July 11, 2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of the acclaimed Harper Lee book To Kill a Mockingbird, making this the perfect time to revisit this beloved classic—especially during our current critical social and political climate.
Published in 1960 smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tackles the tragedies of racial inequality, as well as the pervasive loss of innocence that goes hand in hand with such injustices. But To Kill a Mockingbird was not the first novel to address American racism, and it certainly wasn’t the last. So what has made this work and personal libraries across the country for more than half a century?
is a bildungsroman novel—one which follows the moral development of a child’s psyche. Through this frame, which is strengthened by the semi-autobiographical nature of Lee’s work, the complex and deeply disturbing truths of racism are made accessible to both young audiences and allies outside of racially oppressed circles. The warmth and humor so vividly present in the novel serves to gently guide readers to the cliff of racial conflict, before we’re tipped into the deep end. It’s a device that makes the climax of the book feel even more severe.
Set in the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama, readers bear witness to three critical years during the mid-1930s, through the 6-year-old eyes of narrator Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. The novel’s action is split between both Scout and larger society’s perceptions of two integral characters—Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.
The first half of the novel primarily focuses on the obsessive fascination that Scout, her older brother Jem, and their neighbor Dill have with Boo Radley. kept sheltered away from the world by his father. This intense air of mystery makes Radley fodder for the town rumor mill.
As a reflection of society’s deep fear and superstition around things they struggle to understand, the truth of Radley’s history and temperament became warped, represented by tales of violence. Due to this larger rejection and abandonment, Radley serves the story in phantom-like ways. Never physically appearing until the end of the book, his presence is nonetheless felt through the entirety of the novel, with the perceived danger and otherness of him hanging like a warning pall over Maycomb.
Boo Radley wields a symbolic—and sometimes seemingly literal—invisibility in the book. Not seen by the people of Maycomb, the man behind the rumors becomes irrelevant to the glee others take in inciting fear. And though Radley himself is a white character, he seems to take on the personification of the villainization of those branded with the label of “other,” which is a highly prevalent factor in unjust race relations both today and in the past.
Conversely, the story centered around Tom Robinson tackles the issue of oppression head on. Robinson is a black man who works as a field hand before being unexpectedly accused of rape by the young (and white) Mayella Ewell. It is Scout’s father, Atticus, that stands up to represent Robinson at his trial.
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However, before the court can even pretend to try to get to the truth, the town of Maycomb decides Robinson’s guilt and sets out with the intention of lynching him. Though Atticus does his best to deescalate the situation, it’s not until Scout, Jem, and Dill arrive on the violent scene with young, naive hearts that the townspeople are forced to face their own hateful ugliness and disperse.
During the trial, Atticus reveals Mayella to be a liar, and that her father took part in a history of abuse. However, even as the town at large can agree that the Ewell family is never to be believed about anything, Tom Robinson is still convicted of the falsified rape. Atticus is optimistic about overturning the verdict, but tragedy befalls Robinson during a desperate bid at freedom. As he attempts to flee from prison, he is shot dead—despite a disability hindering a successful escape.
Tom Robinson is a tangible example of scapegoat racism, and how the lives of the falsely accused—the “innocent”—are shattered. Together, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson represent the symbolic mockingbirds of the novel. Atticus once told his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird, which their neighbor Miss Maudie clarified by adding that mockingbirds are known to be gentle things which never harm other creatures.
Another poignant statement the novel makes is the representation of the law and justice system as a racially corrupt force. This is of course , making the continued struggle frustrating and devastating.
In contrast, Atticus Finch is a character who is beloved by many readers, as he stands as the model of integrity fighting an uphill battle at any cost. While his characterization can be fairly criticized as falling under the umbrella of a “white savior,” it can’t be forgotten that allyship and a strong moral compass are integral to dismantling racism.
To Kill a Mockingbird has had a mixed reception, being both as well as lauded by the Library of Congress for being second only to the Bible in terms of books that make a difference. The novel was turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962, starring greats like Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall. It was even turned into a critically acclaimed Broadway play in 2018, and .
Going Beyond To Kill a Mockingbird
Although this novel has made huge strides in the conversations about race and the implications of tackling racism within literature, it should be remembered that this is a work written by a white woman, and told from white perspectives. And as Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Because of this, To Kill a Mockingbird is just one of the novels that should be read by allies looking to understand race-based oppression. For a more thorough education on the nuances of racial issues, readers of all ages should .
Angie Thomas’ is an exceptional modern example about the role youths play in arenas of racism, but for a more historic take on racial injustice, be sure to check out novels like by Mildred D. Taylor and by Toni Morrison.