Review: To Kill a Mockingbird


20120403 To Kill a Mockingbird

Somehow I escaped reading this essential school text, with its story of racism in 1930s American South. Living in Northern Ireland, I draw parallels with sectarianism, with its similar bigotry and prejudice.

To Kill a Mockingbird was part of a Unite Against Hate campaign event at Parliament Buildings in Northern Ireland, which I’ve written about separately.

There is one passage that directly deals with religious difference:

Miss Maudie settled her bridgework. “You know old Mr Radley was a foot-washing Baptist –”
“That’s what you are, ain’t it?” (says Scout)
My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.”

I particularly like the lesson imparted by Scout’s father Atticus, on whether he was right or wrong to take on the doomed case of Tom Robinson:

“Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“Atticus, you must be wrong…”
“How’s that?”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
“They’re certainly entitled to think that … but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to be able to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscious.”

That made me think of anti-Nazi campaigner Sophie Scholl’s exclaim, “We are your conscious!”

Indeed, after a classroom lesson on democracy, dictatorship and Hitler, Scout asked her older brother:

“[Miss Gates] went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
“Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
“Well, coming out of the court-house that night Miss Gates was … talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”

So, it’s fine to agree what you deem wrong wherever it happens, but harder to address your own moral hypocrisies.

It’s clear why To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading for all, and why it has stood the test of time for over 50 years.

[Original posting:]

Allan LEONARD is a peacebuilder. I do this through my personal and professional vocations, with learning, exploring, and reporting. My specialism is the politics of Northern Ireland, whose people and land I love and where I have made my home. I believe in the power of the arts for conflict transformation, through vision, sound, and performance. I work for a shared society and a #sharedfuture Views expressed here may not represent those of current or previous employers or associations.

  • wild turkey

    a great book. definitely the most influential one in my now totally outofdate 60s american education. (we were actually encouraged and expected to ask questions and , get this, to be highly sceptical of received wisdom and the underlying status quo)

    my son, currently in p7, read it recently and ‘got it’.

  • Dewi

    An absolute delight. Film super also. From Ms Lee on Wiki:
    “In a 2011 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lee’s close friend Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said that Lee is in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also said that Lee told him why she never wrote again: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

  • Republic of Connaught

    Brilliant book all parents should give to their kids as a birthday or Christmas present.

    Along with The Catcher in the Rye and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it was my favourite adolescent read.

  • Harry Flashman

    Adolescent sums it up correctly, something to read in your formative years and then move on.

  • wild turkey

    “something to read in your formative years and then move on.”

    move on to what? from Harper Lee to Anne Coulter, such a journey. keep on truckin Harry

  • Harry Flashman

    “move on to what?”

    Oh you know, grown up literature, written for adults rather than teenagers, that sort of thing.

  • @Harry Flashman: Your adult recommendations?

  • carl marks

    With a teenage daughter in the house and in a attempt to keep comms open thru those terrible teens I read most of what she reads (thank god i was spared twilight) and in my humble opinion a lot of it is easy the match of what passes for serious literature,
    And To Kill a Mockingbird is also in my humble opinion a truly adult book, the fact that it also speaks to children speaks wonders for it prose (if that’s the right word) and message.

  • I wasn’t aware Harper Lee was writing teen fiction. The original publication was eighty-eight weeks in the adult best-seller charts (yes: I did have to teach it, repetitively).

    Now consider why it has been seen as such a dangerous book:

  • BluesJazz

    It’s on the CCEA GCSE English Literature curriculum., with Lord of the Flies.

    Catch-22 is on the GCE Advanced curriculum, with Chaucer and James Joyce.

    Different leagues.

  • Harry Flashman

    It’s a good moral book to give to youngsters, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a youth, I picked it up again a few years back and found it facile, trite and twee.

    My opinion folks, it’s a free world, we can all enjoy our own tastes, no need for everyone to get so precious.

  • Alias

    Flannery O’Connor, a far better writer than Lee on the same theme, dismissed it as a children’s book. It is a book that came along with the right moral message at the right time but doesn’t deserve to outlast that time. The lefties like it because it indocrinates kids with an agenda, and as Jesuits and lefties know – you have to get ’em young.

  • Rory Carr

    Do remind us what the “Righties” and the evangelicals (?) use in order to indoctrinate their kids with an agenda, Alias.

    Mein Kampf perhaps, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion ? Or maybe something lighter, that old ahistorical paean to burgeoning capitalism, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, or maybe Ayn Rand’s more full-throated, The Fountainhead ?

    In any case the important thing, no doubt, is to ensure that the young ‘uns are not tainted by any sentiments of compassion or fellow feeling for other human beings that might inhibit their natural drive to riches through greed.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Do remind us what the “Righties” and the evangelicals (?) use in order to indoctrinate their kids with an agenda”

    Lord of the Flies Rory old chap, that teaches boys that without the firm authority and discipline of adults children would go feral. Mobs are not pretty and when they get out of hand calm, rational grown ups in crisp uniforms need to take control again. Salutary lessons for today’s youth I think, much more relevant than Harper Lee’s tearjerking.

    Used to be a standard text for schoolkids in my day not sure how popular it still is. I am sure in your schooldays there were hundreds of books advocating stiff upper lips, manly duty, patriotism and playing the game.

    They’re not so much in favour these days with the educational establishment.

  • Harry Flashman must have been reading a different, more simplistic version of Golding to everybody else. Try Paul Crawford’s Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down for a bit of depth. Apart from being a literary critic of some considerable distinction, Crawford is Professor of Health Humanities at Nottingham with a sideline as founder of the Madness and Literature Network. Geddit?

    There is an essential problem with “juvenile literature”: it doesn’t exist in any value-free context.

    So, just rejoice if the young-uns are reading anything. You never know, if might become a habit. They may even get to think and be opinionated.

    Biggles, anyone? — nice on militarism and wog-bashing.

    Beatrix Potter, surely she’s a safe bet? Proto-feminazi. Environmental busy-body. Had a run-in with Churchill over aircraft in the Lakes.

    Arthur Ransome? Worse than a Guardianista: married Trotsky’s private secretary.

    TH White, after all what could be nicer than The Sword in the Stone? Only in the Disney sanitised version. Try the fuller, later version in The Once and Future King. Anyway, do we want youthful minds polluted by someone into BDSM and homosexuality?

    Swift and Gulliver’s Travels? You jest: one of the most political tracts in the English Language.

    Romeo and Juliet is a constantly prescribed GCSE text: O.K.? Teenage sex and she’s only fourteen! Mercutio’s monologue (Act I, scene iv, lines 58-100) is filthy! Fithy, I tell you! Much of the text is so racy, school porn-filters block downloads. And don’t think about Midsummer Night’s Dream: it’s political allegory of an “advanced” kind.

  • andnowwhat

    Malcolm, you wouldn’t be the radio Ulster caller, Mrs White by any chance? 🙂

  • Harry Flashman

    Ah Malcolm, you do love your wee links don’t you? You seem incapable of forming your own opinions, reliant as you are on the thoughts of others.

    My analysis and interpretation of Lord of the Flies is as relevant and as valid as Crawford’s believe it or not.

    Reading is an individual experience and how one interprets what one reads is a personal thing and is not dependent on, nor handed down from on high by, tenured academics.

    Try thinking for yourself Malcolm some time, you’ll find it extraordinarily refreshing and self-empowering. I do it all the time and find it remarkably fulfilling.

  • Harry Flashman @ 3:45 pm:

    It took a small effort to learn a few basics of HTML. If you’ve got it, flaunt it (see below).

    Oddly enough, I believe in reading, even reading lit. crit. I don’t pretend to have a monopoly of opinions, nor to impose my prejudices on all-and-sundry. No good teacher of literature (and I attempted to be one) imposes views or opinions — perhaps uniquely in the school and college syllabus, the teacher of literature should be always open to challenge.

    Golding was a peculiarly complex character, and his Lord of the Flies can be read in any manner of ways. That’s why any novel, any fiction, any artwork is a personal experience.

    It is significant, surely, that some texts (Lord of the Flies is one) are studied at different stages and levels: middle-school, A-level and university. One would expect different outcomes of those studies.

    Am I helped in my re-reading of it (many years of teaching it) by recognising in it Ballantyre’s Coral Island? By wondering how it was shaped by his own psychology and experience? By having encountered Northrop Frye’s definition of the three phases of agon (Ralph’s early contest with Jack), pathos (Ralph’s fight to survive) and anagnorisis (Ralph’s realisation of his condition)? By recognising that Golding inverts, and even parodies the conventional romance? You bet. But in doing so I am reading it as an adult reading a fiction for adults. I think that makes it a better book, and the experience of reading it a more rewarding one.

    I hope in teaching any text I managed to deepen the appreciation of students: not all would “get it” to the extent I might wish, but some might, at different levels. By challenging, and being challenged, the student may transcend the appreciation of the teacher: I know — it has happened to me repeatedly. If nothing else, that interaction makes students better equipped to answer examinations, and teachers better equipped to improve next time round.

    By the way, To Kill a Mocking Bird is a seminal source for Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, itself a worthy book.

    Another “by the way”: there is/was a guy at Caltech, Virgil Griffith, who is/was researching “the Information Integration Theory of Consciousness (IITC). He produced a nice thesis on “booksthatmakeyoudumb”, relating a school’s “favourite books” with SAT-scores. To Kill a Mockingbird ranks 24th. Top-spot is Lolita.

  • carl marks

    Harry Flashman, says
    “My analysis and interpretation of Lord of the Flies is as relevant and as valid as Crawford’s believe it or not.”
    i dont believe it,

  • carl marks @ 9:31 pm:

    Well, in a way, Harry Flashman @ 3:45 pm is right.

    It just depends how open-minded one is when approaching a text.

  • carl marks

    Malcolm Redfellow
    the key word is open minded.
    But then im just one of those lefties we keep getting warned about.

  • Harry Flashman

    “i dont believe it,”

    So you would simply accept what Crawford tells you without question, because he’s obviously so much more intellectual then you Carl?

    Then you are I am afraid to say an idiot, you depend, sheeplike, on others to tell you what it is you are reading instead of thinking for yourself. You rely on your masters to tell you how to interpret what is written plainly in front of your own two eyes.

    You should give up reading books Carl and simply rely on critics to tell you what to think, you are clearly incapable of forming your own opinions.

    Just for the record anyone who bases a criticism of someone’s opinion as Malcolm does on what “everyone else” thinks (how does one determine this?) has already lost the argument.

    Not thinking for oneself and instead blindly relying on instructions from experts is a hallmark of left wingers incidentally.

    Give me rugged individualism and a healthy disrespect for authority any day.

  • wild turkey

    “Give me rugged individualism and a healthy disrespect for authority any day.”

    Flashman, I am in total agreement with that statement.

    Funnily enough, for me, To Kill a Mocking Bird was fundamental in forming and adhering to that point of view.

    The book also was a great leap forward in the development of my bullshit radar… but we’ll save that one for another time.


  • Ah, Harry! You are so disappointing, so limited, so predictable. I almost wish I were as sure of anything as you are of everything. It must be these damnable book things: they give some of us ideas, complicate our thoughts, bifurcate arguments, liberate imaginations, disturb preconceptions.

    Here’s one for you:

    “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.”
    ― Ayn Rand

    O’Brian would be proud of you. It’s Room 101 for me, alas.

    You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,’ he said almost sadly. ‘Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in the Times occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?’

    Is that really Harry Flashman’s world?

    There’s a moment, and I’ve faced it more often than I care to remember, when you’re rat-in-the-corner, all your wriggling and lying and imploring have failed, there’s nowhere to run, and your only hope is to do your damnedest and trust to luck and every dirty dodge you know.
    [Flashman and the Tiger]

    You know I only do it to annoy, because I know it teases.

    Anyway, it’s 5th April, and the new Donna Leon is out. So I’m busy this day. Byeee!

  • carl marks

    Harry Flashman
    Yes indeed literary critics are on the whole much better educated than me, there’s even a good chance that you are as well,
    You see i make no claim to be anything more than what I am, when I read a book only two things matter to me,
    !/ did i enjoy it
    2/did it say something to me.
    Mockingbird done both, not only for me but for an awful lot of other people it continue,s to make people think and change attitudes.
    I don’t think Malcolm’s argument is based on what other people think and I don’t think he lost the argument.
    I will continue to read books and make up my own mind on them but when someone much better trained and read than me, agrees with me on that book, it would be silly of me to ignore them.
    We both seem to be off the “I DONT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ART BUT IKNOW WHAT I LIKE” type when it comes to books, the difference is I know it.

  • carl marks

    By the way is there not a saying that if you argue with a fool they drag you down to their level, wonder which one of us is being dragged down ?

  • babyface finlayson

    Is it sacrilegious to criticise this book?
    I don,t know why Harry Flashman is getting such a hard time about it.
    Reading it as an adult I have to say I found it a bit preachy. And I didn’t really buy the voice of the child narrator.
    It is certainly a book that young ‘uns should read, as is ‘Lord of the Flies’, but disliking the style hardly makes one a racist fascist.
    Or even a fool.

  • Is it sacrilegious to criticise this book?

    It’s not sacrilegious, to my mind, to criticise any book. Though it’s not advisable in Saudi Arabia. If all else fails, follow the Dorothy Parker (attrib.) approach: “It is not a book to be lightly thrown aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

    I don’t know why Harry Flashman is getting such a hard time about it.

    Because Harry invites it: indeed, on occasions, he trolls for it. We lesser beings fall for it every time. The clue is in his choice of pen-name. But, in the end, it’s all a bit of fun and games.

    My gripe here is that critiquing a text isn’t a simple binary “Like/Dislike” — though that may be the bottom line (as Parker, above). It actually involves engaging the intellect, doing a bit of thinking, even following a few rules.

    Memo to self: must repost How to read fiction, perhaps to revive the reading diary.

  • babyface finlayson

    “Memo to self: must repost How to read fiction,” Please don’t.
    I know how to read fiction. I start at the beginning and proceed to the end. If I find myself critiquing the text at any point, I hit myself a slap.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think Harry’s been hanging out with the aussies too much.

  • carl marks

    I didn’t call Harry a fool, he did call me a idiot ( 5 April 2012 at 3:15 am )
    A charge I didn’t refute ( in my time I have been called worse) I just wanted to know why he was bothering to argue with a idiot, or was I making that mistake.
    Anyway i think a rugged individualist such as he claims to be can take a bit of stick.

  • babyface finlayson

    Carl marks
    I will leave Harry Flashman to defend himself. He is well able for it.

  • andnowwhat

    Carl Marks

    It gets more interesting when one conflates a remarks on this topic with those on the Trayvon Martin thread

  • Harry Flashman

    My apologies for calling you an idiot Carl, you are far from being one.

    In my defence I was using the conditional to describe your attitude which to my mind seemed to imply that if someone with a higher education than you tells you what to think of what you have read then ipso facto their interpretation must be more valid. It isn’t, your interpretation is every bit as valid as theirs, as I explained to Malc reading is subjective and not dependent, as he believes, on “what everyone else thinks”

    Everyone prior to my post, and most of my critics since, have taken the line as babyface points out that somehow any criticism of Mockingbird is sacrilegious, that we must all bow our heads in pious recognition of the inherent ‘goodness’ of the book.

    A bit closed-minded for my tastes, I like to call it as I sees it, it’s a decent book which young people should read but it’s not Holy Writ.

  • Harry Flashman

    “It gets more interesting when one conflates a remarks on this topic with those on the Trayvon Martin thread”

    Oh go on, use the “R” word, you know you’re dying to.

  • Harry Flashman

    Malcolm “Tiger” is not one of my more favourite Flashman’s, old George was running out of puff a bit by that stage, my favourite line is from “Dragon”;

    ‘ “Help me! Stop them! Help me!” And, by God, she was shouting to me.

    Well, you know what follows when a beautiful young woman, threatened by brutal enemies, turns to me in a frenzy of entreaty, hands outstretched and eyes imploring; if she’s lucky I may roar for the bobbies as I slide over the sill. ‘

    You don’t get laugh out loud moments like that from Harper Lee now do you?

  • carl marks

    No apology needed, it’s as Malcolm says a bit of craic.