The deeply influential and remarkably private author Harper Lee died yesterday, and readers responded with touching reflections on her life and work. Because Lee was notorious for declining interviews and closely guarding the details of her personal life, to celebrate her is to celebrate her writing. And to celebrate her writing, most critics and fans would agree, is to celebrate To Kill a Mockingbird, the only novel she’d ever published until a prequel-sequel was released last year, with dubious consent on Lee’s part.
Before the publication of Go Set a Watchman, Lee was praised by high school English teachers and other American literature lovers for her creation of Atticus Finch, a kind yet stern father who wields the book of law like a valiant weapon, all in the name of justice. So when Watchmen revealed a darker side of the character, one muddied by bigoted beliefs, readers felt bamboozled.
Even if we can’t unknow the reality of Lee’s once-laudable Atticus, there’s a lot to enjoy, and unpack, in her classic novel -- namely the gutsy, complex actions of another character who’s too-often overlooked as the book’s true heart. While we now know Atticus to be an unquestioning supporter of certain societal norms, his plucky daughter, Scout, questions everything, allowing the reader to do the same. Lee’s choice -- or rather, her editor’s -- to narrate the story from her still-congealing perspective is what gives the story its uniquely powerful shape.
Stories told from the vantage point of kids -- that is, not yet fully socialized adults -- are tricky. On one hand, they allow us to look at the world around us through curious, unfocused eyes, raising questions about traditions and judgments we’ve accepted as normal.
On the other hand, an ignorant narrator can make for a pretty straightforward plot, devoid of nuance and full of myopic observations. Anyone who read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time post-high school knows what I’m talking about. Kids are brilliant, yes, but they’re also stubborn, whiny and self-centered -- not exactly the best companions to cozy up with for 200 or so pages.
Harper Lee seems to have agreed with this, and her pesky, thoughtful young narrator is that much better for it. Scout breaks rules, wears unladylike clothes, and speaks when she’s not supposed to. It’s easy to imagine her future as a subversive performance artist, or a headstrong petitioner for women’s rights. But Lee graces her character with negative qualities, too; her stubbornness is a double-edged sword. At the book’s start she makes snap judgments about her less fortunate classmates and her insistent aunt, who’s appalled by Scout’s outfit choices.
In spite of her wiliness, Scout’s defining characteristic is her persistent desire to ask questions rather than make assumptions. Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, she’s hemmed in by the declarative demands of others; Mrs. Caroline insists that she shouldn’t read, Jem insists that she shouldn’t eat fruit found near the Radley’s place; Aunt Alexandra insists that she should act more ladylike. Sometimes, Scout rebels against these structures by forging her own path, but often, before she does so, she asks questions, hoping to understand matters for herself.
Atticus, conversely, speaks like a walking rulebook. You’ll find more periods in his lines of dialogue than question marks, indicating a steadfastness of thought. Compared with Scout, the slangy, wild child who gives the story its voice, he’s more symbolic than human -- which made him easy to valorize. His ability to speak assuredly is admirable in the eyes of 8-year-old scout -- and thus, anyone reading a book told from her perspective -- but such in-the-lines thinking doesn’t make for a dynamic character, or a character open to racial progress, either. This is especially clear now that Lee’s Watchman has pulled back the curtain on the sordid, human contradictions within him, but a close reading of the earlier book reveals that Scout might’ve been the more progressive, and therefore more admirable, character all along.
Atticus might have boldly defended Tom Robinson, but he chuckles about women not being able to serve on the jury (what a gas that’d be!). He asserts that within the walls of a courtroom, all men are equal -- but asserts also that “some people are smarter than others […] some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than other.” Some people, he seems to say, are born better, nurture over nature be damned.
While Scout internalizes some of this hierarchical thinking, she pushes back against it, too. By Atticus’s implied standards, she’s born to bake cakes rather than make money, but she would rather roll around in a junky tire than spruce herself up in a pretty dress. In reading To Kill a Mockingbird, we get to see which social standards cement, and which she’s able to leave her own mark on while the pavement’s still wet.
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