For all the praise and accolades directed at Harper Lee, “serious” literary types have already weighed in, calling To Kill A Mockingbird a nice little story that doesn’t belong in the great literature category; simplistic, formulaic, and too accommodating of the oppressive structures that held sway in 20th-century America, a story for high-schoolers, when students are provided with appropriate cautions.
What ought to be said is that Harper Lee composed a sublimely beautiful and terrifying novel from which everyone can learn something. What’s more, the author herself demonstrated that she was a person of character, integrity, and vision.
I’ve written about the controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman, but that never affected my esteem for Harper Lee or her iconic story. Here are themes I’ve chosen from Mockingbird that make the story so beautiful and terrifying.
Fatherhood. I once heard someone say that parents are raising adults, in the sense that parents should aspire for their children to grow up to be virtuous, rather than immature and self-centered. Not that kids shouldn’t be encouraged to be kids—we need more of that—but recognizing that, even as children, they are on their way to becoming adults. Atticus Finch depicts this type of parenting, fostering Scout and Jem’s responsible independence, teaching them how to think critically, and preparing them to make good choices, most often by his own choices and actions rather than his words. One example among many is when Atticus takes Jem, Scout, and Dill to task for pestering Boo Radley. Atticus gets the facts, is direct, doesn’t talk down to them, asks probing questions, doesn’t berate them, and makes room for humor even when disciplining them. He’s not a perfect father, but he’s a man who takes parenting seriously.
Friendship. Friendship is as important as Mockingbird’s theme of fatherhood, a prominent theme from the story’s opening chapter to the last page, encompassing the friendship of Atticus with his children; the camaraderie between Atticus and Calpurnia; the prickly but enduring friendship between Scout, Jem, and Dill—“Ain’t nobody gonna do Jem that way,” says Scout, after Atticus rebukes her for kicking one of the men in the lynch mob; and, yes, the friendship between Atticus and Tom Robinson that transcends Atticus’ code of justice and Tom’s natural suspicion. Sometimes, the friendships in the story get messy, but they persist.
Justice and mercy. How many times does Mockingbird prompt its characters and readers to ponder these intermingled themes, the Tom Robinson trial being the most prominent example, though far from the only occasion? Maycomb’s segregation, depicted most starkly in the separate sections of the courthouse for blacks and whites; the aborted lynching of Tom Robinson; the differing burdens of proof imposed on Atticus and the opposing solicitor Gilmer; the plights of Mrs. Dubose and Boo Radley. The case of Mrs. Dubose is the most perplexing—a woman who insults Atticus and what he stands for, but someone Atticus requires his children to assist so they can learn what mercy really means, behavior that surpasses feelings, and even justice.
Evil. Readers become aware of an undercurrent of evil early in the story. Some of this evil is systematic (the water everyone swims in), some is embodied in ugly words, and some is outright wickedness. Atticus merely does what he has to do, as he sees it, when Tom Robinson needs a defender and when the lynch mob attacks the courthouse. A question that goes unanswered: how does Atticus’ passive response to evil subject his own children to peril, and is it worth it? It’s left to readers to sort this out for themselves, and the sorting isn’t easy.
Mockingbird is beautiful and terrifying in elegantly combining often-disparate themes into a cohesive, meditative, and entertaining story. By most accounts, the composition of Mockingbird involved an astute editor, Harper Lee’s literary influences, personal memories and experiences, and the influences of time and place during her childhood and the 1950s, but it was she who expertly assembled all of the pieces and saw the project through.
In addition to capturing a keen sense of time and place, the film that was made of Mockingbird was one of the most thematically faithful films I’ve ever seen. Harper Lee was involved in the production, and she developed a longstanding friendship with Gregory Peck, who deftly captured the character and spirit of Atticus Finch. Robert Duvall, who went on to become one of America’s most accomplished actors, made his film debut as Boo Radley, and William Windom portrayed Atticus’ formidable and wily courtroom adversary. The acting was solid, including the children who portrayed Scout, Jem, and Dill. How many authors whose books were made into films had the satisfying experience Harper Lee had? This speaks as much to her character as it does to the talent that was assembled for the film.
There’s an ideological reason many don’t consider Mockingbird serious literature. Depicting fatherhood, friendship, justice, mercy, and evil as having moral components and permanent significance is at odds with the modern concept of reality, where such things are determined by biological, psychological, and cultural factors, or disorders. Thus, because Mockingbird doesn’t adhere to progressive ideological norms, the story is unserious by definition. It seems we were more liberal in the illiberal past when a broader range of ideological perspectives could be accommodated in lists of great novels.
Why Harper Lee wasn’t a prolific author is less important than who she was. She was never consumed by her art or her notoriety. In her own way, she remained the spirited, thoughtful, good-hearted Jean Louise Finch that Atticus hoped to raise. An important test of a novel is its durability. Mockingbird, set as it is in a small town within what could be called a cramped culture, is durable. We can read, enjoy, and be edified by the story no matter who we are or where we live. If that’s not the definition of a great novel, what is?
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!