by Harper Lee
Reading Challenges: Read Like Rory
Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is assigned reading in most middle schools and high schools. I can still recall sitting in 8th English talking about Scout and Atticus Finch. As I aged, these memories stuck with me and Scout, Atticus, and Boo Radley were recognizable names. Their personalities and stories, however, were replaced by other characters and other memories.
Weeks before Harper Lee’s death, I decided to return to Maycomb, Alabama, to reunite with Scout and Atticus. The story slowly returned to me as I dove deeper and deeper into the world of the Depression-era South.
What I discovered in Scout’s world was the idealism of childhood and coded lessons on morality.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is narrated by eight-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Having Scout narrate the story allows the complexities of Southern culture and prejudice to be told through the right-or-wrong and nothing-in-between ethics of a child.
Raised, to believe in the purity of “all men are created equal,” Scout does not understand 1) why she cannot remain an overall-wearing, tousling girl and must be a dress-wearing, Southern lady, 2) the poisoned reasoning of falsely accusing a black man of a crime, or 3) the unjust justice of a Southern jury.
Scout understands more than the reader or Jem, her older brother, gives her credit for in the beginning. Scout’s idealism and imagination control her at the beginning, as she fears the mysterious Boo Radley and wrestles those who besmirch her father into the dirt. She reacts to the events around her to protect those she loves and idolizes even if she doesn’t understand why.
This reactive behavior fades over the course of the story as Scout matures.
It’s peculiar to think of Scout maturing a great deal over the course of one-year, but the events in her life and the adolescence of Jem develop the mature wisdom only a child can have.
The transformation of Scout can be read in the narrative of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
In the beginning, the story and Scout’s attention are focused on the eerie house on the corner. Boo Radley’s mysterious identity and rumored antics capture Scout’s imagination along with Jem’s and Dill’s. The rag-tag threesome find themselves in various compromising situations, even getting shot at once, in pursuit of luring Boo Radley from his home.
The Boo Radley plot line dominates the first half of the book, just as he overshadowed town politics in Scot’s life. When the social politics of Maycomb invade Scout’s world by threatening her greatest hero, her father Atticus, the narrative shifts. Rather than focusing on the child imaginations, Scout seeks to understand the trial.
An example of this narrative shift and the change in Scout’s maturity can be found in the night-time scene outside the Maycomb jail. Still ignorant of the conflict afoot, but recognizing the need to inject some humanity into a situation, Scout approaches the mob of men threatening to harm Atticus and his client.
“Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in. Mr. Cunningham displayed no interest in his son, so I tackled his entailment once more in a last-ditch effort to make him feel at home.”
Scout applies the fatherly advice, defusing a dangerous situation merely by treating someone as a human equal.
The moralizing of a title
One aspects of Harper Lee’s books that I have greatly enjoyed during my adult reading has been the moral lesson integrated in the book that is associated with the title.
The notion of killing a mockingbird first appears part-way through the book when Jam and Scout receive air rifles for Christmas. Atticus tells them not to hunt mockingbirds. Miss Maudie explains to Scout that mockingbirds “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us” and calls it a “sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This initial introduction of mockingbirds only sparks the reader’s mind to begin wondering its importance. Harming a mockingbird is possibly a metaphor for some part of society.
Yet, the mockingbird does not appear again until the end, at least not directly. The mockingbird metaphor could be read throughout the story, but it’s not as clear.
Scout’s response to Atticus in the final pages of the book suggest that the human mockingbird should be left to their own devices. It is the sole individual that brings only good to society rather than the mixed bag most people contribute – a little good and a little bad.
Atticus confirms this and extends the moral lesson of the mockingbird to the underlying nature of most people on the final page:
He guided me to the bed and sat me down. He lifted my legs and put me under the cover.
“An’ they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…”
His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
What are your memories of reading “To Kill a Mockingbird?”
Have you read it again as an adult?
*This review is part of the Read Like Rory challenge.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges: