To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that almost everyone reads at some point in their lives. Whether you’ve been forced to read it at school, or you’ve had a look because everyone’s been urging you to, most people have their own personal experience of reading Mockingbird.
The book is about Atticus Finch, who appears as an unconventional hero and role model due to his morality rather than his physical capabilities. The theme of morals is apparent throughout the whole novel, especially in relation to religion and perception of sin. Take Mrs Dubose, a recovering morphine addict: she vows that she’ll die beholden to nothing and nobody. She’s pursuing her own dream of being a free human being because she knows deep down that it’s right.
To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on that gut instinct of right and wrong, and distinguishes it from just following the law. Even the titular quote: “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” is in itself an allegory for this message. Being in itself a generic message, the idea of ‘doing what’s right’ obviously has a different meaning depending on when and where you’re reading the book. If you take 1960, when the book was written, America was in a state of ethical development as social inequality was – very – gradually being overcome. Women’s rights and black rights movements were beginning to emerge and some campaigned through violence. Would Atticus Finch condone this?
In the 1930s, when the book was set, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. This was a time when economic difficulties meant that the American Dream was receding further and further away. We could consider that Atticus Finch felt that his own dream of an equal, morally decent society was also heading in the wrong direction.
Without denying the constancy of the moral message, and the pure ingenuity of the book, it’s still open to debate whether, as with all classics, schoolchildren should be forced to read the novel and go over it page-by-page. The beauty of literature and the reason why I love it so much is that a writer must eventually relinquish the meaning of his or her book. Therefore everyone who reads it can take something out of it which no one has before. I find that a beautiful notion myself, but it seems that looking for these life lessons has become a less and less popular exercise as the years have gone by. Let it not be forgotten that a true piece of literature, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is meaningful in every period and that today, Atticus Finch’s message should be heard in the midst of all the global conflicts that we hear of on the news every night.
To think that children are suffering across the world because of a tyrannical regime or an unfair justice system is a depressing notion, and I think a modern Atticus Finch would agree. I don’t think he would be comfortable knowing that innocent lives were suffering because of inequality. Atticus would now be defending issues that Harper Lee did not consider when writing the book, such as gay and lesbian rights, because what is at the heart of his character is an acceptance of who people are. That is a moral standpoint that you can hold whoever you are or wherever you are born. Atticus Finch is not xenophobic or homophobic. He’s not racist or sexist. He’s human and he sees everyone else in the same way. Who knows? Maybe Atticus Finch would even be an animal rights supporter.
Should it be analysed, taught in schools and pulled to pieces? I can’t say, but what I will say is I’m not against anyone reading for the sake of reading. I’ve read many a book which I’ve enjoyed, put down and never thought about since. But I honestly feel that Mockingbird is a book which should be read, be it in school or in adult life (or both), without complete and utter absorption. It’s a book with so many layers of meaning that you can get so much out of it. I for one know that To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that really has changed my life and that every time I go back over it, I find something new that I assimilate into my own code of ethics. Going over it, whilst being an arduous task, was in the long run worth all the time it took, and plenty more besides.
I would really advise picking up a copy of Harper Lee’s magnificent novel and giving it a try. Because whatever happens, it will never stop being a good book, and it will never stop inspiring good people.