Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publishing Date: December 1982
Number of Pages: 376
Genre: Southern Gothic, Bildungsroman
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill a Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.
I can still recall my first encounter with Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was one of those literary works that I kept running into whenever I go to the bookstore to buy accountancy book during my college years. It rang a bell I couldn’t place but I remained nonchalant and instead focused on authors I am used to. This was when I haven’t even had an inkling on what the Pulitzer Prize is. My reading adventure was still at its infancy to say the least.
Six years thence, I came across the book again while doing must-read list challenges. It is one of those books which are ubiquitous and came highly recommended; it is part of nearly every list, including the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I still didn’t have an iota on what it was about although the book title did pique me a bit. In my pursuit if becoming well-read, I purchased a copy of the book. It was my fervent desire to get into the heart of the narrative. Here are my thoughts about this award-winning classic.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird was the debut novel of Harper Lee and up until 2015, was her only published novel. It relates the story of two teenage siblings, Jeremy “Jem” and Jean Louse “Scout Finch”, who were growing up in Maycomb County (fictional) in the deep American South. Orphaned of a mother, their father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer who was currently taking on a highly controversial case that divided the opinions of the general public. The case is not simply going to blow over as it is going to make the Finch children question everything that they have always believed in, or grew up believing in.
Before I started reading the novel, I was already intimidated. I constantly kept on asking myself if I am even capable of untangling a highly prized work of fiction such as this; Pulitzer Prize, I have learned, is basically a stamp of literary excellence, a whole new league from the more mundane pages of books I grew up in. In spite of my self-doubts, I was still excited at the prospect of starting a new literary journey, excited at the adventure that is going to unfold before me.
I am grateful that I didn’t let my self-doubts get the best of me because not only was I able to complete one of the best novels of all times, but I also gained new perspectives and a broader understanding on an array of subjects that were encapsulated in the nearly 400-pages of the novel. On the surface, the plot seemed and sounded simple enough, sprinkled with some warmth and humor. However, hemmed into the tapestry are deep and serious subjects, some bordering on darkness.
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
The story was narrated on the first-person perspective of six-year-old Scout Finch and spans three years (1933-1935) of the Great Depression. With a young child at the fore, the story surprisingly took a deep dive into dark and heavy subjects, the primary ones of which are rape in connection with racial inequalities. As a deep South novel, I guess it was imperative for it to touch base with racism and racial inequality. Nearly every novel set in the Deep South I have read depicts these subjects, regardless of the time frame.
The novel was doused with a very local flavor. A charming aspect of the novel is its depiction of Southern living, both its warmth and its horrors. Jem and Scout’s keen observation and intricate descriptions of their neighbors is a resplendent experience. Another part of Southern life portrayed is how nearly every action of individuals is attributed to their family background and genealogy, something which I can relate to because it is also rampant where I came from. I guess this is similar in small town settings. Moreover, both social class and race greatly shaped Southern society, and it can be gleaned in most significant event in the story.
Although it had local flavor, To Kill a Mockingbird was packed with themes that appeal universally, especially its take on racism and social injustice. The narrative shone brightly when it depicted how the primary characters come to grips with these dark realities. It is these elements that opened the Finch children’s eye, essentially making them lose their innocence at such young ages. This is also referenced in the novel’s title alone. One must not kill mockingbirds because they are harmless creatures, only providing pleasure with melodies.
“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
These experiences Jem and Scout have gained molded them and taught them to experience more mature and complex emotions such as compassion, bravery and courage. It is part of their growing-up process that played significant roles in their maturity. The novel, after all, is a microcosm for the study of human behavior. The human behavior aspect of the novel was perfectly obscured in small but critical events such as how the mob behaved during the case hearing, and how other people’s view of the Finches changed when they learned that Atticus was the defendant’s lawyer.
Apart from maturity and growth, another key subject in the novel is gender roles. Through these experiences as a young child, Scout is being schooled on what it means to be a female, especially in a Southern setting. Her growth and development into becoming a feminist was aided by the company of Calpurnia and Miss Maudie, two strong-willed independent women. Their strong feminine presence also balanced the story’s masculine influences.
Harper Lee didn’t treat Jem and Scout like children; she treated them as intelligent young adults who are slowly transitioning to a more mature role while coping with the realities of the world they are growing into. This, I believe, is one of the novel’s great attributes. Moreover, the characters were carefully thought of and developed. These aspects were further complimented by Lee’s sharp storytelling and keen observation for details. The narrative was consistent all through out and never wavered.
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but 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.” ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Personally, I was challenged by the narrative but not because of the complexities and the perplexities of the subject matters. Rather, it was because of the intimidation I felt when it hit me that what I was reading was no ordinary read. But when I started loosening up, I begun appreciating the novel, its nuances and its profoundness, the way it was ingeniously riddled with local flavors yet reeks of universal appeal which combine to make up a wonderful story and novel.
To say that To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece is an understatement. It is a synergy of well-thought of plot and themes, and well-developed characters. It is a timeless classic that shows the influence of one’s environment in one’s growth and development. It deserves all the accolades that it got, most especially that Pulitzer Prize nod. It is not your typical Southern novel and is a story that I recommend everyone to read. It is a work of fiction that you know will form part of the very fabric that makes you a reader.
Recommended for all avid literary fans, readers who like reading books about the deep American South, readers who are looking for a well-written piece.
About the Author
(Photo by Google.Com) Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama and was the youngest of four siblings.
Lee’s interest in English literature started while studying at Monroe County High School. In 1944, she graduated from high school and enrolled at Huntingon College in Montgomery. However, after one year, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa where she studied law. She also wrote for the university newspaper although she did not complete her degree. In 1948, she was sent by her father to attend a summer school in European civilization at Oxford University. A year later, she moved to New York City where she worked as an airline reservation agent while writing fiction in her spare time.
The first manuscript she submitted to a publisher was Go Set a Watchman. Due to numerous revisions suggested by her literary agent, the novel started transitioning to a different novel which readers would later come to know as To Kill a Mockingbird which was published on July 11, 1960. It was an immediate bestseller and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Post To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee took on the life of a hermit, declining several interviews and public appearances. Moreover, she hasn’t published any major works, except for a couple of essays, until 2015 when Go Set a Watchman was published.
Lee passed away on February 19, 2016.