“You can shoot all the bluejays you want, but remember that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird”, says Atticus Finch, one of literature’s most iconic characters, to his son Jem, in Harper Lee’s 1960 literary classic. For all its popularity, the book has received surprisingly little academic attention, but its value remains untarnished to this day.
A study on human character, morality, integrity, and the psyche of the Deep South during the Great Depression, as seen through the eyes of children, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has rightfully reached the status of a literary classic, and its messages remain relevant to this very day. The To Kill a Mockingbird audiobook is wonderfully narrated by the talented Sissy Spacek, whose clear and somewhat dreamy voice gives the narration that childlike nuance it needs.
A Few Words About the Book
This is the only book Harper Lee ever published, drawing material from personal family experiences. The writer sought little public attention, and has remained discreetly private throughout all these years. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for the silver screen in the Oscar winning film of the same name, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the narrator’s father and a true icon for anyone who ever wished to dabble in the legal profession.
It has met opposition and banning controversy in school libraries, for different reasons as the times changed. It is the opinion of this writer’s review that books are books; stories to be read, absorbed, and analyzed in a critical way, and not actual guidelines on how one should live or think. They are the material on which we mold ourselves, and as such, they shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Instead of banning books, educational institutions should focus on exploiting their messages to the best of the students’ advantage.
We have the Finch family: Atticus, the father, Scout and Jem, the children, Aunt Alexandra, who moves in during the latter parts of the book, and Calpurnia, their cook. The neighbors include Dill, a childhood summertime playmate, Miss Maudie, a dynamic woman, Boo Radley, and the rest of the town. The character that comes closest to being a “villain” is Bob Ewell, but it is clear in the book that the actual villain is people’s prejudice and unhealthy clinging to the “old values”.
It is very important that one focuses on the character of Atticus Finch for a while. Atticus is a celebrated and revered character in American literature, as the icon of compassion, professionalism, and moral integrity. It is highlighted numerous times in the book that Atticus is the man everyone else is too weak, or too frightened to be, appointed alone, to do the town’s difficult moral tasks. And he does stand up to the tasks, indeed. He teaches his children empathy, “learn to stand in a person’s skin for a while and you’ll understand them better“, compassion, and objectivity, in a time and a town where it is very easy to be swept away by fanaticism and mob mentality. Atticus teaches the children, but the reader as well, that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; that what shapes one’s character, is to “know that you’re licked from the start before you even begin, but do it anyway, and make sure you see it through“. Despite any defeats or discouragements, it is Atticus’ determination and drive that cause our respect and admiration.
The narrator of the book is Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a 6 year old girl. The story spans from the years 1933-1936, and we see, alongside the main facts of the story, Scout growing and becoming more aware of how the adult world works. Her main companion is her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill. In the first part of the book, we see the children remaining in their innocence, playing during the summer and describing the set of quirky inhabitants that live in their city of Maycomb, the seat of Maycomb County, Alabama. The children are preoccupied with scary stories about their never seen reclusive neighbor Arthur “Boo” Radley, trying to find ways to communicate with him. Their father Atticus is a lawyer.
In the second part of the book, Atticus is appointed by the court as a defense attorney for a black man, who is accused of assaulting and raping a white girl. The difference, as said in the book, is that not only Atticus accepted to defend the accused Tom Robinson, but “that he aims to do so, as well“. The family is faced with the town’s anger and indignation, and young Jem and Scout enter an age of disillusionment, seeing the town’s people turning against their father and against them, driven blind by prejudice. However, racism is not the only theme explored within the book.
Themes and Commentary
A primary controversial theme that the book deals with is, of course, race. Published at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak, that particular theme had a great impact in the social struggles at the time. A soul that did no harm, and only good and helpful acts, is persecuted and hunted down with only one man standing as his defense. And it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, says the title, perhaps bringing anyone face to face with their own personal responsibility and the consequences of their prejudice.
In Lee’s satirical way, that prejudice is highlighted when one day in school, Scout observes how passionately their teacher condemned Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, yet saw nothing wrong with her own prejudice against black people. That ridicule and satire is seen throughout the book, as people that once Jem and Scout loved and saw in a very innocent way become people willing to attack their father in order to be able to lynch Tom Robinson.
Another issue commented within the book is also the matter of gender roles and class, and how those things divide the Maycomb community itself. The issue of gender roles seems to affect Scout greatly, since she is somewhat neutral in her character, not too feminine, but not too masculine, either. She is pressured into wearing dresses and behaving in socially accepted ways, especially in exchanging niceties and “lady-chatter”, a manner of life that she herself dislikes deeply, as she says it is “such hypocrisy”. It is indeed interesting to see how the ladies who epitomize the feminine vision of gentleness and elegance, are the ones most prejudiced.
As for the matter of class, it is yet another issue that stumps the community’s growth, yet at the same time indicates an almost perverse closeness and bonding. Everyone knows everyone, and every family has “streaks” and universal characteristics that can define a person from the day they are born. A town so set in its ways that can become awfully shortsighted.
Why the Book Is a Literary Classic
The book can be considered a classic because it is a timeless depiction of the shedding of innocence and the passage into the scary and bleak, but also warm adult world. The children learn the meaning of compassion, of kindness, and of non-prejudice. They struggle with the city’s turmoil, but with their inner turmoil, as well.
The book is, in its essence, a lesson on building one’s character and staying true to one’s self. It is about choosing our own battles, the ones that have a deep personal meaning and the likes of which a person might meet only once in their lives, and staying true to fighting, even though we know loss is inevitable. That is what it means to be strong. To have morality, and integrity. Because in a world as fluid as our own, our moral conduct is a strictly personal matter. And in every battle, we have a mockingbird to protect.