Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that a lot of us read in high school. I have vague memories of seeing some of my classmates with the book. The book was never assigned to me, however. Nor was Lord Of The Flies, which just goes to prove that the English teachers I had in high school were the uncool ones. It’s disheartening now, all these years later, to learn that while I was stuck reading godawful tripe like West Side Story, gems like Mockingbird were being read by the class down the hall.
My sole criticism first, just to get it out of the way. Harper Lee has a point to make in To Kill A Mockingbird and she’s going to make that point VERY CLEARLY. And if you don’t get it the first time around, the point will be made again in just a few pages. If you’ve read the book and still don’t get the point, allow me: Racism is bad.
Now, Lee is absolutely right about this. Racism is bad. And while the point may be a little obvious at times, the fact remains that To Kill A Mockingbird is still a profoundly moving book. The characters are beautifully drawn, especially Scout Finch, the young girl who comes of age during the course of the book’s 300 pages.
Lee does an amazing job of portraying the town of Maycomb, a dusty little spot on the map of Depression-era Alabama. I know nothing of Lee’s life, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Scout Finch has more than a bit of Harper Lee in her, and that Lee came from a town not unlike Maycomb.
It seems to me though that the book is not about racism, per se. The fulcrum on which the plot pivots is the trial of Tom Robinson, a one-armed black man accused of raping a white woman. The evidence all points to Robinson’s innocence, and his lawyer (the righteous Atticus Finch, father of Scout) makes a compelling case to the jury. Not only does Atticus provide a reasonable doubt as to Robinson’s guilt, he even discloses who the real guilty parties are. Yet despite a rock solid case, Atticus knows going in that he will lose the trial. Everyone in town knows it’s a loser case. Everyone except Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill. They are stunned when the guilty verdict comes down. Dill disappears from the book shortly thereafter. Jem, now a teenager, reacts as teenagers always react when the world is upended. He becomes angry and defiant.
But the important one here is Scout. Her world has also been turned upside down. An innocent man is sent to prison and later killed for trying to escape. Her father, who can do no wrong in her eyes, has death threats against him. Scout is still too young to fully grasp what has happened in Maycomb, but she still tries to make sense of it. For the first time in her life, Scout has been introduced to the concept that there is evil in the world, an it lurks just down the street or in the house next door. Her neighbors, nice folks all of them, are threatening Atticus for defending Tom Robinson, a notion that doesn’t square with Scout’s view of fair trials for everyone. Her teacher despises Hitler for what he’s doing to the Jews, but is glad that Tom Robinson was found guilty despite the fact that she believes he’s probably innocent. Where is this coming from?
Earlier in the book there is a short scene that seems out of context when it occurs. Scout, Jem, and Dill are outside playing when they see one of the neighbors’ dog in the street. It’s a dog they’ve known for years, but now it’s acting funny, walking awkwardly and seeming to suffer from seizures. Jem goes for help and the neighbors come out. It’s clear that the dog is rabid, and the sheriff is asked to shoot it.
Instead, the sheriff turns over the gun to Atticus who shoots the dog dead with a single shot. Sickness and evil have come to Maycomb, and it is only the righteous man that can slay the beast.
Here is the sickness in the neighborhood. The dog serves as a symbol for what will happen to many of the residents of Maycomb when the trial begins. Good, decent, God-fearin’ folks will succumb to the sickness of their prejudices and become dangerous. And all the while, young Scout watches, wondering.
She also wonders about the shut-in neighbor, Arthur Radley. He’s a myth, this "Boo" Radley. The children believe he only comes out at night to eat squirrels, and they try to goad him into making a daytime appearance until Atticus tells them to stop. Boo Radley hangs over the book like a shroud. He’s the 500-pound gorilla in the room. In the imagination of the children, he is some kind of monster. In reality, he is a "mockingbird," something so innocent that he cannot bear to step foot outside into an evil world except when no one is around.
It is Boo who saves Scout and Jem from being murdered at the end of the book, and it is Boo for whom the sheriff is willing to lie. Locking up Boo Radley for killing a man, despite the fact that he acted to protect children, would be like killing a mockingbird, an act for which there can be no forgiveness. Innocence dies naturally from exposure to the weather of experience, but killing it where it exists is a crime against God. What Jem and Scout learn from their experiences is that evil exists in the hearts and minds of all men and women and they have choices in how to deal with it. They can run from it like Boo Radley and become prisoners of the world, or they can face it head on, recognize that the good coexists with the bad, and try to change what’s wrong, like Atticus.
What comes to mind is the great Edmund Burke’s declaration that in order for evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men do nothing. It’s clear the route that Scout and Jem will take, and that may be the overall message of To Kill A Mockingbird: yes, evil exists and racism is bad…but as long as there are people with integrity and honor, there is always hope.