is based on her own life.
But fact is not always as instructive as the fiction. Here, through the complexities of human life and our blind eyes that are often turned toward our own brethren (as illustrated brilliantly in the scene with the Missionary Society after the Robinson trial), Lee reveals so much of the dark underbellies of so many towns, Southern or not, that considering it at length would akin to taking multiple blows to the stomach. And this all culminates in the running subplot involving the reclusive Arthur "Boo" Radley, who, more than any other character in this fine novel, represents how innocence can be in a world where everyone is shooting at the mockingbirds that they fail to recognize.
Doubtless To Kill a Mockingbird will continue to be read and hopefully understood another fifty years from now, when Lee is long dead and hopefully some of the hypocrisies and mistreatment so endemic to our societies may have finally begun to wane. It may be a vain hope, there might still be precocious children crying at the injustices of the world while the adults mostly hem and haw over how "relative" things are, but certainly works such as this will persevere and stand out as a beacon of light and decency against the darkness of hatred and contempt for fellow human beings.