Laura Rereading: Atticus on trial

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The edition I read as a teenager.

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the (incomplete) list of upcoming books, see this post.

1. To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee (1960)

I first read this novel in 2004, when I was aged seventeen. I remember having a sense that I was already quite behind; a parallel GCSE set had studied it for English Literature, while we did Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle instead, but I had avoided reading it because it didn’t seem like my ‘thing’. I came to the novel with a sense that I ought to read it, and ought to like it, which, given my contrary teenage self (and let’s face it, I’m still like this today), made me predisposed to find fault with it. Oh, and I did. I read the novel swiftly and promptly declared to my history teacher that I ‘didn’t see what the point of it’ was, to which she responded with shock. Her reaction pleased me still further, confirming my sense of myself as avant-garde, and I didn’t pick up the novel again for more than ten years. Why didn’t I see the point of To Kill A Mockingbird? Well, as far as I can remember, I read it as a simple moralistic tale preaching that ‘racism is wrong’, and found this a point too obvious to be worth making.

***

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The (far inferior) edition that I read this year.

The first thing I should say is that I have not completely revised my opinion of To Kill A Mockingbird, although I found it a very different reading experience from the one that I remembered. Of course, my opinion of the novel was strongly coloured by the recent furore over its new prequel, Go Set A Watchman. I can’t deny that the distress surrounding the ‘revelation’ that the heroic Atticus is in fact a racist gave me a certain amount of pleasure, but it also intrigued me. Were the seeds there in the original novel, previously unperceived by most of its readers? If so, I thought, I might have misjudged Mockingbird; perhaps it was a much more complex book than my teenage self would admit.

First things first: I enjoyed reading the novel far more than I did when I was a teenager, especially the court sequences, which are genuinely gripping. Nevertheless, I found Scout’s voice, and the tone of much of the narration, rather peculiar. I feel I have to apologise for this somewhat startling comparison, but it often reminded me of the late Anne of Green Gables books, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside, which deal with the (mis)adventures of Anne’s children. There’s something about the mix of Atticus’s moral code, as he conveys it to Scout and to Jem, and the ‘scrapes’ that they get into as they dare each other to get closer to the Radley Place, that brought forth this irresistible memory. Mockingbird, of course, strays into much darker territory – although, let’s not forget that the final Anne book deals squarely with the horrors of the First World War, with one beloved character dying in the trenches and another losing an eye. Yet it retains that sense of a relatively simple moral universe, which perhaps was part of what led to my teenage declaration about the ‘point’ of the novel.

The morality of Mockingbird is centred upon Atticus Finch. God in Scout’s eyes, he tells us how we ought to interpret everything that happens. I’m going to say it – I saw nothing in Mockingbird that makes Atticus’s latter-day portrayal as a fundamentally racist man at all surprising. Although I have not yet read Watchman, so there may be other reasons for the criticisms of his characterisation of which I’m not aware, it seemed to me that Atticus not only expresses a segregationist philosophy in Mockingbird, but that it would be a serious failure on Lee’s part not to explore the racist ideas that he would inevitably have internalised. As the novel stands, her exploration of the latter issue is limited and patchy, but there’s enough here to give us the sense that Atticus’s moral compass is not truly infallible. ‘As you grow older,’ he tells Jem, ‘you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but… whenever a white man does that to a black man… that white man is trash.’ This key tenet of his philosophy, expressed several times throughout the novel, rests, however, on racist ground: ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.’

My problem with Mockingbird is not that Atticus Finch expresses racist ideas. It is – ironically, given the popular reaction to Watchman – that he is not racist enough, not as fundamentally implicated in the attitudes of his society as he should be. Although Lee’s handling of the experiences of black men and women in this small town is often subtle and nuanced, the heart of Mockingbird is ultimately quite simplistic. It is about a good white man – Atticus – trying, and failing, to save a good black man – Tom. But these men are good in different ways. Atticus has the privilege of thinking about his conscience; a favourite subject. ‘This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man… 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.’ While Atticus is obviously aware of the horrific injustice Tom is suffering, his actions are also fundamentally self-centred; he cannot live with himself if he doesn’t fully defend the case. Tom, on the other hand, is presented by Atticus in the courtroom as the white man’s vision of a perfect black man: subservient, good, hard-working and honest. Tom has no choice but to be ‘good’, because it is the only way he might survive – and even then, this is a path that leads to his violent death as he tries to escape prison. We don’t get much sense of who Tom really is, behind the ‘good’ facade, because ultimately this novel is more interested in Atticus.

So, what’s my final verdict? Mockingbird is a strong story, well-told, and consistently readable. It has a ‘point’, even if that point is only to consider race relations in the Deep South in the 1930s through the eyes of a young white girl. But I struggle to make a case for it to be much more than that, because of the dominance of Atticus, a character we are clearly meant to read as a moral exemplar, regardless of any minor flaws that he might possess. I don’t find anything especially thought-provoking in the story of a great white man doing the right thing for an oppressed minority, or in the child’s-eye view that we get from Scout. Whatever faults Watchman may possess, it at least sounds as if it explores more shades of grey.

 

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One thought on “Laura Rereading: Atticus on trial

  1. Pingback: ‘Because they could’ | Laura Tisdall

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