It was 1935 and there was entertainment on the radio, there was no TV and the kids could play outside unsupervised. And a black man was accused of raping a white woman.
“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
It’s been a few years since I’ve purchased this book and planned to read it. I kept on moving my finger past it when browsing for books in my bookcase. I decided to give it a go and for the first half, it went dreadfully slow. I had seen the movie and knew what the plot was about but it felt like the book was written about something else entirely. It was about racism in America in the inter-war period but it was also about faith, being human, being innocent and what it means to raise a child right!
I can’t explain why I loved this book so much (especially the second half) but I can give you a few pointers. Atticus Finch is a righteous man. He is raising his two children with the help of his maid Calpurnia (a matronly black woman) and his upper-class well-mannered sister. The children are going through changes – from the start of school for Scout and Jem going through puberty and being excited about his new chest hair and the world is changing all around them.
When Atticus gets appointed by the judge to defend a black man charged with the rape and beating of a young white woman, their world and beliefs are put to trial.
It’s a dirty lesson about the failure of the justice system and
Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”
The good bits
What I learned from the book were a few bits of advice that wise Atticus bore down to his children and a few bits of wisdom that the children saw in their innocence and questioned – thus showing the injustice of the world around.
- There is an accent put on education and school throughout the book. Scout does not like school because the teacher does not like her reading. Her father taught her to read at home and the school tries to hammer down everyone until they are all at the same level and shows the first failure of the government system.
- The children take reading for granted and are amazed when they go to the black service on Sunday to find out that only a few people read and in order to sing the religious hymns, the people would have to repeat line by line a song after one person read it.
- “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Often we don’t appreciate something until it’s gone or until we are close to losing it. Scout demonstrates this by referring to breathing because it is something we take for granted, yet if we could no longer breathe we would certainly miss it.
- “Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in.” – there is a growing lesson in manners for Scout. Both from her aunt who wants to transform the tomboyish girl into a proper lady but also from her father who wants to instil the correct values and morals from a young age. Calpurnia is also one to teach Scout good manners, especially after she loudly asks a guest about his eating habits.
- “There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,” she whispered fiercely, “but you ain’t called on to contradict ’em at the table when they don’t. That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?”
- Cal’s moral lesson here is to respect people’s differences, even if you think you’re better than them. And acting like you’re better than other people is the surest way to show that you’re not. This interaction is an early blow against the stereotype that white people have morals but African-Americans don’t—and Cal follows it up with a loving “blow” of her own. There’s nothing like a smack to make a lesson hit home, right?
- “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.” Atticus is pretty much teaching his kids that everyone is entitled to an opinion, be it one that’s incorrect or clashing with their own. Respecting other’s opinions is a part of life and Scout and Jem will definitely have their ears open to what people are saying – especially since they started calling their dad a n***er-lover. (yep, the book is about racism so there are a few slurs lying around
- “Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
- “You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.” – By telling Scout to fight with her head, Atticus is advocating the principle of debate and solving things in the free marketplace of ideas, rather than resorting to the principle of “might is right” (ie using physical force or violence). He is also trying to teach Scout to control her temper and not let others get the better of her by making her angry. Scout eventually learns to follow Atticus’ advice. For example, she later disperses the lynch mob outside the jail just through talking to them.
I loved the book, I loved the title and made me think how well everything fit together. Mockingbirds are symbols of innocence because they do no harm and instead sing beautifully for the enjoyment of others.
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.”
Atticus thinks it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because they hurt no one and only help people. The mockingbird symbolises Tom Robinson who generously helped people and was innocent of doing any harm to others as he’d been accused of. His death near the end of the book is the killing of a mockingbird (roll credits!)
It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”