To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

November 1, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 1960. French title: Ne tirez pas sur l’oiseau moqueur.

book_club_2After The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird. I swear I’m not trying to read every book on the usual syllabus in American high schools. Actually, Harper Lee’s only novel is our Book Club choice for October. (Yes, I’m late with the billet but work took over last week). I have read the French translation by Isabelle Stoïanov, revised by Isabelle Hausser in 2005. She also wrote the afterword. I could probably read the original but I already had a copy in French. So be it.

A small paragraph about the well-known plot: we’re in Alabama in the 1930s. Atticus Finch raises his two children Scout and Jem on his own after his wife died. He’s an attorney in Maycomb and when a white woman accuses Tom Robinson of rape, he’s the lawyer appointed by the court. Tom Robinson is a Black man; Atticus will put himself on the side of law and examine the facts with objectivity. His involvement in the case –although involuntary—will stir strong reactions in the community and affect his family.

Lee_To_KillHarper Lee could have written an openly militant book. The novel was published in 1960, during the fight for civil rights in the Deep South. It could have become the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the 20th century. She avoids this with a child narrator. Even though Scout relates the events years after they occurred (although Atticus is still alive when she tells the story so she’s not an old lady herself), she relates them with the eyes of a child recapturing her vision of the events. In appearance, it’s not a pamphlet but we know with Candide and Persian Letters that appearances can be deceiving.

I’m not overly fond of child narrators, which is why Life Before Us is not my favorite Gary even if it’s an excellent piece of literature and if Momo’s voice is quite unique. It took me time to adjust to Scout’s voice and I was only hooked when the case actually started. Scout’s introduction to her everyday life helped understanding the cultural background of the Maycomb county, of Atticus’s unorthodox parenting and of the special relationship between Scout, Jem, their black governess Calpurnia and their neighbours.

Through Scout’s eyes, we see Maycomb as it is, without judgment. It’s her town, her life. It’s all she knows and it’s her normality. With hindsight, we see a small town prejudiced against African Americans, a deeply religious community, a county that has not totally healed from the Civil War and a town with economic difficulties. Coming along with small town life, we learn about family reputations, leaders of opinion and we realize that men of good aren’t heard if what they have to say disrupts the community’s balance. Everyone has their place and it can’t change.

Of course the trial doesn’t go well for Tom Robinson. It opens the Pandora box of feelings and opinions everybody knew but hid for the sake of living together in peace. To Kill a Mockingbird is a lesson in humanity, in human rights but it’s not seen in black-and-white terms. We see that Atticus was appointed by the judge on purpose: he knew Atticus would give Tom a fair defense. It’s the judge’s way to support Tom. There is no strong demonstration of support to Atticus’s choices but steady and strong backup in the wings. The men of good choose indirect action, refuse to resort to violence and help each other. That’s the honorable way to drive change, Harper Lee seems to say. Scout understands the undercurrents and her position reminded me of Momo’s comment is Life Before Us:

Il m’a expliqué en souriant que rien n’est blanc ou noir et que le blanc, c’est souvent le noir qui se cache et le noir, c’est parfois le blanc qui s’est fait avoir. Smiling, he explained that nothing is only black or only white and that the white is often the black in hiding and that the black is sometimes the white that has been conned.

I think that’s what Scout learnt too. Harper Lee manages to get her book out of the State-of-the-Nation box to the coming-of-age box. Scout’s perception of the world changed after these events and they were probably even more striking to the thirteen-year-old Jem. Her narration is charming, funny and candid. It alleviates the tension created by the terrible events the novel depicts.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a vivid description of life in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s. It pictures the flowers, birds and surrounding nature. We experience the stifling summer heat that slows human activities and make people sleep outside in their hammocks. We discover the various religious groups and the local customs and dishes. Harper Lee doesn’t embellish things, though. It’s a poor county and there is no space for individual achievements outside the ones the community expects from you. If you want to live differently, you need to leave. Conservatism is almost a religion in itself.

Names are also interesting. Atticus and Calpurnia are Roman names. They rang a bell and I researched them. Guess what: Atticus was Cicero’s correspondent and another Atticus was a philosopher and Calpurnia was Julius Caesar’s last wife. Harper Lee chose to name her lawyer after a philosopher and a litterateur. The Black governess has the name of a great noble Roman family. And Atticus’s sister who settles in his home as a general in a colony and appoints herself as the children’s mother figure is named…Alexandra. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

My only regret is that I would have wanted to know more about Scout’s family. Why do the children call their father Atticus and not Dad? How did the mother die? What will become of them after the events? Will Jem become a lawyer too?

I think that To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece for the same reasons as The Grapes of Wrath is one. It mixes beautifully thoughts about the society it is set in with the personal destiny of the characters. Both book raise relevant questions. Both are too complex and subtle to be enjoyed in class without the input of an excellent teacher. To grasp at 16 the desperation the Joad family had to feel or to realize what it meant for Atticus to defend Tom Robinson in this State, at that time and in such a small town, you need a middle man to put the context into perspective. To Kill a Mockingbird is also an ode to childhood, to innocent games and beliefs, to scratches on the knees, t-shirts stained with mud and imaginary worlds. Highly recommended.

PS: If you’re in high school and landed here in search of ideas for an essay about this novel, please note that I’m French and that nobody in the English speaking world knows anything about Romain Gary, except the few aficionados following this blog. Just to point out that using Momo’s wisdom will not impress your teacher.

  1. November 2, 2014 at 1:38 am

    *chuckle* I love the advice to students hoping for something they can purloin for an essay! I get them on my blog too – at the moment it’s The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda, and Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. Potiki by Patricia Grace must be on the lists in New Zealand because it gets an extraordinary number of hits for a book that’s 20+ years old, and I don’t think it’s because it’s a great choice for book groups as I so naively suggested when I blogged it! What these students don’t know is that there are so many thousand hits on those posts that every teacher setting this book must recognise my thoughts used word-for-word by now. (In fact there are a number of school libraries that include my reviews in their reading lists on their school library sites, so those teachers are definitely alert to plagiarism on the web).
    Anyway, loved this post, and yes, I do think you have written something that has not already been said. I’ve read it three or four times, and just recently listened to an audio book edition TKAM on the daily commute, but it never occurred to me (a) to blog it (same dilemma: what could I say?) or (b) to look up the origins of the names. I suspect that there is a whole back story there, as you suggest.
    *note to self* I really, really *must* read Romain Gary!!

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    • November 2, 2014 at 10:51 pm

      Wow Lisa, I’m impressed to see how “institutional” you’ve become. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. What a praise it to be on school library sites.

      I’d be interested to read your thoughts about it, especially since you’ve read it several times at, I imagine, different stages of your life.
      I really think there’s something behind the characters names. (and the black man is named Tom…) I guess the names rang a bell because of Steven Saylor’s series.

      re-“note to self” : yes, you should read Romain Gary. 🙂

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      • November 2, 2014 at 11:38 pm

        Well, I must admit that I was chuffed (transl: very pleased with myself) when I followed a link back from the innards of my blog and found out that schools were using me as a reference. I think the reason might be because of something you have alluded to: we read differently when we are older or re-reading, and the more personal style of review on blogs enables a young reader to see a different point-of-view from a reader beyond their generation and yet not an impersonal ‘academic’ kind of response. More accessible for young readers maybe.
        I’ll mull over your suggestion about doing a review of it…

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        • November 7, 2014 at 7:54 pm

          You have reasons to be chuffed! (new word for me)
          I hope you’ll find time to write a review.

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  2. November 2, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Lovely final comments…! And I agree with you: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ can be read at many levels and is perhaps slightly wasted on 14-15 year olds if they don’t have some help to analyse it sensitively/understand the background. I did read it at that age, but a lot of it probably went over my head.

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    • November 2, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Thanks Marina Sofia.

      To Kill a Mockingbird is accessible to teenagers. I’d say the “first level” is Scout telling her childhood and it’s a wonderful picture of the world she lives in. But only later in life can you grasp it better.

      It’s the same for a lot of classics. To be honest I read Madame Bovary at 15 and it’s only when I re-read it with Guy last year that I realized how scandalous the book was for the time. And I’m not sure you’re able to understand Newland’s attitude in The Age of Innocence when you’re 16. Not because you’re stupid but more because you are at an age when you still think love can overcome everything and you don’t know the power of society over individuals.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. November 2, 2014 at 10:43 am

    Great review. I’m not overly fond of child narrators either, but this is one of the few books I’ve read where it really works (for all the reasons you’ve mentioned). I first read it in my teens, but I’m quite glad we didn’t study it at school as analysing the life out of it at that age might have killed this one for me. I loved the descriptions of the setting and life in Alabama; it’s a novel with such a strong sense of place.

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    • November 2, 2014 at 11:18 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. I usually don’t like child narrators but it works in this case.

      When I was 14 or 15, we studied Elise ou la vraie vie by Claire Etcherelli. It tells the relationship between Elise, a French woman and Arezki, an emigrant from Algeria. It is set in Paris, in 1962, during the war of independence of Algeria. When I read it, I understood that their relationship was frowned upon in a Romeo & Juliet kind of way. I also learnt things about this dirty war. But I didn’t measure up how Elise was crossing a line by being involved with this man or how crushing society could be for people who don’t follow the rules.

      To Kill a Mockingbird is similar. I’m not sure that at a young age, you realise how brave Atticus is and what risks he’s taking.

      The afterword by Ms Hausser was excellent, pinpointing details in the novels that show that To Kill a Mockingbird is a key book to understand the roots of the Deep South or part of the American culture. That’s one of the advantage of reading the book in translation.

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  4. November 2, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! I loved your postscript 🙂 I want to read Romain Gary’s ‘Life Before Us’ sometime. It is interesting to know that Atticus and Calpurnia are named after Roman personalities. Have you watched the movie version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’? It is wonderful too, but focuses mostly on the case. If you haven’t watched it, I hope you do sometime. I think you will like it.

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    • November 2, 2014 at 11:19 pm

      Thanks Vishy. The postscript was a little joke; we all have times when certain classics have an unusual number of hits. 🙂
      I haven’t seen the film. I should see if it’s available at the public library.

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  5. November 2, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    I also really enjoyed the postscript 😉 And I remember loving To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it many years ago (my Dad gave it to me when I was about 15 I think). Maybe one day I should read it again. Surely there are many aspects to it that I missed at 15.

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    • November 2, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      Thanks, I see the postscript has its appeal.
      I think it’s worth a re-read if you have time, just like re-reading Madame Bovary was worth every minute I spent with the book. It’s multilayered and I’m sure Lisa found different things each time she read it.

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  6. November 2, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    You know I’m not fond of child narrators already. Are you tempted to watch the film?

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    • November 2, 2014 at 11:23 pm

      Yes, I know. That’s why you have White Dog and not Life Before Us. 🙂
      Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird?

      I’d like to watch the movie, if I can find it without buying the DVD.

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      • November 3, 2014 at 12:23 am

        No I haven’t read it, but I read (strangely enough) a wonderful bio about Harper Lee and the writing of the book. I didn’t go to school in America (only university) so this book was never on the agenda.

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        • November 7, 2014 at 7:55 pm

          I remember you telling me about Capote claiming he wrote parts of the book. (and was never able to prove it.)

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          • November 9, 2014 at 7:49 pm

            The bio puts any doubt about who authored To Kill a Mockingbird to rest. Harper Lee was ‘under the wing’ of a couple who encouraged her and who saw the various drafts.
            Harper Lee and Capote grew up together. They were neighbours.

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            • November 9, 2014 at 7:55 pm

              Don’t you think it’s petty from him? Like he was try to steal her thunder.

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  7. November 2, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Great commentary on this novel Emma.

    This one of my favorite books. It was never assigned to me in high school. Go figure.

    You make a good point about how the text avoids militarism . I think that in American society at this time, so good people fighting for justice many were making a choice between a moderate, pacifist resistance to evil and more militant choice.

    I too wonder who the family calls Atticus by his first name. I bet a few folks have ideas on this.

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    • November 2, 2014 at 11:28 pm

      Thanks Brian.

      So far nobody in the comment section has read it in high school.

      There’s an interesting passage about the fight for civil rights and the choice of pacifism vs militarism in White Dog by Romain Gary. The chapter on the death of Martin Luther King is moving.

      The children calling their father by his first name shows that Atticus was unconventional in his relationship with his children.

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  8. November 4, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    The French title doesn’t quite get the poetry of the American one (a French friend once referred to this book in English as “Don’t Kill the Bird”), but I’m glad the novel itself apparently translated well for you. It holds a unique place in modern American literature, I think. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it’s assigned all that often in high school. However, it’s certainly known by those high school students who like to read, among whom (at least in my experience) it gets passed along by word of mouth. And like many if not most of those students, I was bowled over by the book, which remains a favorite. The narrative voice is so memorable, not a child narrator so much as an adult narrating from a time when she has come to have a grasp on the events of her childhood and an ability to articulate them with an adult’s understanding. And yes, the film adaptation is excellent, well worth seeking out.

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    • November 7, 2014 at 8:04 pm

      Hi Scott,

      It’s nice to have you back. I hope your holidays were great.

      Thankfully, there’s an explanation about the English title in the afterword in my copy. It was very helpful.
      I don’t know why they changed the title like this in French. “Don’t shoot the mockingbird” doesn’t have the same meaning. Probably because it’s an incomplete sentence if translated literally, just as it is in English. But in English, you know the unsaid part of the sentence.
      Perhaps it would have been better to choose something totally different.

      So nobody’s read it in high school. Where did I pick that idea that it was on mandatory reading lists?
      Scout’s voice is really memorable. You’re right, she doesn’t sound totally like a child. I wonder how old she is when she relates this. Her tone is not the tone of a eight/nine year old and yet, she doesn’t sound like an old lady relating a story of her past to her grand-children. She has more maturity than a eight-year old and yet it doesn’t feel like she’s much advanced in age when she speaks.

      I really need to find the film. Christmas soon: one DVD idea for the wish list I know my family will ask!

      Like

  9. November 11, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    I’ve seen this performed as a play, and very well performed too, and I’ve seen the great film. Between those two I doubt I’ll now read the book, though I’m not surprised to hear it’s good – it would be hard to make a good play and film from a bad book (though probably not impossible).

    What made you pick this one?

    Isn’t Scout looking back? I thought the book was her recollecting incidents from when she was younger, which might explain the mixed tone.

    Like

    • November 11, 2014 at 8:38 pm

      The trial is good material for a play. I think it’s worth reading the book, though. It’s rather long which means that lots of things must have been left out in the film and in the play.
      Apart from the plot with the trial, one of the best things of the novel is the atmosphere and how well Harper Lee recreates Alabama in these years. The picture is whole with traditions, culture, food, smells, fauna. You have the impression to be there with her.

      Yes, Scout looks back. But we don’t know how old she is when she does. She’s older but I felt she wasn’t that old.

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      • November 12, 2014 at 11:51 am

        I always thought it was just a few years later too. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I read this as a kid, I seem to recall a lot about the voice.

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  1. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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