By Abhishek Jha:
To Kill a Mocking Bird is set in Alabama of the 1930s. As the narrator, Scout, walks you through her neighbourhood, you slowly become aware of the characters that shape her and the narrative. In the centre is her father, a lawyer, who throughout the novel urges his children to learn to ‘climb into’ a person’s ‘skin and walk around in it‘. This dictum is soon put to test when Atticus Finch is called upon to defend a black man accused of raping a white girl. Ever since it was written, TKMB has been discussed, debated, and read over and over again. Five decades on, as we prepare for the sequel, here’s why TKMB should be read by everyone.
You tell Cecil I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin. Or, maybe, just a liberal.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book and Atticus Finch a great father, or so we have been told. But in the express use of superlatives associated with bestselling, award-winning books, we tend to forget to wait and think for ourselves. Therefore, before I urge you to read or re-read the book, I must warn you against doting on this man whom the narrator deifies.
Finch may be a liberal but he isn’t a radical. One of Scout’s schoolmates, Cecil, even asks this question, which Scout relays to her father. Finch is amused at this and replies by likening himself to to a United States Senator from Alabama on the wrong side of his ideology. His terse and light-hearted answer is uncharacteristic of him, as for the entire length of the novel (the question comes near the end) he takes great pains to explain why he does not act like everybody else in town. He is also at odds with his own ideology when he summarily dismisses the Ewells- the family of the white girl- as “trash” because they live in filthy surroundings.
Add to this his reluctance to take up the case of Tom (the accused), which he does because he is a sympathetic and dutiful man who wishes that people don’t treat black men who follow white men badly; and not because he wanted to root racism out.
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. And it has become scary since.
But one cannot blame everyone for not seeing through Atticus Finch. The afternoons in Maycomb, where the Finches live, are long, the neighbours all old and queer. And hovering over them is the ghostly Boo Radley. Among various other adventures, the Radley household and the angry, morphine-addicted Mrs. Dubose hook and hold the readers until they are inexorably pulled by the case of Tom Robbinson.
The children’s elaborately enacted games and escapades, Scout’s quarrels with her father and the housekeeper, Calpurnia, make TKMB endearing to people across all age groups. While it offers children a cathartic narrative of their predicaments, it makes adults face their prejudices and urges them to at least question their immediate surroundings.
Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak. But Scout will have it no more.
In the classic Bollywood movie Awara (The Vagabond), a judge convicts a man (whose father was a criminal) for rape without sufficient evidence, going by the dictum that criminals always beget criminals. As it turns out, it was a commonly held belief in early 20th century America too, with studies on eugenics being published in sociology and psychology textbooks. Though Atticus himself succumbs to this prejudice when he trashes the Ewells, the reader is provided plenty of amusement in this prejudice being caricatured in Aunt Alexandra, his sister. It is also here that one sees the most liberal side of Atticus. Despite being repeatedly reprimanded by his sister and despite his children being berated by their aunt, he upholds the right of his children to think for themselves. The rebellious child (or the erstwhile rebellious child) is duly served the carcass of their pontificating adults on a plate, which they can enjoy in the most “gentlemanly” or “ladylike” manner- while reading a book.
Perhaps our fore-fathers were wise. Damn them for that.
Feminists today argue against conforming to notions of femininity or masculinity. Scout’s rebellion against Cal, her aunt, and her neighbours wanting her to dress like a lady is a fine example of breaking established norms. That Atticus scorns these people when Scout confides in him is liberating. But what makes this novel a must read is its authenticity. Scout is not even a teenager, this is the 30s, and the school she goes to hardly teaches her anything. So, it is better that she sometimes succumbs to her social conditioning and gives us the picture of the real world.
Some people have more opportunity because they are born with it
TKMB is an initiation of sorts that challenges one’s prejudices. Atticus Finch will not have us believe that we should let the blacks fend for themselves. They have been oppressed over the centuries and he acknowledges that something extraordinary needs to be done to end the oppression. “Don’t fool yourselves”, he says to his children and maybe even to himself, “it’s all adding up, and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.” He knows that though white people might accommodate the black people, they aren’t going to accept them as equals. And yet is unable to take the next step of acting upon his failings. It is here that the book holds up a mirror to the modern reader and to his constant battle with himself and the world.
And if these were not enough, there is more to it. In the sequel, Go Set A Watchman, which is to release this July, an adult Scout continues to “understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood”. For people who were left tragically cringing at the turn of events towards the end of TKMB, the sequel answers the question that childhood always asks: who are we going to be and what happens next?