Review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

As with The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is a better read post high school. Either that, or I underestimated how much writing a paper can suck the joy from reading. (These reviews don’t count.) No surprise this book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: the writing is clear, clever, and intensely moving. It’s also funny, and easily readable. The humor was something I’d forgotten and why I’m eager to recommend it now. Many Pulitzer winners have a reputation for being dense or stuffy, but this isn’t.

The story centers around Scout and her brother Jem. Their father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer in the impoverished town of Maycomb, Alabama. The first third of the book recounts Scout’s difficulties in school (the teacher is horrified to find she can already read) and her summers with Jem and Dill, a boy who visits his aunt each summer. There isn’t much in the way of entertainment in Maycomb, so the trio makes do by acting out various stories, including that of their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley. When their father is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, Jem and Scout are taunted by the other children. Scout gets into recurrent fights to defend her father even though he lectures her to keep the peace. Despite the attitude of the town, the children believe their father will succeed in convincing the jury of Tom’s obvious innocence. After all, Atticus is well spoken, and he’s right.

Scout steals the show. She’s bright, funny, and relatable. When her father explains to her the right course of action, she absorbs his lessons, but without these scenes becoming noxiously saccharine. Her most endearing attribute is her hyperbolic way of narrating which adds humor and mimics the way kids seem to think everything is super important. It probably goes without saying, but Jem is not actually near death in the following passage:

Atticus picked up the Mobile Press and sat down in the rocking chair Jem had vacated. For the life of me, I did not understand how he could sit there in cold blood and read a newspaper when his only son stood an excellent chance of being murdered with a Confederate Army relic. Of course Jem antagonized me sometimes until I could kill him, but when it came down to it he was all I had. Atticus did not seem to realize this, or if he did he didn’t care.
I hated him for that, but when you are in trouble you become easily tired: soon I was hiding in his lap and his arms were around me. (104)

The book is great, for all the reasons listed above, but the characters are a little flat. Scout is more nuanced since everything happens through her eyes, but Atticus is straight-up exceptional. Actual lawyers credit him, a fictional character, with bringing honor and respect to the legal profession. He’s the moral center of the book and half of what he says could be stitched onto a pillow. But he’s too perfect. When eight-year-old Scout expresses the perfectly normal sentiment of embarrassment around him (he’s old and bookish), Lee buffs up his image. God forbid someone say, “Atticus was pretty swell, but he embarrassed his kids.” So right when Scout worries her dad’s a dork, a rabid dog (confusingly named Tim Johnson) comes down the street:

Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street. In the silence, I heard them crack. Atticus rubbed his eyes and chin; we saw him blink hard. . . .
With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder.
The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk in a brown-and-white heap. He didn’t know what hit him. (96)

You know those make-over movies where the main chick has glasses and a frizzy ponytail, but tears off the glasses and shakes out her hair to become hott? This is the male version of that. When Atticus rips off his glasses and takes up the gun, he is transformed into a bad@$$. Not only do his glasses crack on the ground, but when he picks up the frames he “[grinds] the broken lenses to powder under his heel.” Needless to say, Scout isn’t embarrassed by him anymore.

I’ve been trying to sort out whether the comparative flatness of Scout’s supporting cast actually takes away from the book, but I can’t help feeling that everyone really should read this book anyway. It’s miraculous. I’ve even come up with a workable theory on why Atticus might need to be “perfect,” but it involves the end of the book so I can’t write it here. See, I won’t post a spoiler even if it has the side-effect of making me look like a brilliant literary theorist. It’s a good theory too. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Overall: 4.9 (out of 5.0) Everyone should reread this book. It’s so wonderful not having to write a paper that uses “Bildungsroman” as a key word in its thesis statement.

4 thoughts on “Review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee”

  1. I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and only read it for the first time the other day but I loved it. I really enjoyed Scout’s naïve account of events. Looking forward to reading Go Set a Watchman. Would like to hear your theory on why Atticus needs to be perfect…

    1. TKAM is great summer reading.

      I think Atticus is likely perfect because he’s seen through Scout’s innocent/childish eyes. She trusts him to always save the day and so she portrays him as such. This allows the reader (if the current fuss over Watchmen is any indication) to idolize Atticus in the same way and really sink into Scout’s perception of Macomb.

      One of the reasons the ending is such a gut punch is because the reader, in spite of what they know about Macomb and folks’ opinions at the time, buys into the Atticus mythology and thinks that maybe, just maybe, he will be able to save Tom. If you see TKAM as a loss-of-innocence/coming-of-age book, this is the moment when Scout (and Jem) witness the unfairness and cruelty of Macomb’s racism: if the perfect lawyer can’t defend an obviously innocent man from the allegations of the shadiest family in town… there’s no question about why Tom was really convicted.

      I may have oversold my theory when I said it made me a “brilliant literary theorist”. Remember, I’ve been out of school for a while. 😛

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. That’s a really interesting way to look at it. It makes sense that Scout would idolise her father and that the reader would naturally feel the same way as we’re seeing things from Scout’s perspective. I wouldn’t throw the “brilliant literary theorist” title away just yet 🙂

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