There are few books that come as close to worldwide popularity, approval and timeless impact that To Kill a mockingbird. The novel, written in 1960 by Harper Lee is considered a classic, with a few saying it is the best American literature has to offer, along with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The author claims that the book is based on her observations of society as a child, as well as a certain event that occurred in her hometown in her early years.
The most striking points about this book is Atticus Finch, the epitome of a moral hero that readers can strive towards, along with the role his daughter plays in the book. Jean Finch, referred to as Scout throughout the book is the narrator of the story, and the entire plot is looked at through her perspective, that of a six-year-old girl.
This is one of the reasons this book has such a far-reaching influence, harrowing issues like race inequality and crimes like rape are looked at through the eyes of an innocent child, along with her inferences and confused emotions about the environment she lives in. It is this innocence that on several occasions can move the reader to tears, that even in the most painful circumstances, the innocence of a child can shine through, and on some instances shame people into doing the right thing.
The story follows the life of Scout and her brother Jem, in Maycomb Alabama, and their views on the society they love in. Their father is a respected lawyer, and undoubtedly a just man, in an unjust time.
The main plot of the story is the timeline of Atticus Finch being delegated to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. This woman, Mayella Ewell comes from a poor family living in abject squalor, with a drunken father who regularly beats his children.
Mr Finch takes the case on despite knowing the poor odds of his success, he stands firm against public criticism about his defending a colored man, and vows to do the best he can to acquit him.
On one instance, he is willing to stand up to a mob of drunk men intent on lynching Tom, and puts his own life on the line for the ideals he believes in. This is why Mr Finch can be considered a yardstick to measure oneself with, an ideal to strive towards in terms of being upright, moral and decent.
This is probably why he was adjudged the best movie hero of the 20th Century, beating the likes of Indiana Jones and James Bond.
The movie is iconic in its own right, being selected for several archives around the world, and displaying a marvelous bit of acting by Gregory Peck. His performance is part of the reason Atticus Finch is also held up to be the benchmark for moral integrity that lawyers should strive towards around the world. This is why the movie is shown to many law students around the world.
His cross-examination of Mayella Ewell is brilliant, to say the least, proving without doubt that Tom Robinson is in fact innocent.
But alas, the times are cruel. Solely on the basis of his skin tone, Tom Robinson is found guilty by an all-white jury, reflecting the disgusting prejudices existing at the time. The main reason being, under prosecution, he lets slip that he felt sorry for the deplorable conditions Mayella lived in.
How dare he?
How dare he, a black man, entertain the thought of feeling sympathy for a white woman, no matter her poor standing in society?
It speaks of him trying to rise about his subhuman station, an ambition that must be put down without remorse, even if it means sending an innocent man to prison.
The conviction that follows proves too much, and he is shot dead while trying to escape. Atticus Finch here begins to question all that he has done so far, and for a while gives up on the institution he believes in. The reader too gives up, but a small glimmer of hope appears at the end of the story. Mayella’s father attempts to attack Scout and Jem when they are heading back home, and is killed in the fumble that follows. Finch wants to follow the due process of the law, but the Sheriff wants to avoid this.
It is because the Sheriff wants to thank Atticus for his service to the community in the Tom Robinson case, and what he believed in, despite the community not seeing it the same way as he did. It reflects the grudging admiration, tinged with shame that many of the townspeople undoubtedly felt about the conviction.
And so we think, just maybe, there lies a glimmer of hope at the end of any sad story.
This is one storyline where I would advise everyone to read the book before watching the movie because the essence of the impact of this story lies in the innocence of Scout in these particular circumstances, which the book succeeds in putting across better. It is easier to picture the situation through her eyes when one is reading the text off the pages, rather than in the movie where the focus in not solely on her.
“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Opinions differ about what is implied by this famous quote around the world. What do you think it means?