Tuesday, September 16, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

"You want to be a lawyer, don't you?" Our father's mouth was suspiciously firm, as if he were trying to hold it in line.

Jem decided there was no point in quibbling, and was silent.  When Atticus went inside the house to retrieve a file he had forgotten to take to work that morning, Jem finally realized that he had been done in by the oldest lawyer's trick on record.  He waited a respectful distance from the front steps, watched Atticus leave the house and walk toward town.  When Atticus was out of earshot Jem yelled after him: "I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I ain't so sure now!"

I haven't read To Kill a Mockinbird since high school; then, I thought it was a good book.  When Brittany was reading the book, she told me I needed to re-read it because I would fall in love.  I expected her to be right--what I didn't expect, though, was how right she would be.  Reading this book, now, was a religious experience and nearly brought me to tears multiple times.  On some occasions I would have to stop reading because the writing was so beautiful that I needed to let the feeling linger before I moved on.  So, yes, I loved this book.

Despite having a plethora of reactions to this book, I want to focus on a question that readers of this blog will (surely) have an opinion about: What is the difference between a great book and a good book.  Here's what I've come up with:

First, To Kill a Mockingbird is universal in a way that even good books are not.  Lee accomplishes this using Scout's innocence.  By filtering the narration through Scout's ostensible innocence, the novel's narrator is relatable.  It's easy for any reader to envision viewing the world the way Scout does.  However, I write "ostensible innocence" because there's an illusion here: the narrator is writing through the eyes of an innocent young girl, but often uses diction or conclusory, reflective statements to remind the reader that this is a narrator remembering back.  For example, when Atticus tells Scout to go to bed after she'd been listening to a long conversation between him and Uncle Jack: "I scurried to my room went to bed . . . . But I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized he wanted me to hear every word he said."  So, at the same time that Scout is relatable, the reader benefits from Scout's hindsight ruminations.

Second: Lee's writing is remarkably beautiful. I use the adverb because the writing here is beautiful in way that surpasses other writers..  Consider this line, describing the childrens' performances of plays during the summer, "But by the end of August our repertoire was vapid from countless reproductions, and it was then that Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out."  I have never seen "vapid" used in this context and I love it.

Or, this:
We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe--some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity than others, some ladies make better cakes than others--some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal--there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president.  That institution, gentlemen, is a court . . . Our courts have faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
This passage, beautiful in its own right, also reflects a motif spread throughout the novel: the inequality of the world contrasted by the idealism of equality.  We see it again when Miss Maudie describes Atticus's talent with guns:  "If your father's anything, he's civilized in his heart.  Marksmanship's a gift of God, a talent--oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin's different from playing the piano or the like.  I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things."

Finally, Atticus is himself a character that makes the book remarkably good.  Atticus is presented as heroic, and it's easy to accept it whole-heartedly.  I love this image, captured by the movie:

I also love this introduction of Atticus in the beginning: "His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in Maycomb County jail.  Atticus had urged them to accept the state's generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass."  Notably, even in this early description of Atticus, he's the voice of reason.

Anyway, this review's too long and reeks of someone trying to say too much without focus.  So, my question, friends: what makes a great novel?  And, is To Kill a Mockingbird a great novel?


Brent Waggoner said...

I really need to re-read this. It was one of the first "literary" novels I ever read and I blew through it in one sitting.

I think it's a great novel but I haven't read it recently enough to quantify why--I think the connection it makes across generations and media are a strong argument for it, and universiality of its themes.

R.M. Fiedler said...

A part of me wonders if the book shouldn't be taught so early...but the other part of me feels like there's enough there for a high schooler to appreciate...


Brittany said...

I think one of the definitions of a great book is that over and over a lifetime, a person can read it and get something different from it.

Seeing my 14 year olds read it, they very much identify with Scout and her attempts to find justice in an injust world and come to terms with that. I'm sure my own reading experience was similar (although it left such a non-impression I have rewritten history in my head and I'm not sure when I actually read it. I would have said high school, but looking at my review from last year I said middle school).

However, reading it as an adult, I identified so much more with Atticus. I'm not anyone's parent, but I do see myself as a wiser adult figure in some young people's lives. They come to me with their problems, and they ask questions that can't be answered, and I have to open my hands and tell them that sometimes the world is less than one would hope it could be.

So I would put this in the Great Book category because it fulfills that purpose.

I don't think any teacher should teach that book before they feel comfortable (and feel their students are ready) to talk frankly about rape, race, and the n-word. So many of my students read it in elementary or middle school and DIDN'T REALIZE RAPE AND RACISM WERE PART OF THE NOVEL. They just remember the Boo Radley part, which is a fine part of the novel, but if an adult isn't comfortable talking about those things, then how are they going to make sense of it for students?

I don't think that the writing is something that can be appreciated until a person has had a HUGE range of reading experiences that include pop fiction as well as classics.

Brittany said...

(For the record, I think freshmen are the perfect age for it. They love it madly, and I wonder if my juniors would act like they were 'too cool' to identify with a child because they are trying so hard to be adults.)

billy said...

My parents read Mockingbird to Hunter and me when we were little, like maybe 11 and 9 and we loved it, but all we got out of it was Boo Radley (we then watched the movie and were hugely disappointed that they spent so much time on the boring trial parts).

And of course when I read it in college or law school I thought it was brilliant and wonderful.