To Kill a Mockingbird
‘Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.’
It is with some trepidation that I, the author of just shy of a dozen published short stories, attempt a critique of one of the great American novels. What can I possibly add to the already deafening din of praise? What new slant can I eke out from one of the most analysed books ever written? What can I write that hasn’t been written in exam halls and in high school essays across the western world? Maybe nothing, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t all be said again.
Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird centres around the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman. Defending him despite the outrage and prejudice of the town in which he lives is the lawyer Atticus Finch.
If I were to make one small criticism of Miss Lee, it would be to question the voice of the protagonist and narrator, Scout. Whilst convincing in her initial youthful, naïve attempts to deny that her father Atticus ‘defended niggers’, Scout does at times seem wise beyond her six years, engaging in monologues that explore prejudice, race, and small-town America. Then again, perhaps this is more of an indictment of my level of reasoning as a six-year-old rather than Scout’s! Overall, she is an engaging and funny narrator, allowing us to explore themes through a child’s unfettered mind.
A brilliant character in her own right, Scout also serves as a crystal-clear lens for the real icon of the book: Atticus. Shy of bombast, considered, world-weary and yet full of quiet courage, Atticus’ heroism lies in the fact that he takes on the defence of Tom Robinson whilst fully prescient of what it might cost him and his family. Atticus has the unemotional dictation of a court clerk. His world is one of argument and counter-argument, a brilliant foil for the youthful simplicity of Scout’s perspective. Caught halfway between Scout’s fiery temper and Atticus’ calm reliance upon logic is Scout’s older brother, Jem. Still imbued with the righteous indignation of youth, Jem’s childish trust that truth will out is tested as the narrative develops.
As the plot builds towards it’s crescendo, the trial of Tom, our protagonists grow up. Jem begins to be inured to childish games, becoming instead obsessed with baseball. Likewise, Scout is pressured into accepting a more stereotypically feminine role within the house. As they mature, so do the villains they face. Boo Radley, a recluse whom Scout and Jem imbue with impossibly wicked designs upon children, makes way for a darker, more indistinct antagonist. Bob Ewell, notionally the villain of the book, is dwarfed by the justice system itself and a sinister sense that although freedom for Tom is near, it is always just out with the reach of Atticus’ fingertips.
A moving conclusion to the novel featuring Scout, Jem, Boo, Bob, and an uncharacteristically conflicted Atticus makes the reader question their own prejudices and the nature of true justice. A novel to be read and reread, and one that should be present in the consciousness of every schoolchild, everywhere.
*As always, I’d be delighted to hear your own thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird. For more book reviews, see