Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Mockingbird revisited

Reading Sanjay Sipahimalani’s Yahoo! column about rereading, I thought about my second encounter with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I was under the impression that I remembered the book quite well from my first reading of it at age 13 or 14, but I was wrong. Adolescent memory had turned it into a sweet, simply written, somewhat romanticised slice-of-life about two children growing up in a small town in the 1930s and very briefly having to deal with the harshness of the world when their lawyer father defends a black man accused of rape. I remember thinking at the time that Atticus Finch was a somewhat boring, preachy character, with his repeated patter about the need to understand another person – by “getting into their shoes and walking around in them for a while” – rather than judge them. (Note: I didn’t disagree with this idea, I just thought it was much too obvious.)

What a difference a second visit to the town of Maycomb made. For starters, I realised that my first reading couldn’t have been all that careful. The opening page of the book touches on aspects of American history (North-and-South politics, the history of the Methodists and the liberals) that I wasn’t much interested in as a youngster, and such allusions run through the story. I had probably skimmed over all those bits and focused mainly on the adventures of little Scout Finch (the narrator), her brother Jem and their friend Dill. Also, while it’s true that the book reads like an intimate dedication in places (as if it were written by someone who didn’t so much want to launch a career as a professional author as share the experiences that shaped her perspective on life), Lee’s writing has more precision than I remembered. From Scout’s voice, you can tell that she is the precocious daughter of a man who has educated himself by reading variedly and wisely (one of Atticus’s neighbours snarkily says that all he does with his time is read).

But most of all, I see now that Atticus isn’t a sanctimonious old bore. His wisdom is hard-won -
it’s implied that he has seen sad days himself, faced moral dilemmas and come out of them with his integrity intact - and he doesn’t force it down his children’s throats. Though he does make mini-speeches once in a while, he lets Scout and Jem figure out most of life’s sterner truths for themselves. He also has a sense of humour, an irreverence for sacred cows (within limits, of course, given the very conservative world he comes from), and in this sense he reminds me just a little of Calvin’s awesome dad in Calvin and Hobbes. With Atticus as its anchor, To Kill a Mockingbird is a mature story about the fears and uncertainties of an intelligent, broad-minded child (as well as the fears and uncertainties of parochial, narrow-minded adults). But you probably need to be a grown-up reader to best appreciate this.

What I did remember very vividly (and this is probably responsible for my illusion that I remembered the whole book well) were the last few pages, including the shiver-causing passage where little Scout realises that the unfamiliar countryman leaning timidly against the wall – the man who saved her life – is Boo Radley, the children’s favourite bogeyman. (The revelation of Boo as something very different from the malevolent phantom of Scout and Jem’s nightmares is a literalisation of Atticus’ line “Most people are real nice when you can finally see them.”) And the lovely passage where Scout escorts Boo back to his house and then turns around at the door, viewing her town from an angle she has never been privy to before; the angle that Boo himself must have so often assumed in the past, hiding behind his window curtains, gazing out fearfully at the world.

It’s the perfect summing up for the book: the familiar made unfamiliar, the challenge of looking at things from a perspective that you’ve never had to (or been willing to) consider. It’s a challenge that thinking people will always have to face – for every battle won against a particular form of prejudice, new battles and new contexts will always arise – and that’s probably why To Kill a Mockingbird is such a timeless book even though the specifics of its narrative (the black man judged and condemned by an entire prejudiced town) appear dated today.


  1. Indeed, indeed. Teen reading and later rereading of this book led to single obvious result: Atticus Finch raised the bar like no one else, with the result that no man is now good enough for me. And it HAD to be Gregory Peck in the movie, didn't it? :)

  2. Loved this in my late teens, about seven years back. Agree that it works best as a first hand experience of a child growing up and coming to terms with adulthood.

    However, it is less successful while dealing with complex race issues, which is probably not what the book is about anyway. Seemingly low-brow melodramas like Ford's Two Rode Together and Sirk's Imitation of Life are more truthful about race, I think.

    Lee's book, like other liberal homilies of the time (some of Poitier's movies for instance) makes a conscious attempt to idealise the underdog.

  3. I have long been a reader, but never commented. To Kill a Mockingbird is a favourite. Incidently, it completes 50 years of publication on the 11th of July, 2010. I have recently blogged about it in this post of mine. I deal with a slightly different perspective on the book. http://sandhyaryal.blogspot.com/2010/07/to-kill-mockingbird-and-harry-potter.html

  4. thanks for writing about a book that was for me something that refused to outgrow its top spot on my personal favourites chart - until The Great Gatsby jostled its way in and stayed there for a while.

    ive not quite resolved how to receive precocious children’s voices (i wonder if I condescend!) in some pieces of writing which I have found extremely perceptive and well crafted otherwise. I’ll need to think back on some examples for this one, but even in Mockinbird, Scout’s articulate thought and expression had me “willingly suspending disbelief” every so often. are there sometimes when a child’s voice in literature/art seems like an adult falsetto to you?

  5. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/10/090810fa_fact_gladwell

    If you haven't read it , that is.

    Malcolm Gladwell takes a less forgiving look at the effect Atticus Finch may have had in the real America. It's not personal, like it was for your piece, but it's a sort of meditation on the critical role of the Supreme in the thrusting forward the Civil Rights movement.

  6. This is one book that I loved as a child and seemed quite as great after I grew up. I didn't think Atticus was preachy at all: he seemed like the most ideal character I had ever come across. Now, I can point out his flaws (he wasn't always very good at understanding Scout, though he tried), but they only make him seem human.

  7. Posting again, as the earlier comment appears to have disapeared!

    suparna - yes. Scout's vocabulary is mindboggling given her age. I remember underlining a good number of unfamiliar words when I first read it in my teens.

    I agree that the book works best as a parable of kids growing up and losing their innocence in the process.

    However, it is less successful while dealing with issues of race. Like other liberal homilies of its time (Poitier movies for instance), the book idealizes the underdog. Seemingly low-brow dramas like Ford's Two Rode Together and Sirk's Imitation of Life appear to be more truthful about the realities of race than Lee's novel.

  8. Okay, there seems to be a problem with Blogspot not displaying comments on this post, but I'll still respond to the ones I got on email, and hope they show up here soon:

    Suparna: completely get what you mean (and I think I may have written about it in an old post once), but I'm not sure it's such a problem in this case. It's possible to read TKAM as a book written by a grown-up (say a 30-year-old) Scout. Lee herself was in her early thirties when she wrote it, and it's at least partly autobiographical.

  9. I'm digressing here. You said that blogspot has not been posting comments today. The same thing is happening at my blog since morning. In fact even the comments I make on other blogs are not being posted. You seem to have got around the problem. Do you mind telling me what may be done?

  10. Ha! Perfect timing of this post. I was just now working on my cousin's holiday homework based on this book. She simply refuses to read it. Her school must have gained wisdom of getting to know that most students don't read any assigned books any way, so they have made it easier for them by not having any questions that would require actual reading. Therefore, I also haven't had to (re)-read it this time!

    Wise decision, now I think, since it would be good if I read it a few more years down the line when hopefully I will be more "wisdomous" to understand it better?

  11. Um just for general information: there's still a problem with Blogspot comments on this post. Am getting all comments through email notification but many of them aren't displaying here. This has happened a couple of times in the past too. Hoping it gets resolved soon.

  12. About my first impressions of the book: I remember not grasping the issue of racism at first, not having any knowledge of civil rights movement etc. More important was my failure to imagine that such a thing as discrimination against anybody could be prevalent in a country called USA which hogged a special pedestal in my imagination. I had difficulty in swallowing that a country that was supposed to be perfect in all respects could be inhabited by people who simply refused to get "into their shoes and walking around in them for a while" (which should be obvious, but obviously isn't so!)

    More remarkably, nothing that could have led me to understanding such issues had been made part of my formal education at least. I must have failed to grasp it if I had been exposed to it elsewhere.

    In fact, as a sign of my naivete, I distinctly remember being confused just recently when Crash, the movie came out. I was confused that such an issue could still be significant in these times. (In my defense, I was only 14 at the time.)

    I guess, at twelve I was much to young to have understood the book and there wasn't anybody to guide me through it either.

  13. longblackveil: yes, for me Peck's performance got the balance just right (I saw the film shortly after reading the book the first time), though a part of me thinks the role shouldn't have been played by a big star who had an established urbane persona.

    Shrikanth: the next time you comment on one of my posts without making a reference to a John Ford/Howard Hawks film, I'll send a big virtual cookie your way!

    Sandhya: yes, I know about the anniversary - the genesis of this post was a shorter piece I wrote for a newspaper column.

    Krishna: have you seen some of the responses to that piece by the way? Don't have links with me just now but I remember reading an amusing one where the author got snarky about Gladwell's own clean-cut, anecdote-driven style of writing.

    Nimit: oh, I'm sure you're wise enough already! Anyway, it isn't necessarily the case that the same reader is "wiser" at an older age, it's more that the experience and the perspective changes. I wish there were enough time to properly reread all my favourite books at different ages.

  14. Yes, I did see the backlash; at least , some of it.
    I suspect I'd have to re-read the book now before I can know exactly how I feel, but I can't quite trash the article either.

    There does seem to be (a healthy?) backlash against Malcolm Gladwell lately, but I must confess that I never (on my own) felt he was crossing the line.

    That comment was really more of "did you hear about...?" rather than "don't you agree with...?"

  15. That comment was really more of "did you hear about...?" rather than "don't you agree with...?"

    Krishna: my comment was along the same lines. I still need to read the Gladwell piece properly.

  16. About Scout's assured voice in the book, I thought it was pretty obvious that it was a grown-up Scout writing about events that took place when she was a child? I haven't re-read it in a few years so can't be sure.

  17. Jabberwock: Of course; I was trying to be tongue-in-cheek. Should have added a smiley to make my tone clear. You'd have liked that, wouldn't you?

    Maybe I overplay my youth too much and somewhat dishonestly in these pages!

    Shrabonti, Suparna: More accurately, there are two first-person narrative voices: the six- to nine-year-old girl & the grown up Scout. Sometimes the voices alternate within the space of a couple of paragraphs.

    Most of the times, the adult Scout sets the stage in sort of a voice-over and the young Scout goes on to describe the actual events.

    e.g. the paragraph will start like:

    "When I was almost six... That was the summer Dill came to us"

    Then the six-year old will describe the actual moment Dill appeared and "drama replaces exposition".[1]

    [1]Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields which I am reading thanks to the holiday homework (FTW)!

  18. Re the Gladwell article:

    The first prong of his attack was largely ineffective, the device of transference from Folsom to Finch too obvious.

    But the second, direct criticism of the Finch defence -discrediting the accuser on gender and class bias- was surprisingly effective.

    Remember too little of the book. Will have to reread.


  19. Oh, this has been my favourit-est book of all time, since I first read it at 13. I remember crying at the part where she takes Boo home. It never gets old for me, and I have read it many, many, many times. :)

    ps. I agree with longblackveil. Atticus Finch raised the bar :)...

  20. Have you read Mister Pip? Somehow that book reminded me of Mockingbird too.

  21. Radhikaaz: no I haven't, heard a lot about it though. Will try to pick it up sometime.

  22. i turned all shocked and enraged at your first paragraph, then calmed down when i read the rest of it. Very glad you went back to re-read this book.
    it's sense of safeness and risk at the same time is just delicious. the only time i was really afraid was when atticus is aiming at the dog. i somehow thought he'd get hurt and couldn't stand the thought.

  23. Great read!

    Recently watched the film adaptation and it brought back lots of good memories of the book for me. I particularly remember (from the book) the scene with the rabid dog - the one that Atticus must shoot down. It set up the whole idea of Atticus as a lone righteous crusader very well. Compelling imagery that was.

    Blogged about it http://mandakini-m.blogspot.com/2010/07/to-kill-mocking-bird-is-sin.html

  24. I've been meaning to dig out my copy of TKAM for my almost-teenager son to read, and I am curious to see what his reaction will be. I wonder how much of my own take when I read it came from the political context that I was familiar with, racism being so much less politically incorrect when I grew up.

    Coincidentally, I stumbled upon an ancient edition of TIME the other day, and was delighted to read this obit of Gregory Peck :
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,458777,00.html - I thought you might enjoy it.

    I found out through it that Atticus Finch was voted by the American Film Institute to be the greatest hero in American film - interesting, that.

  25. I personally feel Atticus Finch is very very similar to Gandhi. Think about it. Gandhi went the whole distance with his ideas, while Atticus remained within the bounds of societal living. Apart from that all their ideals are on the same lines.
    @Jabberwock, based on above I kinda agree that Gregory Peck might not have been the right choice.
    @Radhika, given how highly I think of Atticus, I am not surprised that he was voted the greatest hero in American film!