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Monday, December 06, 2021

Rereading To Kill a Mockingbird after the Charleston killings

Whether or not the new Harper Lee novel disappoints, it is impossible to forget what her first novel meant to millions of readers. Author Parvati Sharma turns its pages again to find old friends, new meanings and questions for a more troubled time.

Written by Parvati Sharma | New Delhi |
Updated: July 12, 2015 10:56:46 am
mocking-bird-main Nelle Harper Lee (Source: C R Sasikumar)

To Kill a Mockingbird, widely acknowledged as America’s most popular indictment of racism, is finally getting a sequel; and, because history loves coincidence, Go Set a Watchman releases within weeks of the Charleston killings that recently marked another brutal decline in America’s plummeting race-relations.

When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was 14, and I had only the dimmest idea of American history and politics. It’s some indication of how deeply Harper Lee shaped my understanding of both that I conflated my few hard facts with her far more resonant fiction — and for years, I couldn’t watch the movie version because a clean-shaven Gregory Peck just didn’t match my idea of Atticus. In my head, the honourable Finch was bearded, rather suspiciously like Abraham Lincoln.

A still from the 1962 movie adaptation of the novel, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson A still from the 1962 movie adaptation of the novel, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson

So I ventured to the Deep South, to “hot biscuits” and “crackling bread”, the red earth of Maycomb, the “smell of clean Negro”, and ladies “like soft teacakes with frosting of sweat and sweet talcum” — and it all seemed like it was happening next door, because I was being led along by one of the world’s most congenial characters, Scout Finch.

Some people prefer Atticus; I’m not of that camp. Scout, scrappy, precocious, is more than a character, she is a voice, and re-reading the book as an adult, you’re likely to admire the fine sleight of hand by which Lee makes this happen. Everyone agrees Scout’s vocabulary is too adult for a six-year-old, but when you look closely, you see it’s not one Scout telling the story, but two. The second Scout is grown-up, and can be detached and ironic about, say, poor Miss Caroline’s attempts to prescribe learning (“Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘We don’t write in first grade, we print’”). The child Scout loses her temper, picks a fight, and declares she’ll never go to school again.

It’s a neat trick, which not only creates richer perspective for all that happens in the book, but has the overall effect, on young readers, of an adult talking to you without putting on their special voice. It frees you up, to think, and feel, and react.

mocking-bird-3 Harper Lee

And react I did. I read To Kill a Mockingbird lying on the sofa, after school, with my headphones on, listening to the saccharine ballads of Boyz II Men. When I got to the trial, when the prosecuting lawyer calls Tom Robinson “boy” and makes Dill cry, when the jury won’t look at Tom as they return and Scout knows something’s wrong, when they stab Guilty, Guilty, Guilty into Jem’s bony shoulders — the mingling of grand tragedy before my eyes and sentimental falsetto in my ears proved too much, and I wept.

You know how it is. I hope you do: when a bit of story, a bit of music, a bit of art — something entirely outside of you, something strange and foreign — reaches deeply to your gut and pulls out the heaving, uncontrollable, what’s-wrong-with-me-stop-it. And you are changed.

Re-reading the book last week, almost a quarter-century later, I was certain I’d love it still; you always do love the books you read as a child, no matter how much you grow apart or race ahead. These are books that precede analysis — turns out Kipling was racist, bad-Kipling, but I read the Jungle Book for pleasure at 10, and now that’s the only way I know how to read them.

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Lee is locked in loving memory for another reason, too. She’s virtually internet-proof. She’s reclusive, so there’s hardly anything written about her, and people tend not to write long essays on her book (Wikipedia quotes an estimate of one analytical essay per million copies sold). Researching now, I unearthed maybe one startling fact. Remember when Jem makes a snowman and Scout overhears Miss Maudie call it “an absolute morphodite”? At 14, I had no idea what a morphodite was; I lowered myself to the extent of looking it up in a dictionary. Nothing. Then, last week, I googled it, and ta-da! “Morphodite” is Scout’s mishearing of “hermaphrodite”. So now I get it: never discount the internet.

Anyway, I was prepared to love Scout, hate Bob Ewell, be entirely mystified by Boo Radley. And I did, I was. But I was also strangely irritated. Not by gossipy Miss Stephanie Crawford, for whose scandal-mongering self I developed quite a fondness, actually. Not even by the one thing that did bother me at 14: how towards the end, Atticus explains to his children why juries comprise only men, and Scout’s fighting her way through an argument when Atticus grins, “I doubt we’d ever get a complete case tried — the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions”. Scout then imagines the irascible Mrs Dubose heckling judges and concedes, “Perhaps our forefathers were wise.”
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To me, this was a sure and ominous sign: Scout was going the way of all my favourite heroines. O Elizabeth Bennet, planted into that silly country estate, why couldn’t you go found a literary salon in some bohemian quarter of London? Darcy would visit, he’d be foremost amongst your admirers, but you’d be too busy slaying them with your wit to even notice, until you were old and he was left, and then, maybe, you’d let him move in. Jo March, Jo March, why couldn’t you learn how to smoke, write the great American novel, then die of drink in your thirties? But they couldn’t. There was obviously some law, and Scout would soon like dresses and boys, and… sigh.

I read things a little differently, this time. Notice how the book’s full of single women going bossily about their business? Miss Stephanie, Miss Maudie, Miss Rachel — that’s three out of the Finch’s five closest neighbours. If you count the widowed Mrs Dubose, that’s four. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s stiff-backed sister, she’s married, sure, but Scout soon realises that her Uncle Jimmy, whether present or absent, “made not much difference”.

What does it all mean? I’m betting at least this: Scout’s not married in the sequel.

So what irritated me? That very trial I wept through at 14. Admittedly, I was teary-eyed this time, too, but I was also bugged. I was bugged by Tom Robinson, I was bugged by the black audience standing when Atticus passes by, and I was bugged by Atticus himself.

But you cannot fault him. Atticus’s speech to the jury is among the most truthful, moving appeals for justice ever written. So it’s not him, it’s Lee. Because, come on: why must every single black person in this book be a saint? Why must their houses be “neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys”? You almost expect Snow White to come chirruping out. Why must Tom Robinson be kind and handsome, beloved husband, responsible father and crippled before he’s considered worthy of innocence?

Of course, Lee doesn’t say this explicitly, but read with the slightest tilt of perspective, and you know she baulked at the idea of having a tippling, gambling black man, even a faintly unpleasant black man, be falsely accused by white people. And this refusal, such framing, is almost as harmful as the inequality it seeks to expose.

Back in Charleston, the white man who killed nine black men and women told his victims, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” His name is Dylann Roof, and you could use the very words Scout uses for Bob Ewell to describe him: “All… that made him better than his nearest neighbours was that… his skin was white”.

Little has changed since those lines were written. Ewell and Roof — both terrified by the idea of black blood co-mingling with white, of the one thing that makes them feel superior, their pasty complexions, getting pigmented away — strut about viciously. And their targets? Lee’s black characters and Charleston’s black citizens are noble, not angry. After the killings, Charleston’s black community publicly forgave Roof. A dissenting black voice calls this “a reflection of our need to be accepted, to prove that we are better than y’all think…” After all, you don’t see white people going around forgiving Osama, do you?

You don’t see us forgiving Ajmal Kasab; though wouldn’t it be nice if Muslims just forgot about Gujarat? Here, as much as anywhere else in the world, it is the weak who must prove themselves unsullied to their oppressors. Anyone not upper-caste Hindu must vaunt credentials (secular, liberal, nationalist, vegetarian) before citing discrimination; a woman must be virginal before alleging rape.

As Atticus says, tired and briefly bitter after Tom’s conviction, “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep”. In a more hopeful moment he might have added, it’s the tears we cry as children that transform us; only as children do we feel the profound frustration against injustice that Lee evokes so viscerally well. And perhaps, these tears will save us, as adults, from washing away our sins.

Parvati Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love and Close to Home

The story appeared in print with the headline The Mockingbird Sings Again

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