During the late 1950s, Harper Lee decided to transfuse her thoughts into words. The words were molded into chapters and the chapters bounded together to form an iconic piece of fictional literature. The literature was named “To Kill A Mockingbird” (TKAM) and was published in 1961. Since then, To Kill A Mockingbird and Harper Lee became synonymous to each other. Within one year of its publication, TKAM touched hands of millions of readers and was awarded with illustrious awards.
Lee used TKAM as a medium to unveil the ugly visor of the racial prejudice of the society. She unbraced the most controversial topic of that era—the tortured and subjugated mass in the color-divided society. She wrapped the recondite societal evil theme with her childhood innocence, curiosity, and tenuity. She didn’t let her readers take the unwieldiness of the intention with heavy heart. It was her charismatic writing that maintained the perfect proposition of levity and gravity. Lee has justified with each character of her book by giving them due notice and page-presence. Her remarkable writing style encourages me to call her ‘The Pythoness of Words’
The story, formed during the era of 1930s within the perimeter of Maycomb county, keeps the Finch family in focus. The writer cum narrator of the story, Scout lived in Maycomb with her brother Jem and her father Atticus. That was the period when the society was shrouded distinctively in two prime colors—black and white—dominated by white proclaiming themselves superior breed. The color-divided period had the words such as Negro and Colored commonly used. Any person standing in support of black became a recipient of chagrin of whites. In such brittle society, Atticus plucked a courageous decision to pursue a case to defend Tom Robinson who was charged with raping a woman. The essentiality of the case was that Tom Robinson was a Negro and the woman he was presumably accused for raping was a white. It was cogitable that Atticus’ decision invited wrath, gradually turning into death threats, from the society. None of this fright, however, could deter Atticus from his decision.
Maycomb, a small county in Alabama, as described by Lee, was an old tired town where “a day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.”
It was a place which had nothing to fear but fear itself.
The natural seasons followed no scheduling ritual in Maycomb. Any change in weather, such as autumn turning winter in the story, was attributed to children disobeying parents, smoking cigarettes, and making war with each other, according to the maxim inscribed on the Rosetta Stone. People in Maycomb were expected to have a definite purpose in their mind while walking to and from – “In Maycomb, if one went for a walk without definite purpose in mind, it was correct to believe one’s mind incapable of definite purpose.” The county had devised its own terms for certain occupations. The term ‘buy cotton’ was used for unemployment or unknown employment activities; rather than stating ‘he is unemployed’ it was said ‘he bought cotton’.
Finch family included Scout (Jean Louis Finch), Jem (Jeremy Atticus Finch), and their father Atticus (Atticus Finch). Atticus, the protagonist of the story, was a lawyer by profession. He was portrayed as a next-to-perfect persona who was a man of virtue. His role as father, in Scout’s words, was “satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachments.” His achievements—the recognitions as best check player and good Jew’s Harp player—seemed sapless to the children. Children’s sense of pride in their father was restored on the occasion when Atticus shot Tim Johnson, a stray mad dog on the street, in one perfect shot. Once Atticus’ shooting skill is explained live to them, Scout and Jem remained confounded for a while. Later they got to know that their father was known as ‘Ol’ One Shot’ for his shooting skill, which was known to whole Maycomb except the children. As a person, Atticus was revered as the most decorous and prehensile person in Maycomb. He had the sanity to consider every person from their point of view: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus was such a mindful person who when asked “what is rape” could come up with the most sorted answer for Scout’s intellection “rape is carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” Atticus was personification of a strong mountain who was not disturbed by any passing wind and who did not prefer to put his anxiety on display; The Mobile Register, The Birmingham News, and The Montgomery Advertiser newspapers were his shields hiding his face in agitation. His other extraordinariness of behavior was that he never preferred to eat desserts and he liked to walk. Atticus and the children were world for each other—Atticus was all what those children had and the children were all what Atticus had.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Scout was a 6 years old tomboyish demeanor girl whose sole routine was to accompany her elder brother Jem, a 10 years old elvish, in his puerile crimes. Any comment coming from Jem “I declare to the Lord you’re getting’ more like a girl every day!” challenging her sportsmanship could offend her easily. Her reading proficience was beyond comprehension to many, including her teacher. Having a lawyer father made her cognizant in law since early age.
The Finch family was supported with the service of their maid Calpurnia, a black and loyal soul whose “hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard”. Calpurnia ensured in every manner that Scout and Jem behaved appropriately and used her smacks and occasional intimidations to keep them under control. Scout acknowledged her presence tyrannical filled with one-sided epic battles. Children were allowed to play within-her-calling-distance. She had got all the support from Atticus in her way of raising the kids. Calpurnia had acquired more knowledge and spoke finer English than other colored folks, only that angry Calpurnia uttered erratic grammar. When Scout displayed her scorn on Walter’s eating manner, she was treated with a perfect dose of rebuke by Calpurnia “…that boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him eat, you hear?…Yo’ folks might be better’n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way you’re disgracin’ ‘em—if you can’t act fit to eat at the table you can just set here and eat in the kitchen!” Calpurnia’s speaking skill reflected two different shades; one straight from the Blackstone’s Commentaries which was put on display only before the civilized group of white people, and other was just like colored folks’. When Jem expressed his curiosity for her speaking styles, she said “It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates them. You are not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there is nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.” Working almost for a decade, she had earned a trustworthy and pivotal role in Finch family. Her weightiness in the family was depicted in Atticus’ utterance “Anything fit to say at the table’s fit to say in front of Calpurnia. She knows what she means to this family.”
No story can be completed without the villains. In this case, the roles were played by Ewells who had been residing in Maycomb from past three generations only to add disgrace to the society. In Scout’s words “They were people, but lived like animals…Ewells were members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells.” The father of Ewells, Mr. Bob Ewells, preferred to spend his relief check on green whiskey leaving his children in hunger pain. The only benefit they got in the society was that they were born white. Mayella Ewells, the daughter of Mr. Bob, was the one who charged Tom Robinson of her rape.
The summer kept Scout and Jem busy with their infantile frolics. That season brought inclusion of one more member to their group. The member was Dill (Charles Baker Harris), coming from Meridian, who took pride in his ability to read. His conceit was reflected in his introduction “I am Charles Baker Harris. I can read…I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs reading I can do it…” Other than the reading skill, Dill was also the owner of exceptionally curious mind which was consistently busy in producing eccentric ideas and mischievous plans. Dill’s alacrity to handle a situation was unbeatable. Jem’s loosing pants during their clandestine endeavor was completely controlled by Dill’s response to Atticus “We were playin’ strip poker up yonder by the fishpool,” (Wait, did I tell you that Dill is the one who became a gem of the literature world and was known as Truman Capote, the writer of ‘In Cold Blood’, ‘Breakfast at Tiffiny’ and many other.)
Those three children soon became a camarilla and they employed themselves on a new mission–get Boo Radley out of the house once. Boo Radley was the youngest son of the Radleys, one of the peculiar neighbors of Finches. Radleys despite confining their presence within the walls of their house had established a dire reputation in neighborhood. Their horrific ballades and antisocial characteristics had attracted enough gruffness: “Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work” or “A baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no questions asked”. What they did for their living was known to none, so people declared they bought cotton. Scout and Jem had known about Radleys only through neighborhood tales. The youngest Radley, Arther Radley nicknamed Boo Radley, captured special interest of the trio because of his discussed deeds. Jem had his own imaginary ghostly delineation for Boo: “Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were blood stained—if you ate an animal raw, you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.”
Despite having the least visible appearance, Boo Radley is undoubtedly the most sought character of the book. Almost all the chapters have scripted Boo in some or the other manner. The first few chapters keep you engrossed in the horror like genre where all you want to know is who-is-Boo and what-would-Radleys-do. The credit of maintaining the thrill and suspense of the book goes to Radleys to great extent. All episodes of Radleys would send nail-biting chill to your spine. Your heart would jump when you’ll hear Nathan Radley shooting on finding someone (it was the trio actually) trespassing his compound. There were occasions where Boo and the children were close enough to encounter each other, but Boo went unnoticed in the rabble. Meanwhile, Scout and Jem had started exploring the knot-hole of the tree in front of Radley’s house. Starting with the Wrigley’s Double-Mint bubble gum, which according to Jem was poisonous, the knot-hole kept producing some or the other gift for them such as whittled miniatures of Jem and Scout, a watch, and a spelling-contest winning medal. The trio spent their summer enacting Radleys, planning to invade their compound, make a knock on their door, and make Boo cross the boundary of his house. In order to conclude their mission, they finally got into their compound where Jem lost his pant in Radley’s fence. On Radley’s shot, trio somehow escaped from the scene and returned back home safely. But Jem dared to go back to fetch his pant and return victoriously with his possession. This act had changed something in Jem which was a clear indication of his tiredness with his attempts of Boo-come-out initiative. What happened that day? Did Jem and his portioners give up on their idea? Was Boo really a bugbear? Was he already aware of their plan and did he harm the children in any way? Who was keeping gifts in the knot-hole? There are plenty of questions to be raveled. Stay hooked!
Finches were in abundance of exquisite neighbors. One such neighbor was old-aged Mrs. Dubose, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, always stationed on the porch. She was that figure who had accumulated all forms of negative feelings from Scout and Jem in exchange of her apoplectic reactions and sassy mutts. She had objection to everything Scout and Jem did and related to. Their free-spirited nature was perceived as wild insolent motherless stray type. Scout’s generic courteous regard was responded with “Don’t you say hey to me you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!” When the children complained their unpleasant interactions with Mrs. Dubose to Atticus, they were assuaged with “…You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad.” Once Mrs. Dubose made her last journey, Atticus revealed that she was the strongest personality in his views “Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
In September that year, Scout’s longing for attending the school came to an end. Her teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, welcomed her with a pat of a ruler on her palm and a sojourn to the corner of the room. Miss Caroline’s beauty glinted with the aesthetics factors “bright auburn hair, pink cheeks, crimson fingered mail polish, high heel pumps, red and white strip dresses” which had made Jem hazed for days. Scout reading the newspapers ‘My First Reader’ and ‘The Mobile Register’ fluently was perceived detrimental to her age. Scout was surrounded by the classmates who hailed from the background in contrast to Finches: “ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.” Their cognitive level was appreciated by Scout as they were capable of identifying the alphabets scribbled by Miss Caroline. The secret behind their cognizance was that “most of the first graders had failed it last year.” Scout’s attempt to defend Walter Cunnigham was not received positively by Miss Caroline. In return, Scout gets whipped. Such declinatory environment of school was not impressive to scout.
When Scout was still unsatisfied with her promotion to the next grade, Jem was relishing his rising curiosity level in grade 6. He had developed a fascination towards Egyptian Period. He imitated their walking style – “sticking one arm in front of him and one in back of him, putting one foot behind the other”, appreciated their accomplishments – from toilet paper to perpetual embalming.
During next summer, Dill kept growing closer to Jem, which ultimately made Scout closer to Ms. Maudie. Miss Maudie was Scout and Jem’s favorite neighbor who used to clarify their thriving queries including Boo Radley’s. The conversations between Scout and Ms. Maudie are breathtakingly interesting which reflect the shark distinction between Miss Maudie’s wisdom and Scout’s nescience. For instance, when Miss Maudie says “…but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of—oh, of your father.”, Scout’s instant reply was “Atticus doesn’t drink whiskey.”
“sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of—oh, of your father”
This innocence in such writing is a byproduct of Lee’s decision to portray the story from the point of view of a 6 years old. Another such instance is when Scout became suspicious of Jem’s decision of accompanying her on the first day of school: “I think some money changed hands in this transaction, for as we trotted around the corner past the Radley place I heard an unfamiliar jingle in Jem’s pockets.”
Time was passing, so was the atmosphere in Maycomb. The news of Atticus defending a Niger had started making rounds. Scout and Jem were grappling with demeaning dialogues from their schoolmates, cousins, neighbors, and almost everyone who was not-colored. When asked Atticus that why he was defending Tom, he replied “For a number of reasons. The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again…every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one is mine.” Although Atticus probably sensed from the beginning that the case might not let him taste the victory, but still he reasoned with Scout “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” Considering the surmounting pressure of his children, he advised “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let them get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change…it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.” To satiate Scount’s asinine pleadings, he further stressed “This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man…before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Scout and Jem were growing up. Jem’s turning 12 invited more respectful addressing as ‘Mister Jem’ from Calpurnia. His mood, as per Scout, had acquired more unpredictability mixed with “maddening air of wisdom”. Scout was innocently divagated with Dill’s promise of marrying her. She had already acceded him her fiancé and that fact compensated her for his absence in summer. The essence of her entire juvenile yet concrete feeling for Dill was expressed in one single line “With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable.” The children got to meet Dill after all when he had eloped from his home feeling neglected by his parents. This emotional disenchantment for his parents had also brought a sign of maturity in Dill. He was not suggesting anymore to chase Boo. He probably had started thinking things from different point of view, probably Boo’s point of view. When Scout asked him “Why do you reckon Boo Radley’s never run off?”, his reply was “Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere to run off to…”
Meanwhile, Scout and Jem witnessed their father’s impression in the eyes of colored folks. When they were taken to church by Calpurnia in the colored-folks hours, they were warmed welcomed by the whole solid mass of black but Lula who expressed her dissatisfaction with the children’s (white children) presence. They were thanked to be there by Revered Sykes on behalf of all: “We were ‘specially glad to have you all here…This church has no better friend than your daddy.”
When aunt Alexandra, Atticus’ sister, started staying with Finches in Maycomb, the dynamics of the whole family and the temperament of Atticus was infused with aunt’s motive, which was to make the children disciplined enough to reciprocate the Finches’ “several generations’ gentle breeding” and decide what-is-best-for-the-family. As per Scout, she was flexible enough to “fit into the world of Maycomb like a hand into a glove, but never into the world of Jem and me.” Atticus’ growing curtness and advising nature had already put the children in irresoluteness: “I know what he was trying to do, but Atticus was only a man. It takes a woman to do that kind of work.” However, Atticus was not a person who could be influenced easily.
“I know what he was trying to do, but Atticus was only a man. It takes a woman to do that kind of work.”
Atticus defending Robinson had confronted aggressive mob. In one such incidence, Scout’s knowledge mixed with rapidity saved Atticus from aggressive mob when she reminded Mr. Cunninghum and other members of the mob how bad an entailment could get for them. Living with a lawyer father, Scout and Jem had already inherited cognizance in law. Atticus on the other hand had developed no abomination for Mr. Cunnigham or others even after the incidence. He was still stoical with his belief that it’s a person’s situation which made one act the way they act. He passed the same belief to Jem: “You’ll understand the folks little better when you’re older. A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunnigham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob in every souther town is always made up of people you know—doesn’t say much of fit, does it?”
What comes next in the story is what you have been waiting for – the trial. The intensity, avidity, and the presentation will make you not drop the book until the verdict is spelled out.
On the D-day of the trial, the county was apparently a Roman carnival. Physical description of a Negro child is illustrated in beautiful words “he was a rich chocolate with flaring nostrils and beautiful teeth.” Watching the carnival, Jem was sharing his wisdom on social matters (colored vs mixed child) to scout. According to him, mixed child was equally neglected as colored because “They don’t belong anywhere. Colored folks won’t have ‘em because they are half-white; white folks won’t have ‘em ’cause they’re colored, so they’re just in-betweens, don’t belong anywhere…”
The courtroom was blazing with the presence of prominent and interesting personalities. The room was looking diametrically prepared to find the truth for what-exactly-happened-on-the-night-of-November-21. Mr. Tate on the witness stand, Mr. Gilmer as the solicitor, Atticus with his client Tom Robinson, the judge, the jury, all were present in their positions. Judge Taylor, an amicable judge who “ran his court with an alarming informality—he sometimes propped his feet up, he often cleaned his fingernails with his pocket knife…” His peculiar demeanor could not be taken as ignorance on his part as he kept himself deeply engrossed in every proceeding coming his way.
Questions were unfolded one after the other by Atticus and by Mr. Gilmer who every time appealed to answer “just-in-your-own words”. The room filled with a heat when Mr. Bob Ewell came into the witness box. His illiteracy and rudeness made people laugh as well as offended–“Are you the father of Mayella Ewell?” “Well, if I ain’t I can’t do nothing about it now, her ma’s dead.” Bob’s literary vocabulary composed the words such as ‘sawed’, ‘knowed’, and ‘can’t do nothing.’
All eyes and ears were agitated when the victim and the plaintiff, Mayella Ewell, daughter of Bob Ewell, took charge of the witness box. Mayella displayed no more literacy level than Bob. She possessed a well-built labored body, having a sign of vulnerability, secluded from rest of the world, a never-understood person who could take offense to questions such as “do you have friends” and felt insulted on being called as ma’am or miss. Her responses portrayed her pitied and lonely life which was sucked by her siblings and her father.
Next came the most awaited and wanted person of the room, the defendant Tom Robinson. A 21 years old, strong shoulders and bull-thick neck, married with three children Negro was holding the graze of each pair of curious eyes in the room. Scout explained his physique as “Tom was a black-velvet Negro, not shiny, but soft black velvet. The whitest his eyes shone in his face, and when he spoke we saw flashes of his teeth. If he had been whole, he would have been a fine specimen of a man.” During the interrogation, the treatment to Tom by Mr. Gilmer was not a speck closer to the level of politeness Atticus bestowed to Mayella. To explain Mr. Gilmer’s behavior, Scout said to Dill “Well, Dill, after all he’s just a negro.” Everybody couldn’t be Atticus who was “the same in the courtroom as he is on the public streets.”
What respect Atticus had earned in the eyes of colored folks was proven when Reverend Skykes asked Scout to get up “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
What Atticus was to Macomb was cleared in Maudie’s words “…there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them…We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”
I myself sometimes wonder where from Atticus gathered all his strength and wisdom. Even when Bob Ewell dared to spit on his face, all he said was “I wish Bob Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco.”
Atticus solemnity had hidden a sense of humor too. To respond why there was no woman in the jury, he said “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried—the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.”
Could Atticus get Tom Robinson acquitted? Did he and his family survive the wrath of the victim’s family? Could Atticus and family ever walk with their head high in Maycomb after taking side of a black? To know, grab the book from your nearest book store!!
The book has presented multiple occasions to show the segregated black & white resection of society; the church had separate entrance, different timing, and different setup for colored. White people were the first in everything—first to enter, first to leave, first to get any social privilege. “The Negroes, having waited for the white people to go upstairs began to come in…” mirrors the level of vicissitude and victimization towards the colored.
The best thing that Lee did with the story to mold it into the point of view of a six or eight years old, notwithstanding critics find this indigestible for such a grave theme. Her clever proses “…we made a midnight pilgrimage to the bathroom.”, “Just as the birds know where to go when it rains, I knew when there was trouble in our street.”, “Sherlock Holmes and Jem Finch would agree.” and many more keep the readers amused yet thoughtful. The pristine words—reckon, yonder—give an indication of the period the story was conceived. The book has not ignored the factor of marketization by capitalizing on famous brand names such as Wrigley’s chewing gum and Coca-Cola.
At last, why there is mockingbird in the title; what a mockingbird had to do with whole plot. By the time you finish the book, you understand the mystery of mockingbird. Lee mentions in her book that killing a benevolent soul like mockingbird which does nothing but entertains humanity with its melodious symphony is a cardinal sin. Hence, the second clause of the title could be ‘is a sin’. Who Lee is referring as mockingbird then? It could be Tom Robinson who did nothing but to serve the white people and portrayed all the denominations of humanness. It could be Boo Radley who didn’t even let his shadow cast a scourge to any living or nonliving thing and to whom Finch children owed their life. Killing those people would be a resemblance to transgression.
And in the end, here comes my favorite quotes from the book
Shweta Kumari Sharma
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