Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Big Read -- To Kill a Mockingbird

This month I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird as part of the Big Read. I've always loved this novel and reading it again was as enjoyable as the first time I read it years ago. There have been a number of scheduled discussions in the area and I planned to go to one on Tuesday night at one of the independent book stores, but the snow and ice kept me at home.

I've said before that I really love this novel.

I didn't grow up in a small town, but until a few years ago I used to visit a small town in southern Missouri regularly. Southern Missouri is very ... southern. It is southern in its speech patterns and attitudes. When my father first started dating my mother she took him down to visit her aunt and cousins. This was in the late fifties, about the time that Harper Lee was writing this novel, and he said they were still growing cotton in the fields, picked by field hands who were all black. He was a city boy and he said he felt as if he had stepped back in time to another world. Not a particularly good world in many ways.

As a child I remember being in the back seat of the car as we drove into town on the two lane black top, past what can only be called shanties. I never stopped to think about it at the time but they probably had no indoor plumbing and may have had no electricity. I just remember wondering why no one helped the people in them, all black people, build better houses. They were eventually torn down and publicly assisted housing was put up. But I remember it. And I remember walking from my great-aunt's house down past the courthouse to the stores in town. And playing in her yard among her azaleas. She was a lovely lady - and racist as many people in the south were racist in those days, casually racist. There was no political correctness in her (or in her sister, my grandmother). They weren't bad people but they thought that whites were superior. They really did. And although they were intelligent people, intelligent enough to know that an injustice was being done to someone like Tom Robinson, they would never have tried to change the system that perpetrated that injustice.

It isn't that I read this novel with nostalgia; it is that I feel that I know this town and these characters. They are very real to me. I find myself nodding my head as I read. The shades of gray in the novel are very real to me - there are some really good people in this world, people like Atticus, and there are some really bad people in this world, people like Mr. Ewell. But most of the world exists in shades of gray and I think this novel does a good job of showing that.

Favorite Line. My favorite line in the entire novel has always been and still is this complaint by Scout about the education system:

"I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what, I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me."

Favorite Scene. I have many favorite scenes out of this novel, but one of my favorites has always been when the children go to church with their cook/housekeeper Calpurnia. Here's my favorite portion, when the singing starts :

Zeebo rose from his pew and walked down the center aisle, stopping in front of us and facing the congregation. He was carrying a battered hymn-book. He opened it and said, "We'll sing number two seventy-three."

This was too much for me. "How're we going to sing it if there ain't any hymn-books?"

Calpurnia smiled. "Hush baby," she whispered, "you'll see in a minute."

Zeebo cleared his throat and read in a voice like the rumble of distant artillery:

"There's a land beyond the river."

MIraculously on pitch, a hundred voices sang out Zeebo's words. The last syllable, held to a husky hum, was followed by Zeebo saying,

"That we call the sweet forever."

Music again swelled around us; the last note lingered and Zeebo met it with the next line: "And we only reach that shore by faith's decree."

The congregation hesitated, Zeebo repeated the line carefully, and it was sung. At the chorus Zeebo closed the book, a signal for the congregation to proceed without his help.

On the dying notes of "Jubilee," Zeebo said "In the far off sweet forever, just beyond the shining river."

Line for line, voices followed in simple harmony until the hymn ended in a melancholy murmur.

I looked at Jem, who was looking at Zeebo from the corners of his eyes. I didn't believe it either, but we had both heard it.

Gender Roles - Ladies. This novel is always evoked as a coming of age story in a time of deep racism, but it is also a novel about the coming of age of a woman and all the limitations, both legal and social, that women had to battle early in the 20th century, especially in the south. Early in the story, when Scout doesn't want to do something that might get the children into trouble she is accused of being "a girl." The arrival of the children's Aunt Alexandra is the turning point for Scout - a Southern Lady who is intent on turning Scout into a Southern Lady. There follows a number of scenes of ladies being ladylike that have a certain historical charm to them but which, Harper Lee makes very clear, were very boring in real life. At one point, as Aunt Alexandra argues with Atticus about Scout's upbringing, Scout feels "the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary" closing in on her.

But there is a difference between being a "lady" and being a lady. When the children ask Calpurnia why she speaks ungrammatically when she is with the people in the black church, she tells Scout "It's not necessary to tell all you know. It's not ladylike." This is the true lady - someone who uses simple manners to make sure that others are not uncomfortable. And later towards the end of the story, when Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie carry on with their tea in spite of the terrible news of Tom Robinson's death, Scout picks up the cookie tray and emulates them: "After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I."

Other Gender Issues. But Scout's issues are small compared to the issues of Mayella Ewell, the alleged victim of rape. The town is outraged when a black man is alleged to have raped Mayella; but the town is indifferent (or at least willing to turn a blind eye) to the abuse Mayella receives from her own father. When Tom Robinson testifies at his trial he occasionally say things that disturb the listeners in the courtroom. But this statement does not evoke any response and is simply buried in the middle of one of his answers: "She says she never kissed a grown man before an' she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her paps do to her don't count."

The defense of Tom Robinson contains, in Atticus Finch's closing argument, the age old argument that the woman tempted the man. Not that Tom Robinson rose to the bait, but that Mayella Ewell broke a social code. Mayella broke the code that a white woman may not tempt a black man. When caught, Mayella needed to destroy the evidence - Tom. Woman as temptress however is the underlying gender depiction here.

And, of course, only men hear this temptress argument because the jury is composed of all men. Jem asks Atticus why someone like Miss Maudie is never on a jury and Atticus points out that women aren't allowed on juries.

Racism. Of course this is a novel about racism and the trial of Tom Robinson is engrossing and sad. But it is the depiction of casual racism that is, in my opinion, even more important. Those who study basic history might know that it would not be unusual for a town to try to reap its own justice on a black man accused of raping a white woman; but too often we forget the casual racism that even good people exhibit. During the trial, Dill is sickened by how the prosecutor treats Tom Robinson and Scout says "Well, Dill, after all, he's just a Negro." Aunt Alexandra thinks of Calpurnia as one of "them".

This is a novel of small steps. The mere fact that the jury took hours to come back with a guilty verdict is seen as a small step forward in the right direction. And the casual racism throughout the novel shows how far there was to go. Sometimes it is overwhelming. At one point Jem says to Scout: "Scout I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time ... it's because he wants to stay inside." But despite the bad things that happen in this novel it is a novel of hope. Atticus is constantly telling his children to try to see things from the point of view of others. At the end, when Scout stands on the Radley porch and looks down the street and literally sees the street the way Boo Radley had seen it all these years she begins to understand this lesson. And at the end Atticus tells Scout that most people are nice, once you finally see them. A true message of hope considering that there have been some not-so-nice people in the story.

Fathers. This is a novel about the importance of fathers. Mothers play very little role in this story. Scout and Jem's mother is dead. Mayella Ewell's mother is dead. Boo Radley had a living mother but the only thing we know about her is that she watered her canna lillies with dishwater. Dill has a mother but she sends him off each summer to Maycomb to stay with a relative. Even Walter Cunningham, the one child that comes home from school with Scout and Jem, is a child whose mother is not mentioned but whose father plays a role in this story.

It is the father that is key in the lives of the children. Even Dill, who has no father, spends his time making up stories about who his father is and, when his mother remarries, it is his lack of a relationship with his stepfather that incites him to run away to Maycomb. Atticus is, of course, the perfect father. He is calm, understanding, principled and knows how to pick his fights. Walter Cunningham has the father who is a shade of gray - a poor but proud farmer, prejudiced but able to evolve a bit. Mr. Cunningham is the "ordinary man" in the story. Mr. Ewell is a bad father - his children live in poverty and he abuses his daughter.

But as bad as Mr. Ewell is, Harper Lee seems to be saying that he is not as bad as Mr. Radley. Mr. Ewell neglects and abuses his children but Mayella Ewell's red geraniums are a testament to her pursuit of independence from him and there is a general feeling that Mayella Ewell will end up , if not all right, at least no worse off than she is. Mr. Radley, on the other hand, appears to have ruined Boo Radley's life, turning him into a recluse. There is, perhaps, a certain classism in Harper Lee's portrayals of these families. Perhaps we hold Mr. Radley to a higher standard than Mr. Ewell because the Ewells are "white trash" and the Radleys live on a nice street, although Harper Lee makes clear that the Radleys are not the same as their neighbors. Mr. Radley does not work and his home is not kept up. But the key difference between Mr. Radley and his neighbors and, indeed, between Mr. Radley and Mr. Ewell is that Mr. Radley is driven by religion. Mr. Ewell never tries to justify any of his actions; he acts out of his own sense of entitlement. Mr. Radley is never heard to justify his actions, in fact is seldom heard to speak, but it is the understanding of the neighbors that the Radleys are of a religious sect with strict rules that are somehow abnormal and it is this atmosphere that pervades the Radley House and in which Boo Radley is caught. It is, in fact, the comparison between Atticus and all the other fathers in the story that shows us how special Atticus is.