I first discovered Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when I was a student, when one of my professors had it as recommended reading for one of our courses. The course was on organizational behaviour and so I still don’t know what is the connection between Harper Lee’s book and that field. But I am glad that I got acquainted with the book. I didn’t read Harper Lee’s book at that time (my group read Milan Kundera’s ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’) but I have had it on my ‘To Be Read’ list ever since. Then my dear friend M—–l raved about this book in his monthly book post and I moved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to the top of my ‘To Be Read’ list. Then came the 50th anniversary of this book and I read a few more posts by fellow blogfriends Jennifer, Michelle and Ben and I couldn’t put off reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ any longer. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review.
Summary of the story
I am giving below the summary of the book as given on its back cover.
‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’
A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this enchanting classic – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties.
The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice.
But the weight of history will only tolerate so much…
What I think
I had a few surprises when I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I thought the whole story would be a legal drama, but it wasn’t. The legal drama, for which it is famous for, was just a part of the story (maybe around 30%). Most of the story is about the daily happenings in a southern town called Maycomb, in America. The story is set during the 1930s and the book was published in 1960 – so I am guessing that Harper Lee used a lot of her own experience to bring the southern town alive in her book. Another surprise that I had when I read the book was that the story is told in the voice of six year old Scout (Jean Louise), Atticus Finch’s daughter. The story starts with this sentence : “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” The rest of the story is about how Jem’s arm got broken. That is, of course, a simplistic way of summarizing the story 🙂 While telling the story of how Jem’s arm got broken, Scout talks about her family and friends and neighbours and people living in their town, their lives and beliefs and attitudes and the good and not-so-good facets of their personalities. Scout also talks about the case in which her father Atticus Finch is defending a black man accused of raping a white girl. I found this – the story being told in the voice of six-year-old Scout – quite interesting and refreshing. The innocence of a child as well as the ability of children to see things clearly, which adults seem to lose on their way to growing up, come through again and again, throughout the book.
I liked many of the characters in the book, including Scout and her brother Jem. There is Calpurnia, their African-American household help (who disciplines the children and shows them real love at the same time and who teaches her son English using Blackstone’s ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England’ as the textbook), there is Sheriff Heck Tate (I loved it when he said : “I may not be much, Mr.Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County, and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.”). And there is Dill – Scout’s and Jem’s friend, there is Reverend Sykes, there is Miss Maudie Atkinson, there is Aunt Alexandra (whom I didn’t like in the beginning, but I started liking her later, especially after the scene which ends in this passage : “Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled. She looked at a tray of cookies on the table and nodded at them. I carefully picked up the tray and watched myself walk to Mrs Merriweather. With my very best company manners, I asked her if she would have some. After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.”). I loved the character of Judge Taylor too – he reminded me of the character of Judge Chamberlain Haller, played by Fred Gwynne, in the movie ‘My Cousin Vinny’. And then there is the character of Arthur Radley, who plays a mysterious and surprising role. There are also Scout’s teachers – Miss Caroline Fisher, who is quite interesting, and Miss Gates, who thinks that Hitler killing the Jews is bad, while denouncing the African-Americans in her neighbourhood. And then, of course, there is the unconventional (for his times), heroic Atticus Finch, Scout’s dad. He says some of the most inspiring lines in the book (including the one about bluejays and mockingbirds). In one place, the inspiring conversation between Scout and Atticus goes like this :
‘Atticus, are we going to win it?’
‘Then why – ‘
‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,’ Atticus said.
In another place, Atticus says :
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 know 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.
Heady and inspiring lines!
There was another passage which gave me goose bumps, made my hair stand still, and brought tears to my eyes. It went like this :
Judge Taylor was saying something. His gavel was in his fist, but he wasn’t using it. Dimly, I saw Atticus pushing papers from the table into his brief-case. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter and said something, nodded to Mr.Gilmer, and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him. Atticus put his hand on Tom’s shoulder as he whispered. Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the court-room, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle towards the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up.
Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.
‘Miss Jean Louise?’
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was a distant as Judge Taylor’s :
‘Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.’
The Mockingbird in the title reminded me of a passage that I read sometime back, in a book called ‘Walkabout’ by James Vance Marshall (You can read my review of it here). The passage went like this :
They saw a bird. An ordinary rather sad-looking bird, with big eyes, pointed beak and long, straggling tail. He was scratching about for grubs. To the white children the scene looked very prosaic : an anti-climax. But the black boy was obviously enthralled; he signalled to them to be quiet, and so they knelt close up to the wattle-bushes : motionless : expectant. And after about ten minutes their patience was rewarded.
Quite suddenly the bird raised his head; he drew himself erect and, with a stiff-legged goose-step, strutted into the centre of the clearing. Then he started to sing. And in an instant all his drabness was sloughed away. For his song was beautiful beyond compare : stream after stream of limpid melodious notes, flowing and mingling, trilling and soaring : bush music, magic as the pipes of Pan. On and on it went; wave after wave of perfect harmony that held the children spellbound. At last the notes sank into a croon, died into silence. The song was over. But not the performance. For now came a metamorphosis too amazing to be believed. The drab brown bird with its tatty, straggling tail disappeared, and in its place rose a creature of pure beauty. The drooping tail fanned wide; its two outmost feathers swung erect to form the frame of a perfect lyre; and in between spread a mist of elfin plumage, a phantasmagoria of blue and silver, shot with gold, that trembled and quivered with all the beauty of a rainbow seen through running water. Then, hidden behind his plumage, the lyre bird again burst into song. And as he sang, he danced; prancing joyfully from side to side, hopping and skipping to the beat of a high-speed polka. And every now and then his song broke off, was interspersed with croaking chuckles of happiness.
Then, as suddenly as his performance had begun, it ended. The feathers drooped, the polka came to a halt, the singing died. And he was just another bird, scratching the earth for food.
Appearances are so deceptive, aren’t they?
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ also made me think of juries and their effectiveness in general. Being from a country, where cases are decided by a bench which comprises one or more judges, my knowledge of juries is limited to what I have seen in movies and read in books. And because movies and books seem to dramatize the work of juries (as it has been done in this book and as it has been done in movies like ’12 Angry Men’ and ‘Shortcut to Happiness’), to me, the verdict delivered by a jury seems to be more a popular vote rather than a judgement which is based on the law. I will have to talk to some of my lawyer friends and find out more about this.
I loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I think it is one of the great works of American literature and one of the cornerstones of American literature like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain and ‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell. I am glad that I read it.
I am giving below some of my favourite passages (in addition to the above ones) from the book.
With him, life was routine, without him, life was unbearable.
I willed myself to stay awake, but the rain was so soft and the room was so warm and his voice was so deep and his knee was so snug that I slept.
Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns to a days-old spring that melts into summer again. That fall was a long one, hardly cool enough for a light jacket.
The remainder of the afternoon went by in the gentle gloom that descends when relatives appar…
With his infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas, he could make a rape case as dry as a sermon.
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.
Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season : it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree-house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colours in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.
Next morning I awoke, looked out the window and nearly died of fright. My screams brought Atticus from his bathroom half-shaven. ‘The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something – !’ I dragged him to the window and pointed. ‘No, it’s not,’ he said. ‘It’s snowing.’
Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds, the carpenters at Miss Maudie’s house had vanished. I heard Mr Tate sniff, then blow his nose. I saw him shift his gun to the crook of his arm. I saw Miss Stephanie Crawford’s face framed in the glass window of her front door. Miss Maudie appeared and stood behind her. Atticus put his foot on the rung of a chair and rubbed his hand slowly down the side of his thigh.
I saw the movie version of ‘To Kill the Mockingbird’ after reading the book. Gregory Peck does quite well in his Oscar winning role as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham is excellent as Scout. However, there were a few things different in the movie when we compare it with the book. The movie was a compressed version of the novel and it focussed only on the trial of Tom Robinson. A lot of characters were not there in the movie (for example Aunt Alexandra is not there in the movie and Scout’s teachers are missing too) or their roles were vastly reduced (for example, Calpurnia came just in a few scenes, while in the book she plays an important role). Many of the scenes were omitted – I would say that the screenplay has taken liberties with the story. Also, the story in the movie was narrated by the adult voice of Scout, while when I read the novel, I heard the child voice of Scout. The movie is excellent on a standalone basis, but as an adaptation of the book, it is sometimes disappointing – not because it is not good, because it is excellent, but because it is quite different from the novel with respect to the finer details.
I loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I felt sad when the book ended. I feel sad that Harper Lee wrote just one book. The potted biography of hers in the book says this : “Her chief interests apart from writing are nineteenth-century literature and eighteenth-century music, watching politicians and cats, travelling and being alone.” If she had written more in addition to doing the above, I would have been very happy.
If you haven’t read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, I would recommend that you go grab a copy and read it. If you are a classic movie person, do try to watch the movie too. It is equally good.