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.