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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

November 1, 2014 26 comments

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 1960. French title: Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur.

book_club_2After The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird. I swear I’m not trying to read every book on the usual syllabus in American high schools. Actually, Harper Lee’s only novel is our Book Club choice for October. (Yes, I’m late with the billet but work took over last week). I have read the French translation by Isabelle Stoïanov, revised by Isabelle Hausser in 2005. She also wrote the afterword. I could probably read the original but I already had a copy in French. So be it.

A small paragraph about the well-known plot: we’re in Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus Finch raises his two children Scout and Jem on his own after his wife died. He’s an attorney in Maycomb and when a white woman accuses Tom Robinson of rape, he’s the lawyer appointed by the court. Tom Robinson is a Black man; Atticus will put himself on the side of law and examine the facts with objectivity. His involvement in the case –although involuntary—will stir strong reactions in the community and affect his family.

Lee_To_KillHarper Lee could have written an openly militant book. The novel was published in 1960, during the fight for civil rights in the Deep South. It could have become the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the 20th century. She avoids this with a child narrator. Even though Scout relates the events years after they occurred (although Atticus is still alive when she tells the story so she’s not an old lady herself), she relates them with the eyes of a child recapturing her vision of the events. In appearance, it’s not a pamphlet but we know with Candide and Persian Letters that appearances can be deceiving.

I’m not overly fond of child narrators, which is why Life Before Us is not my favorite Gary even if it’s an excellent piece of literature and if Momo’s voice is quite unique. It took me time to adjust to Scout’s voice and I was only hooked when the case actually started. Scout’s introduction to her everyday life helped understanding the cultural background of the Maycomb county, of Atticus’s unorthodox parenting and of the special relationship between Scout, Jem, their black governess Calpurnia and their neighbours.

Through Scout’s eyes, we see Maycomb as it is, without judgment. It’s her town, her life. It’s all she knows and it’s her normality. With hindsight, we see a small town prejudiced against African Americans, a deeply religious community, a county that has not totally healed from the Civil War and a town with economic difficulties. Coming along with small town life, we learn about family reputations, leaders of opinion and we realize that men of good aren’t heard if what they have to say disrupts the community’s balance. Everyone has their place and it can’t change.

Of course the trial doesn’t go well for Tom Robinson. It opens the Pandora box of feelings and opinions everybody knew but hid for the sake of living together in peace. To Kill a Mockingbird is a lesson in humanity, in human rights but it’s not seen in black-and-white terms. We see that Atticus was appointed by the judge on purpose: he knew Atticus would give Tom a fair defense. It’s the judge’s way to support Tom. There is no strong demonstration of support to Atticus’s choices but steady and strong backup in the wings. The men of good choose indirect action, refuse to resort to violence and help each other. That’s the honorable way to drive change, Harper Lee seems to say. Scout understands the undercurrents and her position reminded me of Momo’s comment is Life Before Us:

Il m’a expliqué en souriant que rien n’est blanc ou noir et que le blanc, c’est souvent le noir qui se cache et le noir, c’est parfois le blanc qui s’est fait avoir. Smiling, he explained that nothing is only black or only white and that the white is often the black in hiding and that the black is sometimes the white that has been conned.

I think that’s what Scout learnt too. Harper Lee manages to get her book out of the State-of-the-Nation box to the coming-of-age box. Scout’s perception of the world changed after these events and they were probably even more striking to the thirteen-year-old Jem. Her narration is charming, funny and candid. It alleviates the tension created by the terrible events the novel depicts.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a vivid description of life in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It pictures the flowers, birds and surrounding nature. We experience the stifling summer heat that slows human activities and make people sleep outside in their hammocks. We discover the various religious groups and the local customs and dishes. Harper Lee doesn’t embellish things, though. It’s a poor county and there is no space for individual achievements outside the ones the community expects from you. If you want to live differently, you need to leave. Conservatism is almost a religion in itself.

Names are also interesting. Atticus and Calpurnia are Roman names. They rang a bell and I researched them. Guess what: Atticus was Cicero’s correspondent and another Atticus was a philosopher and Calpurnia was Julius Caesar’s last wife. Harper Lee chose to name her lawyer after a philosopher and a litterateur. The Black governess has the name of a great noble Roman family. And Atticus’s sister who settles in his home as a general in a colony and appoints herself as the children’s mother figure is named…Alexandra. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

My only regret is that I would have wanted to know more about Scout’s family. Why do the children call their father Atticus and not Dad? How did the mother die? What will become of them after the events? Will Jem become a lawyer too?

I think that To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece for the same reasons as The Grapes of Wrath is one. It mixes beautifully thoughts about the society it is set in with the personal destiny of the characters. Both book raise relevant questions. Both are too complex and subtle to be enjoyed in class without the input of an excellent teacher. To grasp at 16 the desperation the Joad family had to feel or to realize what it meant for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson in this State, at that time and in such a small town, you need a middle man to put the context into perspective. To Kill a Mockingbird is also an ode to childhood, to innocent games and beliefs, to scratches on the knees, t-shirts stained with mud and imaginary worlds. Highly recommended.

PS: If you’re in high school and landed here in search of ideas for an essay about this novel, please note that I’m French and that nobody in the English speaking world knows anything about Romain Gary, except the few aficionados following this blog. Just to point out that using Momo’s wisdom will not impress your teacher.

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