To Kill a Mockingbird ~ Harper Lee


So we come to the first book of the list that I hadn’t read prior to this; and to be honest I was a bit concerned about To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s widely popular; it’s been awarded a Pulitzer. It seems to be on a pedestal among the books on that 100 book list. How do you tackle something like that? So, I’m thinking my review might not be popular.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of two kids who are both fascinated and terrified by the town’s recluse and try to bring him out of his house, while their father is preparing for a trial that makes him widely unpopular since he’s about to defend a black man who’s accused of raping a white woman. It’s not a fair summary but I don’t know how else to do it after 4 hours of writing and crossing out and rewriting.
The truth is: I wasn’t impressed. I felt the book was oddly disjointed. It seemed to me more of a patchwork of scenes out of childhood memories that were forcibly bound together as a story. The link between Boo Radley and the trial is tenuous and the separation in two parts seems just a device to avoid a transition that would otherwise be awkward.

It left me a sour aftertaste. Despite its positive message when it comes to racism, prejudice, courage and whatever else you want to say, the bottom line is it’s all Mayella Ewell’s fault. I have major issues with false rape accusations but that choice and the fact that feminine characters are mostly shown in a very negative light (Miss Maudie and Calpurnia being exceptions) just didn’t settle well with me.
I understand from my readings on the web, that Lee wrote once to her editor:

“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

It is a Christian code of conduct; the place of women in that code of conduct is clear and clearer. Atticus’ closing argument is just as condemning. When speaking of Mayella Ewell he says: “She knew full well the enormity of her offence, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted on breaking it. […] She tempted a Negro.” (Grand Central Publishings, 1982, p.273)
Back to the Genesis understanding of woman: the cause of the fall. Always and ever.

It remains a rich story and it’s very vivid, as it tackles numerous issues: racism, prejudice, education, compassion, the loss of innocence, growing up… The city, the atmosphere, the fears of the kid when it comes to Boo Radley; all of it is very engaging.
The artifice of an adult woman sifting through her memories and giving the impression that it’s all written from a child’s perspective is interesting. We never really know if the analysis is that of Scout as a kid or her adult self. It sort of blurs everything. Still it remains a coming of age book in many ways; you do see how Scout starts to understand people and their make-up.

There were two scenes that I hit the mark for me when it comes to hypocrisy of the society Lee describes.
One is the meeting of the ladies at the Finch’s. They speak about a pastor who’s trying to teach ‘savages’ the notion of family: one father, one mother instead of having the whole village educate the children. Throughout the book, you have women – mostly – commenting on the way Atticus Finch raises his kids, thereby trying to intervene in their education.
The second is at school with Ms. Gates; one student speaks of Hitler and the laws passed against the Jews and half-Jews. The teacher speaks about democracy and equality of people and that Jews are part of society. I’ll leave it at that.

I can reason why this book would have such a wide audience in the USA particularly at a time when racial discrimination was a big issue and a major debate. I can see why it still would be appealing. It enables some detachment from the issues: a step back that would make the analysis objective if you will.
It didn’t work for me. I must admit the word ‘negro’ and its pejorative companion made it really hard. Despite the discourse on equality, it seemed to me that the black characters were sketched as opposed to really known (like the white characters), that they had no real identity of their own and no self-respect. Even Scout says of Tom Robinson “he’s just a Negro after all.”

So no I didn’t like the book: maybe because I don’t understand the Southern States. That’s highly probable. I am French after all, and I have no understanding of what it means to be born in the South and the deep impact the Civil War had (and still does) on its people. I was born 21 years after the book was published so what do I know? But as a woman I don’t get the fascination for this book.
What did I miss?
What did you enjoy the most/least about the book?
Even more than before I want to hear from you.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Michael says:

    Hi Stephanie,
    Having read and taugth TKMB many times over the years I was fascinated by your review. I think you are entitled to your opinion and your reading of it is valid. To me the main point comes in understanding how how the title fits with the story. Both Boo and Tom are seen as mockingbirds within the context of the novel. They are both referred to in that way. “Mockingbirds they don’t do anyone any harm..” etc….but we still find ways to kill or persecute them because anything and anyone different is a threat and in 1930’s southern society the black community were seen that way as a legacy from the time of slavery and Boo Radley from the rumour and innuendo society spreads about his family. People like the Ewells have only the black community as lower than them on the social scale and they will fight tooth and nail to maintain that no natter what the lie is. A white woman being shown pity by a black man is the ultimate in hypocrisy in a white society that considers itself Christian and righteous.
    You are right that at times the links are a bit spurious but I think she reveals a society that for many of us who don’t live there is eye opening and I imagine for people of the south very confronting.
    Have you seen the movie? Worth watching and then asking yourself why no one has remade it as they have most other old films.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such a detailed comment and response. I knew when I finished the book that I was reading it from the point of view of a European woman who lives 80 years after the events of the story; and that regardless of anything else, our own view of today’s issues will always impact how we read stories from yesterday. And it is eye opening in many ways…

      I can see how the title fits with the story although it still begs the question of why do we kill or persecute mockingbirds since it’s a sin. Or so do Atticus and Maud tell us. Since it’s a white society that considers itself Christian and righteous, shouldn’t they stay away from sin?

      Can you clarify something for me? You say “a white woman being shown pity by a black man is the ultimate in hypocrisy in a white society that considers itself Christian and righteous.”
      Are you saying that in the context of 1930 Southern state society, since black people are the lowest of the low it’s unthinkable that they should feel pity for someone who’s socially speaking higher than them? I’m not entirely sure I got that one correctly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Michael says:

        Those are good questions Stephanie you have posed….for me a Christian society ‘should ‘ be inclusive…in 1930’s Maycomb society was fractured by the need of the white population to maintain their suppression of the black folk in their society…it was important for the whites to maintain that…because they could justify it by claiming the black people were not as ‘human’ as they were….the whole philosophical notion of white supremacy goes way back to the notion that the devil and his kind were black and the god was white….its a simple thing but I know there are probably books written about it…..so for me that is where the hypocrisy lies in white society embracing Christianity as their God given right to their own sense of superiority over the black community….therefore it would be unconscionable for any good upstanding white person to believe that it would be ok for a black person to show them any pity especially so for the Ewells who I’m sure saw it as their only way of maintaining their tenuous position in a society who for the main would have sen them as almost on a par with the blacks but would never say that of course….In Tom Robinson’s case he was a decent man who saw what was happening to Mayella, saw the poverty and degradation that was her life and in his head all he was doing was helping to make her life a tiny bit better….trouble was her dad caught Tom in their house and used that assert his rather perverted sense of dominance over Tom…..for Bob Ewell is would ahve been the ultimate humiliation for anyone in the white community to know he had accepted charity from a black man….no matter what Tom was going down one way or another….

        One of the things I loved about teaching this novel was the discussion it generated as students I taught grappled with the same issues as you have raised….I hope I have spread some light on the questions you have raised.
        One last thing, as you’d know the ‘mockingbird’ image is a metaphor….Boo and Tom are different and in those times the different were often the subject of rumour and persecution even though they did no wrong…..but as you’d know so often we are afraid of anything we perceive as different..

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        1. So I had understood and you confirmed what I thought: people’s hypocrisy disguised as religion. In this case it’s Christianity but it could have been any other religion. Preach generosity, acceptance of your ‘brother’ but don’t apply it in your own life.
          It’s baffling to me that people could on the one hand believe that one born to the lowest of the low is the son of God come to redeem everybody’s sin, yet when one of the lowest lives by the same standards he did, it’s not acceptable.
          In many ways I think that Maycomb’s well off population are more guilty than the Ewells. Because even more than them they’re hypocrites. Like the man who pretends to be drunk so he can live with his ‘half-coloured’ kids without anyone bothering him. Giving them justification for leaving him alone.

          As much of a discourse on the way white people treated black people in Alabama in the 1930s, whether it’s a legacy of slavery or just some self-righteous bigots thinking that God was white and gave earth to white people, there’s just this entire discourse about women that I cannot understand is still being spread in young people’s education. Or not addressed I don’t know…

          Has any of your student ever asked if the Mockingbird could also be a metaphor for Mayella? What happens to someone who means no harm, who is hopeless and has nothing and no one to support it? What happens to someone who’s broken inside? Because her father sure as hell killed her – and that’s before anything happens with Tom Robinson – emotionally. She’s a shell of a woman whose murder (a psychological one if not a physical one) has left her alone and isolated; she knows that she can’t escape her father. If she denies him she’s virtually dead. She’s as much a victim as Tom Robinson. I wonder… what would have happened if someone in this town had actually seen her? Really seen her.

          In many ways she’s made to be less than the man she accused falsely. Because we know she lied. We’re being told she did because she’s a Delilah, a temptress who can’t escape her condition of a woman and she’s the ultimate sinner.
          And Atticus himself says that women couldn’t serve on a jury “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried – the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.” Equality between white and black men yes. But between men and women? It’s just a major contradiction, one that few countries have actually resolved even now.

          I got the entire racism discourse of the book; I understand the underlying themes mostly (I hope)… It’s just I’ve been reading a lot of reviews about this book since I wrote mine; everyone talks about the themes of racism and equality in the face of the law, but very rarely is the question of women’s place in this society being raised. I’m just bemused.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Michael says:

          That’s an interesting suggestion about Mayella….I would probably think that because she lies that might exclude her from placing her there. BUT I do see what you mean, in 1930’s society Mayella was at the bottom of the social scale as a woman and a woman in the Ewell family at the bottom of the white social scale. Hers was a dicey position for if she was truthful she risked the wrath of her father and of society in general and as a woman in those times within the Ewell family I would think she had a clearly defined role to play in looking after the younger children and keeping the house in some some order.I also suspect she was sexually abused by her father.
          You are right too about the suggestion of women being seen as temptresses a fallout from Genesis and so no matter what they were never going to win within that male dominated society full of fear and superstition.
          Its been an excellent discussion Stephanie, thanks for letting me air my views. Sorry for the delay but time zones don’t help….

          Liked by 1 person

        3. No worries about the delay, I was actually surprised to see a comment so quickly after the post went live. It’s rare.
          Thank you again for discussing this with me. It was a challenging read in many ways and maybe some time (after I’m down with the other 95 books) I’ll go back to TKMB having what we discussed in mind.
          I’ve always found exchanging points of view to be enriching in so many ways. There are things one doesn’t see when reading; we miss things or because we have our own biases we ignore some elements while focusing on others.
          I might not love it – because of my bias as a woman of the 20th century 😛 – but maybe I can appreciate on another level.
          Again thank you.

          Liked by 1 person

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