April’s book was To Kill A Mockingbird, a book firmly ensconced in the American literary canon. It is therefore something of an enigma that, while many of us read it in high school, it has never been selected in our group.
While the story of Atticus, Jem and Scout, and the mystery of Boo Radley is well-known to most people (with Gregory Peck’s face indelibly associated with Atticus Finch), I had forgotten much of the book’s additional side stories and secondary characters that give it even greater depth:
- Mrs. Dubose, the crotchety, insulting elderly woman who torments Jem from her front porch, and whom we learn later is a morphine addict.
- Dolphus Raymond and his black mistress with whom he has multiracial children, who also pretends to drink liquor from a bottle in a paper bag to give people a reason to write him off.
- Heck Tate, the sheriff of Maycomb. Where was the name ‘Heck’ when we were trying to name our baby boys?
- Calpurnia, the Finch’s black cook and strict disciplinarian to the children.
- The Ewell family, Bob (father) and Mayella (daughter), white trash.
- Maudie Atkinson, woman across the street, friend of the children, and whose house burned down but she didn’t care.
- Aunt Alexandra, relative who comes to live with the Finches and disapproves of Atticus’s laxity in allowing the children to mingle with the lower-class
- The rabid dog
All these are renewed favorites brought vividly to life by Harper Lee and still recognizable in our world 60 years later.
Matt had the honors of giving the opening essay in which he skillfully summarized the contrasts, conflicts, hypocrisies, and major themes of the book. He described the publication history and the way in which the book began as a collection of stories that editors helped Lee turn into a unified novel. Interesting stuff.
It was observed by me and other people that again and again the several subplots in the book mirrored the main, public drama of the treatment by the white people of Maycomb of Tom Robinson, accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Tom’s sickeningly unjust conviction and subsequent death was revealed and re-portrayed in parallel accounts of social outcasts who are unknown and therefore feared, considered harmful, who are then persecuted and either die or are killed:
- Mrs. Dubose. The rich and bitter widow who insults Jem and his father as he walks by her house. Jem despises her, but he is led by Atticus to understand her and even respect her in the wake of her death and his discovery of her morphine addiction.
- Dolphus Raymond. A social outcast, not killed, but despised and ostracized for his integration with the black community.
- The children’s fear and suspicion toward Arthur (Boo) Radley. This is again based on lack of understanding and assumption that he is mad or violent. Most interestingly, in the children’s games they are playing out what’s happening in the adult world.
- The whole black population are feared and despised by most of the white people
- The rabid dog. The poor creature is a terror to the town, an animal, a stranger, and is shot down in the street by Atticus. It is a shocking disconnected parallel to Tom Robinson who was shot and killed while trying to escape from jail.
- Even in one fleeting passage in which Scout is about to kill a pill bug/roly poly. Jem is older and wiser and discourages Scout from killing it just because it’s not doing any harm.
In one way or another, these are different manifestations or illustrations of the title of the book. Kill all the blue jays you want, Atticus says, because they are hateful birds. But it is a sin to kill a mockingbird; they do no harm, but they just make lovely music for everyone to hear.
Chris summarized the theme in the phrase, empathy leads to tolerance. The old idea of walking around in someone else’s shoes. The few who do find their fears turn to understanding and building of community.
William pointed out the strata of society deeply intrenched in the South, and indeed everywhere: The Cunninghams, The Ewells (in some ways below the blacks), the Black people, the white middle/upper class as perpetuated by Aunt Alexandra. He further noted how much death there is in the book: Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, the dog, Boo Radley, Mr & Mrs Radley, Mrs. Dubose, and of course Atticus is a widower. The deaths start to add up and become a significant feature of the book.
An interesting question came up: is Atticus a good father? He allows his children to call him by his first name, he seems disconnected from the daily concerns of their lives, and never disciplines beyond an understated, adult-like scolding although they frequently disobey his instructions. He scandalized the Ladies Mission Society and Aunt Alexandra by not enforcing the social codes that they wanted him to impose on his children. But his method was actually a good one; he doesn’t care about social codes, but where his parenting becomes active is in teaching them to think rightly, to have a soul, to consider the suffering of others, and to labor for justice and equality even if success is unlikely.
Finally, what is the pattern of character development in the book? Who grows, becomes somehow wiser or transformed through the events?
It was noted that Atticus and Bob Ewell seem to be great poles of good and evil. They do not grow or change but they are not the characters we follow in the book. Tom Robinson is a centrally tragic figure, one whose only transformation is to destruction. Clearly Jem and Scout develop over the years, symbolically in their discovery and embracing of Boo Radley and more generally in the development of a sense of racial justice.
But the real weight of the book is in showing how such development is needed in the townspeople of Maycomb and yet does not take place. Only the slightest change is detected in very few, for example in sheriff Heck Tate, who does not support Atticus’s legal defense and yet committed enough to law and duty and friendship with Atticus to protect him and uphold the law. The testimonies in the trial so clearly exonerated Tom that people seemed to be left silent, and yet it was not enough to overcome historic prejudices. But we get the impression that just by watching the court case, the weight of the evidence, and the hypocrisy and clear hatred raging in the breasts of so many, when it was all over, maybe just maybe the community is one small step closer on a long road to enacting real justice, a road we are still on and still have a long way to go.