Archive | January, 2015

“To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee

11 Jan

In Harper Lee’s classic novel, she succeeds in creating an accessible story despite the harsh subject matter of visceral prejudice and its brutal impacts.  The narration through a child’s eye view, including her conversations with her gentle and loving father, is largely what gives the story its accessibility while still effectively raising awareness of the important issues it addresses.

While the particular subject matter of the novel is prejudice held by some white people against African Americans in 1930s Alabama, the details of such prejudice could be equally applicable in many other types of prejudice and discrimination.  Lee raises awareness of the finer details of prejudice and its impacts, beyond those details that may seem obvious to many.

Ultimately, Harper Lee raises awareness of the need to question everything, particularly entrenched attitudes and views.

While I’ve never intended this blog to be a particularly political forum, it can be interesting, and important, to discuss issues like prejudices and I welcome any comments on this post – even constructive disagreements with my views 🙂

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not revealed here).  

The story begins with the disarmingly ordinary accounts of the day-to-day life of the 6-to-8-year old Jean-Louise (“Scout”) Finch, told through her narration.  The games she gets up to with her slightly older brother Jem and their friend Dill, and the interactions with their widowed father Atticus, their Aunt Alexandra and the cook Calpurnia, area narrated in the manner of a typical “What-did-you-get-up-to-at-school-today?” conversation.

But Atticus is also a lawyer and the story eventually turns to the case he has been appointed to defend: that of a young Negro man accused of raping a white woman.  Atticus is determined to give Tom Robinson a fair trial, to have his side of the case heard.  Yet in spite of considerable evidence that Mayella Ewell was in fact the victim of her abusive father who coerced her to frame Tom for rape after she merely hugged and kissed him, the jury still find Tom guilty of this capital crime.

As I say above, a quality of the novel is that it looks at some of the finer details of prejudice and its impacts, beyond the obvious; these include the power of entrenched, underlying attitudes even when a society appears to have a fair system on the surface.  By this I mean that the Alabama judiciary required that Tom Robinson be given a defence lawyer and therefore apparently a fair trial.  Young Scout Finch overhears a conversation about her father and reflects on it:

” ‘Lemme tell you somethin’ now Billy,’ a third said, ‘you know the court appointed him to defend this n****r.’

   ‘Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That’s what I don’t like about it.’

    This was news, news that put a different light on things: Atticus had to, whether he wanted to or not. I thought it odd that he hadn’t said anything to us about it – we could have used it many times in defending him and ourselves.” (Page 178 in Vintage Classics paperback).

Atticus wants to give Tom a fair trial, to give his side of the case; but this draws criticism from the town’s people.  And in view of this criticism, it is probable that some other lawyers would have ‘defended’ him just because they had to.  A perfunctory process, fulfilling a judicial requirement, but giving the superficial appearance of a fair trial.

Another detail that the story raises awareness of is the debilitating effect of living under ever-present discrimination and prejudice.  When Tom Robinson is convicted, despite significant evidence in his favour, he is sent to jail while Atticus prepares to appeal against the conviction. But despite the appeal, Tom tries to flee from the prison in the exercise period and is shot dead by the guards.  It is hard to believe that a prisoner would really believe he’d have a chance of escape in broad daylight in the exercise period: clearly Tom’s flight was deliberate suicide. A resignation to his fate, a total lack of hope, brought on by a lifetime under the wearying burden of negative assumptions and blame.

Finally, a harsh irony is that Tom got himself into his predicament by trying to help Mayella Ewell, his alleged ‘victim’.  He tried to help this lonely, poor woman with tasks around the house.  What a bitter irony that he would have been safer if he had ignored her in her time of need.

I hope this novel serves as a wake-up call to us all, to understand that opinions we may assume to be valid should be questioned – people are capable of shocking mistakes, sometimes with dreadful consequences.