Author: Harper Lee
Originally Published: 1960 [This edition: 1974]
Genre: Fiction, American Literature, Drama, Coming-of-age
Let’s call this a disclaimer: The problem I face with reading a ‘famous’ or a ‘must-read’ book is that there is this silent expectation from the people who suggested I read it. It is almost as if I am obligated to like or dislike a book and deem it fantastic or horrific simply because generations of people have felt the same before me. In order to do away with any such feelings, I put the book aside and read it when it isn’t being read or discussed by other people around me. That way, I read it in peace and I read it the way I want to. End of disclaimer.
To Kill a Mockingbird was written in 1960 by Harper Lee. The events in the novel are reminiscent of Lee’s own life. It was written and published in a racially-charged time period. The novel contrasts childhood innocence against the social evils that present themselves to the children; it also explores the importance of morals and choosing to look for the good in people; and illustrates the coexistence of good and evil.
This novel is classified as bildungsroman or a coming-of-age novel as it is commonly termed. It is a genre that relates to the growing up of a character through his/her formative years, represented in a novel by exploring life’s question through a young mind. There may be elements of loss and a sense of a journey to act as an origin for the questions. This genre also explores the process of maturity and of overcoming conflicts, either internal or external. It is mostly narrated in first person from an adult perspective looking back on childhood. That almost entirely defines the novel!
Lee set the novel in the 1930s in the South of America. It was a time when African-American citizens were denied basic rights and were subjected to segregation, and discrimination. Though some of it was overcome by the time the novel was published, it wasn’t alien in its concepts. The novel wasn’t well received by all its readers and reviewers, but it has transformed into a classic of sorts over the years. On its way, it has raised questions about its relevance in today’s context.
It has been taught in American schools for more than 50 years. I believe it is probably taught because the protagonist is a child and it could have been assumed that the entire contents of the novel are suitable. Another commonly discussed intent is to teach children the ill-effects of racial discrimination, to highlight the importance of morals and to encourage compassion, love and respect. Though that is the intent, the novel touches upon these aspects in a round-about manner. Lee’s writing style leaves you with a question and space for you to answer it before the character answers it for you; the problem is that not all students can understand it that way. It has been banned a number of times for its vocabulary and old social codes and most recently for making students and parents uncomfortable, which according to Observer is “the point of the book”.
To be fair to the people feeling uncomfortable, their feelings are valid because the novel may act as a stimulus when it comes to discrimination or bullying in the present day. The concepts in the novel may be misinterpreted as being valid codes of behaviour since it is being ‘taught’ in schools whereas they would have meant to throw light on moral education and why social evils need to be done away with. The difference in the way children perceive the novel changes with how it is being taught, as well as the age at which they read it. So, if there are so many variables in an equation that everyone chooses to formulate based on their beliefs and social standing, how would you ever end up with a ‘desired’ result?
Apart from the evident concepts and issues – racial discrimination, social evils, societal codes and moral education – that the novel brings forward, there are so many thoughts stated that I can write essays on. Going through the lines I have collected from the book, I come to realise that they are such simple sentences and that they hold so much truth. Common sense seems to be dwindling these days and To Kill a Mockingbird is relevant to me in that context.
Cultivating habits, learning, having the courage to ask questions, having the courage to answer questions, building relationships, following rules, breaking rules and owning up to mistakes are my favourite aspects in the book. I know the list is long, but I couldn’t leave anything out. I truly enjoyed reading and relating to all of the above. If these could be taught along with learning to love and respect our differences as humans, it would be a wonderful text to bring to any class.
As I wrote earlier, we can probably alter thinking patterns in children, if the book is taught right. That would certainly be ideal, but when it comes to delivering a lesson, more often than not we tend to forget factoring in the children’s reception of the same. What if some concepts make total sense at your age as an adult teacher, but it makes no sense to a child between the ages of 11 to 14? You as an adult have had time to process and experience concepts over time and you plan your lesson accordingly. Scout seems equally competent and leads you to believe that children will understand what another child is saying or experiencing. The catch here is that though Scout is a child in the book, the character is being narrated by Scout who is recounting her childhood as an adult, and hence is able to make intelligible commentary.
To Kill a Mockingbird is relatable on so many levels if you strip it down to a human level. No matter what race or age a person is, there is something for everyone to think about. If I had read it in school, I would have connected to the relationship Scout and Jem share more than the relationship they share with Atticus. I would have also related to their relationship with Calpurnia and their ignorance of racial codes. Given that I read it now, it was a completely different experience than what was projected by other readers.
I don’t think I was conscious of what race meant up until the age of 18. My thoughts used to revolve around morals, self-esteem and an assortment of seemingly relevant feelings that are characteristic of that age. As I expanded my reading sphere and exposed myself to various genres and authors, it dawned on me what a mess humans have created. It still doesn’t make sense to me on some levels and it is foolishly simple in my head – we are all humans, even if we look and sound different.
At this point, I find myself wanting to recommend this book to people just to see how they perceive it and what they connected to. Another suggestion would be to read and re-read this book at different points in one’s life to be able to understand how one has changed over time. I would have liked to study this when I was younger in order to have learnt compassion, honesty and relationships.
To wrap it up, here’s a weird fact about me: I will not read a book if the cover/edition doesn’t make me feel something. I am saying this here because I had borrowed the 50th anniversary edition from my friends quite a few times and I never actually felt like reading it. I would read a few pages and forget to go back to it. A couple of years after that, this edition made its way to me thanks to my Uncle who said he had a copy of it somewhere on his shelves. I was smitten the moment he presented it to me and I couldn’t wait for A Year of Non-Fiction to end so that I could finally read it! I love the crinkly old brown pages and the fact that this edition is so close to the first editions. It’s the simplest cover I have come across and frankly states facts that ought to be stated. *sigh* I could go on and on about why and how I fall in love with books and their covers, but I’ll save that for another post.
Thank you for reading, Dreamers, and remember “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” I think we can all try to be on both sides of that equation whenever we can!
Reader. Learner. Dreamer.
I am all about the little things in life!