Allison's Book Bag

To Kill a Mockingbird: Random Thoughts

Posted on: December 1, 2012

A note from Andy, your guest reviewer throughout November:

With this post, my time as Allison’s guest reviewer comes to an end. Thank you all for putting up with me and my rambling posts. I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts about my favorite books from my childhood. Hopefully you have enjoyed them as well.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrap up my month of subbing for my wife by biting off more than I can chew with an attempted review of To Kill a Mockingbird. Seriously, I must have been crazy to pick Mockingbird as one of my childhood favorites. Is there anyone who doesn’t know about it? Is there anything I can say that hasn’t been said?

I’m not even sure it qualifies as a childhood favorite. I first read it in high school, I think. But although I liked it at the time, I didn’t love it. I didn’t love any book I was forced to read for school. For that matter, I often didn’t read the books I was told to read. At some time during my childhood I also saw the movie version of Mockingbird. I’m not sure if I saw it before or after I read the book, and I’m not sure if I saw it at school or on my own. But I’m almost certain that I fell in love with the movie first.

Growing Up in Maycomb

I’ve said before that in my earlier reviews that I love books that take me to new places. Both the book and film versions of Mockingbird do that exceptionally well. And not only that, but they make me wish I was growing up in Maycomb alongside Scout and Jem and Dill. That’s a crazy thing to say, isn’t it, considering the racism of that time and place? It’s also crazy because the things I like about Maycomb are things I hate in real life. I’m not a social person. I don’t want to bump into neighbors or friends, because then I have to struggle to think of things to say. And yet I enjoy walking down the sidewalk with Atticus and Scout, talking to the neighbors on lazy summer days. It’s due to the strength of Harper Lee’s writing that I can feel nostalgia for a place I’ve never been.

Is Boo Radley Mentally Handicapped?

I’ve heard criticism of Mockingbird for its negative portrayal of a mentally handicapped person – that person being Arthur “Boo” Radley. And I completely disagree with that interpretation of Boo. In fact, I think that interpretation is a result of prejudice and stereotyping.

I think it’s likely that those who think Boo is mentally handicapped are being misled by the overactive imaginations of a child. Scout describes Boo in this way:

“About six feet tall, judging by 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 longjagged scar that ran down his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten, his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.”

Oh, he drooled? Then he must be mentally handicapped. That’s a bit offensive, isn’t it? But the bigger problem is that Scout’s account of Boo is complete fiction. Scout has never seen Boo. The other kids in the neighborhood have never seen Boo. And their ignorance and curiosity has led to rampant speculation, which resulted in wildly exaggerated tall tales about their mysterious neighbor.

I think both the book and the film provide plenty of evidence that Boo was not mentally handicapped. We are told that in his youth he ran around with bad kids and got in trouble. Later as an adult when he leaves gifts for Jem and Scout, one of these gifts is a spelling medal. Do either of these things tell us anything? Well, for one thing, he could spell very well. Furthermore, he was obviously out and about as a teen, which goes against the notion that he was hidden away by parents who were embarrassed to have a mentally handicapped child.

Boo is not mentally handicapped; he is mentally ill. Whether he has been mentally ill since he was young, or only became ill after he was locked away by his family, we don’t know. I suspect the latter. He was an average kid who began running around with a bad crowd, got in trouble, and got hidden away by a proud, private, domineering family. Now, if you would like to debate whether or not Mockingbird depicts the mentally ill in a positive or negative way, have at it.

President George W. Bush awards the Presidenti...

President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author Harper Lee during a ceremony Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, in the East Room. “To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It’s been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever,” said the President about Harper Lee’s work. White House photo by Eric Draper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a love story

To Kill a Mockingbird has many themes, but it is primarily a love story. It is about Scout’s love for her father – and was written by Harper Lee as a tribute to her own father. There are additional love stories told within Mockingbird’s pages: Atticus’ love for his children, Boo’s love for Jem and Scout, Scout’s love for Jem and Jem’s love for Scout.

Racism

This is a difficult issue, and I’ve been debating whether or not I should bring it up. I am white. My perspective is that of a white person. That is not to say that there is a single white perspective – just that I have the perspective of someone who grew up white. I cannot read Mockingbird with anyone’s eyes but my own.

I know there are criticisms of Mockingbird. It contains frequent use of the “n” word. It depicts Tom Robinson as simple, meek, and helpless. It depicts a white man as the champion of the black community. It does not portray any black characters (with the possible exception of Calpurnia) as three dimensional.

I can understand these criticisms. There are things I could say in response. I could say that  I suspect Harper Lee would have been lambasted had she presented a sugar-coated depiction of racism in the early 20th century. I could say that Tom is in a no-win situation and he knows it, and he is helpless because there’s no way out even with  the help of a white champion. The reason Calpurnia is the most fleshed out black character is because the story is told from the perspective of a young white girl whose chief connection to black culture is her family’s housekeeper.

Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an America...

Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an American movie issued in 1962) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve read the criticism (voiced by  a white person) that Mockingbird is a fantasy about the gallant white knight who comes to the aid of the helpless black man, and that reading about such a man makes white people feel good about themselves. I think this criticism has it backwards. Most of the white people in the book are racist. The white jury convicts Tom even though they know he is innocent. The white people of the community cannot understand why Atticus would defend a black man. Harper Lee did not give us Atticus so white people could feel good about themselves. She gave us a community of racists and said “Isn’t this an ugly thing?” And then she showed us a man who loved his children so much that he was determined to always do the right thing, no matter what the cost, and in doing so tells her readers, “You should strive to be like this man, and shame on you if you do not.” To Kill a Mockingbird is not a white fantasy. It is a withering indictment and a challenge. Reading the book, I do not feel good about white people. I feel that I’m being held accountable.

With all that said, let me make it clear that I do not fault anyone for their feelings about the book. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s one group of people telling another group of people that they have no right to be offended. You cannot judge another group of people according to your own group’s experiences and sensibilities. And so if Mockingbird offends you, then it does. And if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.

Conclusion

I don’t think I have a conclusion. There’s a lot to To Kill a Mockingbird, both good and bad. There are many ways to approach it. Should you start with the book or the film, and which is better? Should children be studying the book in school, and if so then at what age? Does it still have anything to teach us? Did it ever?

All I know is that, for me, the language and the tone of the book is beautiful. It whisks me to another place and time and introduces me to people that otherwise I would never have known. In many ways, it does not offer any answers. Atticus is not a white knight – Tom Robinson is doomed from the start. Boo Radley comes out, and disappears again forever. Only one thing changes in the course of the entire book – a little girl learns just how much she loves her father.

2 Responses to "To Kill a Mockingbird: Random Thoughts"

Your comments on Boo enticed me to reread To Kill a Mockingbird again, and I enjoyed it as much time as much as each of the previous times I’d read it. Not only do I agree with what you said about Boo, but I also appreciate your many other “random thoughts” on the book.

Wow, you read it that quickly? I didn’t even read it again to write my “review.” 😉

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