Harper Lee’s (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), has gained stature over the years, becoming thought of as more than merely a skillful depiction of small-town southern life during the 1930’s with a coming-of-age theme. Claudia Durst Johnson, who has published two books of analysis on To Kill a Mockingbird, suggests that the novel is universally compelling because Lee’s overall theme of “threatening boundaries” covers a wide spectrum, from law to social standing, from childhood innocence to racism.
The narrator of the book is Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, who is discussing childhood events with her adult brother, Jem, as the story begins. She then slips effortlessly into the role of the six-year-old tomboy who matures over the three years of the book’s action. In the first half of the novel, Scout and Jem, along with their childhood companion, Dill, are fascinated by their mysterious neighbor, Boo (Arthur) Radley. Because no one has seen Boo in many years, the youngsters construct a gothic stereotype of him, imagining him as huge and ugly, a monster who dines on raw squirrels, sports a jagged scar, and has rotten yellowing teeth and bulging eyes. They make plans to lure Boo from his “castle” (in reality the dark, shuttered Radley house), but in the course of their attempts to breach the boundaries of his life, they begin to discover the real Boo, an extremely shy man who has attempted to reach out to the children in a number of ways, and who, in the final chapters of the book, saves their lives.
The second half of the book is principally concerned with the trial of Tom Robinson, a young African American unfairly accused of raping a white woman. Racial tensions in the neighborhood explode; Scout and Jem are shocked to find that not only their peers but also adults they have known their whole lives are harshly critical of their father, Atticus, who provides the legal defense for the innocent man.
Throughout both sections of To Kill a Mockingbird Lee skillfully shows other divisions among people and how these barriers are threatened. Obviously, it is not a matter of race alone that sets societal patterns in their provincial Alabama town. For example, when Atticus’s sister, Alexandria, visits the family, she makes it clear that she is displeased by Scout’s tomboyish appearance, since she feels a future “southern belle” should be interested in more ladylike clothing and more feminine behavior. Furthermore, as Jem tells Scout later, there is a strict caste system in Maycomb, with each group threatened by any possible abridgements of the social order. As Jem suggests, there are the “old” families—the gentry, who are usually educated, frequently professional, but, given the era, often cash-poor. On the next level down are the “poor but proud” people, such as the Cunninghams. They are country folk who pay their bills with crops and adamantly refuse all charity. Beneath them is the group commonly called “poor white trash,” amply represented by Bob Ewell, “the only man ever fired by the WPA for laziness,” and his pitiful daughter Mayella, the supposed victim of the rape. At the lowest rung of the social ladder are African Americans, although many are clearly superior to some of the poor white trash, who have only their skin color as their badge of superiority. They are represented by Tom Robinson, the accused rapist, and Calpurnia, the housekeeper for the motherless Finch family.
In addition to the clearly defined social castes, there are deviants, such as Dolphus Raymond, a white man involved in a long relationship with a black woman. He pretends to be an alcoholic to “give himself an excuse with the community” for his lifestyle. There is Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, a member of the upper class who became a morphine addict, whose one desire is to overcome her habit before her death. Also featured is Miss Maudie, the friendly neighbor who seems to represent, along with Atticus, the best hope for change in the community.
Lee uses many symbols in the book, none more pervasive than the mockingbird of the title. The bird is characterized as an innocent singer who lives only to give pleasure to others. Early in the novel, when Atticus gives Jem and Scout air rifles, he makes it clear that it would be a sin to harm a mockingbird, a theme reiterated by Miss Maudie. Two of the main characters are subtly equated with the birds: Boo Radley and TomRobinson, both innocents “caged for crimes they never committed.” Atticus himself is a symbol of conscience. Unlike his sister, he is a nonconformist, an atypical southerner, a thoughtful, bookish man at odds with his environment. He constantly tells his children that they can understand other people only by walking in their shoes. He is mindful of majority opinion but asserts, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Sometimes, violent action is necessary to alter boundaries. This is foreshadowed early in the novel when Atticus finds it necessary to shoot a rabid dog. However, later, when he faces the mob from Old Sarum, who are intent on lynching Tom Robinson, he simply sits in front of the jail, ostensibly reading a newspaper. Atticus seems very calm, upset only by the appearance of the children and Jem’s refusal to take Dill and Scout home, not by the men who threaten violence. After Scout recognizes Mr. Cunningham and mentions Walter, his son, as her school friend, the group leaves. Braxton Underwood, owner of the Maycomb Tribune, leans out of his window above the office holding a double-barreled shotgun, saying, “I had you covered all the time, Atticus,” suggesting that there may well be occasions in which force is appropriate.
Tried before a jury of white men, in an echo of the 1931 Scottsboro Nine case, which convicted nine innocent black men of raping two white women, Tom Robinson is found guilty in spite of proof that he could not have committed the crime. However, even here there is a bit of hope for change to come, because the jury does not reach a quick decision, deliberating for three hours in a case involving the strongest taboo in the South, a black man sexually molesting a white woman. Tom, however, does not believe that Atticus’s legal appeals will save him, and again violence erupts when he is shot and killed while trying to escape from the prison exercise yard.
Although Lee set her novel in a very isolated locale, which she calls Maycomb, in an era when her notion of crossing racial and social boundaries does not always seem imminently attainable, the world of 1960, when To Kill a Mockingbird appeared, was radically different. The Civil Rights movement had begun: The United States Supreme Court had ruled against school segregation in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and there had been a successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955-1956, which brought activist Martin Luther King, Jr., to public attention. Finally, people who believed in the importance of applying law fairly and breaking racial boundaries (as Atticus Finch did) were being heard.
There was some criticism of the melodramatic ending of the novel, in which Bob Ewell attacks the Finch children, who are in costume returning from a school Halloween pageant. Jem’s arm is broken in the scuffle, and Scout is saved from the attacker by Boo Radley, who kills Ewell with his own knife. However, in addition to providing closure for the plot, Lee uses this ending to confirm her view of Atticus and his moral character. At first, when Sheriff Heck Tate comes to the Finch home to learn the details of the evening’s happenings, Atticus mistakenly assumes that Jem has killed Bob while defending Scout. Heck tries to reassure Atticus, saying, “Bob Ewell fell on his knife. He killed himself.” Atticus believes that the sheriff is suggesting a cover-up for Jem, which he refuses, saying, “I can’t live one way in town and another way in my home.” Finally he realizes that it was Boo Radley who had stabbed Bob with a kitchen knife, not Jem. Atticus then agrees out of kindness to the reclusive Boo to go along with the sheriff’s version of the death. When he tells Scout that Mr. Tate was right, she says, “Well, [telling the truth would] be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Most literary critics have written of To Kill a Mockingbird in glowing terms. One critic has suggested that Atticus is the symbol of the future, of the “new” South that will arise when it takes into account all human experience, discarding the old romantic notions of an isolated regionalism in favor of a wider Emersonian view of the world.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.