Make a Google search for the greatest novels ever written. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee will likely be on every page that pops up. So, when I picked up the novel, my expectations were too high. And by the time I read the last sentence, I was convinced. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best novels ever – certainly, the greatest by an American female. Here’s my review of Harper Lee’s magnum opus.
Summary of To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1961 and became an American classic within no time. In appearance, To Kill a Mockingbird is a children’s story. It’s a story of two siblings, Jean Louise, aka Scout Finch, and Jem Finch, and their little adventures with their friend Dill Harris. Scout and Jem meet Dill, a boy who’s on vacation at his aunt’s and visits them every summer.
The trio gets obsessed with the Radley mansion, a house with weird inhabitants seldom seen talking to anyone in the neighbourhood. They get specifically interested in Arthur Radley, aka Boo, the mysterious boy no one has seen in years. Jem, Scout, and Dill try various tactics to contact Boo, even though they’re monumentally scared of him and the Radley house.
Scout has a tough time at school as her teacher doesn’t like her knowing stuff levels above her current class. Atticus, her father, and Calpurnia, their house help, spend a good time teaching her important stuff like reading and writing, which not many school kids knew in Maycomb County in the 1940s.
The Tom Robinson Case
The story is narrated from Scout’s point of view, but the novel’s true protagonist, in my opinion, is Atticus Finch. Atticus is a widower doing his best to raise his children after his wife’s death, along with Calpurnia. While the children are busy with their little adventures, Atticus, an attorney by profession, is dealing with the toughest challenge of his career. And that’s saving the life of Tom Robinson, an African-American field worker accused of raping a white teenager.
Things get gloomier as the Tom Robinson case progresses, especially since most white males want the black field worker dead. Atticus, however, is determined to get his client a fair trial and is ready to stand adversity and insults from his fellow townsmen in the process.
Meanwhile, Jem and Scout glimpse the African-American side of the town, especially when Calpurnia takes them to the Blacks’ church. They’re treated with love and affection and develop a sense of camaraderie with the black community. However, the insults get uglier by the day, and the kids feel the brunt of it in school and elsewhere.
From the old Mrs. Dubose to the poor Mr. Cunningham, almost everyone in the town considers Atticus mistaken for helping a black man over a white teenager. One night, Atticus has to leave for the town prison, where armed men with chilling intentions confront him. However, the kids follow their father that night and intervene in adult matters, saving the day for Atticus and Tom.
The Trial and the Verdict
Tom’s case, a black man raping a white girl, was unprecedented in Maycomb. The rarity, combined with the hidden prejudice against African-Americans among the white country folks, turns it into a widespread sensation. Almost every adult from the town and other parts of Maycomb County marks their presence at the court. It’s like a rare open theatre, except the story and the characters are real.
Atticus, the attorney for the defence, and the prosecutor have dramatic arguments in front of a judge and a jury. Witnesses take the box, examinations and cross-examinations occur, and the defendant and the complainant are grilled. A seemingly biased jury takes the most expected decision in a matter of hours. Jem, Scout, and Dill sit among the black folks on the balcony, witnessing every act of the play. And when the judgement’s pronounced, they’re left heartbroken.
Post Tom Robinson
After the Tom Robinson fiasco, the town returns to normal as if nothing happened. While Jem finds it hard to accept reality, things move steadily for the Finchs. However, Atticus’s decision to defend a black man accused of rape makes him enemies, putting his and the children’s lives in danger. This danger becomes more evident towards the end, when the kids have to bear the brunt. To Kill a Mockingbird ends most heartwarmingly, leaving behind a barrage of societal questions to ponder on.
What Makes To Kill a Mockingbird So Great
Connecting to the World through Maycomb, Alabama
To Kill a Mockingbird explores daily life in Maycomb, Alabama. The pre-WWII era Harper Lee narrates is slow, ordinary, and remarkably simple. The story connects with audiences far and wide, giving the readers to replace characters with the ones they know. Discriminatory undertones, breakdown of the dominant civil society, and the helplessness of those struggling for a better world makes the novel universal.
Two Parallel Worlds – a Child and an Adult
While the author delivers a piercing message, the story maintains an air of thrill and excitement. Through the adventures of Scout, Jem, and Dill, the novel keeps the reader engrossed and anticipating. The kids’ side of the story is exciting and worthy on its own. But then there’s the world of Atticus, the warrior of a noble, yet losing cause. Through Atticus, Harper Lee pins the readers to the wall, forcing them to reflect on the society around us. Thus, you see the world through a Scout’s view, but live and feel through Atticus’s. A masterful move, Harper Lee!
Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Criticism of the Society
Harper Lee herself grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. So, most of what she’s noted in To Kill a Mockingbird stems from her childhood memories. The outrageous characters that irritate and enrage you while reading the novel are actually inspired by Lee’s neighbours growing up. Characters like Scout’s aunt Alexandra expose the discriminatory behaviour common in American households in the mid 1900s. Then the novel punches with heavy artillery. The Whole Tom Robinson saga is dark and brutal, but equally so is the cotton field ownership. Descendants of slaves brought from Africa still working in the cotton field. But the ‘daily wage labourer’ tag is a reminder of how the 20th century had a new name for slavery.
Simple and relatable characters
Almost every character in To Kill a Mockingbird is universal. From America to India, and Russia to England, the oppressive nature of the dominant class remains somewhat the same. Everybody knows a Tom Robinson, who was persecuted and punished for being who he was. Everybody knows the pain of witnessing an act of oppression and being helpless. Especially, Jem, from being Scout’s and Dill’s partner in crime to being broken inside following the court case, symbolises the angst inside millions who want the world to be just, but are shattered sooner or later.
Impact You Cannot Shrug
To Kill a Mockingbird is so great because it impacts the readers, surpassing social and cultural backgrounds. Scout, Jem, and Dill remain in your memory for years to come. And so will Atticus, Tom, Calpurnia, and Bob Ewell. Images of Jem and Scout visiting the Black Church, Dill running away from his new home, Atticus passionately defending human morals in the court, and Tom testifying his side in front of the jury will stay with you. No matter how much you shrug it off, these images will not leave you. Whenever you see or hear of an innocent man being penalised to satisfy the collective ego of the dominant class, you will remember Tom Robinson. To Kill a Mockingbird messes your mind and takes something away from you, like every great novel there’s even been.
Exquisite Literary Finesse
What makes a good story? For me, the novel should be easy to read for everyone, should connect with people across cultures, and have a lasting impression on the readers. To Kill a Mockingbird ticks all these boxes, and some more. Harper Lee’s writing is flawless, fluid, and palatable even for beginners. The simplicity with which she portrays societal issues in the novel is remarkable. It’s a lesson for new writers, who sometimes focus more on the process rather than the content. On the other hand, literature enthusiasts will put this classical American text right up there with Twain, Fitzgerald, Balwin, and Hemingway.
About Harper Lee
Born, raised, and died in Monroeville Alabama, Harper Lee (1926-2016) was a rare literary giant. To Kill a Mockingbird was her first novel. The only other novel she wrote was its controversial sequel, Go Get a Watchman, published a year before her death. With one novel in almost her entire life, she won the biggest accolades there are and the most widespread recognition a contemporary writer can ever get. Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for the impact her novel had on American literature and culture. To see how great a novel she wrote, read about it here and here.
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.