I'm approaching the 1/3d mark of To Kill A Mockingbird.
A few interim thoughts.
I generally know the story and saw the movie quite some time ago. So I do have a few preconceptions I'm trying to keep in check. And I'm not looking at any reviews or criticism as I read. My responses are straight from what I've read so far. I'm seeing something quite wonderful and one thing in particular that is raising some doubt.
The wonderful part so far, first 1/3d, is the portrayal of childhood in a particular setting, a small Alabama town seething right at its surface with racism, backwardness, violence and white trash. Foreboding is in the air as childhood innocence slowly recedes.
A few things occur to me as to what makes the portrayal so vividly and beautifully affecting. One is that the first person telling is framed by Jean Louise as an adult recounting her young years simultaneously from the perspective of how she took in things back then, including her thoughts and words in her own young kid words merged with her adult understanding and explanations of that understanding in her own grown up thoughts and words.
Another is how Lee so sharply delineates Jean Louise, Jem and Dill too, making them come alive in the consistent particularity of each with all their childish behaving and misbehaving and talk. What is remarkable is how Lee seems to penetrate the essence of what it means to be 6 or 7 or 12, in this place at this time as revealed in these kids' playing, their deviltry, their wonder, their incipient strengths, their weaknesses, their hard and growing education in the ways the world goes, and their experiences with others, relatives, elderly neighbours, other kids, and principally of course with Atticus.
Calling him "Atticus" rather than "Dad" or "Father" seems a perfect touch, consistent with him being an older father, 50, both righteous and slightly world weary, a little bit detached yet warm and loving too. It's amazing how without saying so Lee makes us feel the absence of a mother in Jean Louise's and Jem's lives, makes us feel what it's like for them to live only with their relatively elderly and only slightly starchy father. His kids calling him "Atticus" conveys so much of all this.
Enhancing this seeming penetration of the essence of their childhood are two things at least (among others I'm sure): one is the detailed, concrete sense of place, local colour, revealed in virtually every sentence; and what makes that revelation striking among other things is the unerring use of language to convey this sense of place, the colloquialisms, the tropes--the poetry of them, the formalities and informalities in the ways of speaking, the idioms, the manner, forms and rhythms of southern speech, all of it adding up to a particularly identifiable and believable sensibility and world, making, in short, setting resonant in language.
....Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum...
One aspect of that resonance is the mixture of high sounding elegant language with the all the informalities, the colloquialisms ungrammaticalnesses, ain'ts" for one instance, and such. I'm reminded of Huck Finn's use of the verb "commence" as in (say) "I commenced to wonderin,'" such a peculiar and resonant Southern phrasing, fusing the high sounding with the slightly ungrammatical, informal and contracted, each setting the other off to form a vividly perfect phrase. To Kill A Mockingbird is filled with these kinds of locutions.
My one seed of doubt is the portrayal of Atticus. He's, so far, so idealized and so filled with such mighty rectitude, sympathy, empathy (and all the other good thies), compassion, wisdom, patience, wry humour, strength, and all like that, with no discernible chinks in his upright, righteous armour that he's verging on caricature, on the utterly and rather unbelievably saintly. I'm not rushing to this judgment. It's but a gnawing partially formed sense that I'll keep an internal tab on.
I'm just at the point at which the repressed, imperious aunt has moved in for a spell and is trying to suppress everybody else, inflicting her life denying snobbery, classism, racism, and "manners" on our poor Finches, including Atticus who's engaged in an eternal struggle within himself in how to deal with his minor monster of a sister. The point is made by Jean Louise narrating from an adult distance how in all her imperious negation Alexandra makes for a perfect fit with Maycomb and it with her.
The argument between Atticus and Alexandra about her wanting to get rid of Calpurnia, which Atticus calmly disposes of without high emotion of any kind, not even a hint of intemperateness, add another notch to the gun-handle of his seeming saintliness.
But when he makes Jean Louise apologize after she rightly and righteously lashes out at Alexandra for piping up that she, Jean Louise, "certainly cannot visit Calpurnia at her home," paraphrase, intoning in that opinion everything that is wrong with her and the attitudes she typifies, we may be seeing the first chink in the armour of his saintliness, a too ready inclination to bow down before, or at least give in to even by merely putting up with, all that Alexandran negation.
Same touch of human failure when he comes onto Jem and Jean Louise to deliver the Alexandran directed sermon as to how these kids must understand their superior Finch lineage and live up to it, not down from it as they have been, as Alexandra sees it.
Conflicted and taken out of himself, against his own inclinations, Atticus delivers this sermon, shocking his kids into thinking their world has been turned upside down, that everything they've been taught and how they've lived are wrong and must be corrected, and shocked and made panicky and tearful at the thought that they have "lost" their father.
Thankfully, in an instant it all passes. They know they have him back as Atticus of old, back to himself, as he tells them they should forget what he just told him. Here's another rare display of something transitorily weak and indeterminate, therefore human, therefore psychologically rounded and more real, in Atticus.
I'm at the point in To Kill A Mocking Bird where it's just after Atticus has lost the rape case.
(I have no idea as to how the eventual appeal turns out. I don't remember that from the movie, or if the movie even deals with an appeal.)
One thing of interest to me was my initial sense of the possibility of an unreal saintliness in Atticus to the point of caricature. There have been things he's said and done in his ultra sage raising of his kids that have tended to drive me round the bend with his excess of wisdom and goodliness.
But his losing the trial and his marked world weariness after it are quite humanizing as is too his quietly competent trying of Tom Robinson's defence. No Perry Mason, no flashing legal brilliance, no legal miracles, just, rather, a hard working, diligent, undramatically effective, committed, conscientious and totally human defence counsel facing impossibly long cultural odds.
Pretty good that.
4th and last
I finished To Kill A Mockingbird.
I weighed my judgment of Atticus as I read it.
So here's a (probably idiosyncratic) morally based take on the novel as a matter of my first raw impression of it. This note is purposely unaided by reading any secondary material, be it reviews or more formal literary criticism.
If anyone has the patience or interest to read all this, I'd love to discuss it and be shown where I'm misreading and not seeing things right.
At times I found Atticus's tendency to saintliness insufferable and not to be believed. At other times, in his failures, his world weariness, in his occasional weaknesses in (say) bowing to Alexandra, in his age showing more, in his tender love for his children, doing the best he can to raise them as a single parent, I liked him and believed in him as a formed and rounded character with strong and admirable values in word and in deed.
So I had, as I went along, mixed and opposed feelings about him. But two final things tipped the balance thumbs down, aesthetically and substantively.
The two things are: Atticus's telling Jean-Louise, paraphrase, "No, in not hating anyone, I don't hate Hitler;" and secondly, his insistence at novel's end that Jem face the legal music, even if sure to be exonerated, for stabbing Bob Ewell to his death, when Atticus thought that was what happened.
Atticus not hating Hitler is consistent with his preachment to his kids not to hate anyone, to walk in their shoes before judging others, to try to see matters as they might before judging them. The problem is that Hitler exemplifies a limit to that preachment, that it is inhuman and unbelievable that this preachment doesn't hit a wall in the instance of a Hitler.
The novel makes clear that it's not insufficient knowledge, as in "We simply don't know enough to judge," that inhibits hatred. For Jean Louise's teacher has made it known to her what Hitler is doing to Jews. Atticus not only refuses to hate him but patronizingly says after Jean Louise, somewhat morally confused, tells Atticus that her teacher hates Hitler, "I'm sure she does." Atticus implies by this that the teacher's hatred is morally undeveloped, lesser, inferior to his own high minded refusal to indulge in such low emotion. Here, Atticus's is an irritating piety at odds, I'd argue, with the man Lee thinks she portrays.
But the more damning instance of this insufferable piety is in Atticus wanting Jem officially to confront killing Ewell even after Hec Tate, the sheriff, insistently contrives a narrative for good reason that Ewell accidentally killed himself by falling on his own knife. At this point, Atticus wrongly thinks the reason for Tate's contrivance is to spare Jem the need to deal with the consequences of killing Ewell.
He fights Tate every step of the way, rejecting the out he believes Tate's offering. No, no he intones, he must (as I gloss it) sacrifice Jem--a 12 year old sensitive and sheltered little boy, who's just been through hell, has been almost murdered, has been knocked unconscious, has had his arm badly broken, and has, so Atticus thinks, killed Ewell to protect Jean Louise--sacrifice him on the altar of his, Atticus's impossible piety, his impossibly superior morality.
Atticus must, he says, live publicly just be as he does privately; he says he must live up to his own ideals; he will lose his children otherwise; they will see him doing something hypocritically differently from what he's taught them all their lives; better, much better, he says, to bring it all in the open (and, implicitly, let the chips fall where they may); if he agrees to Hec Tate whisking Jem's killing away, why then he will not be able to live with himself, he says. No, no, he says, Jem must face up to what happened even as Atticus presumes self defense will lead to acquittal.
What kind of high mindedness is this? Isn't it more a kind of inhuman self righteousness, almost fanatical? What father, what kind of a father, in all these very particular circumstances insists that his broken up, traumatized 12 year old son court the possibility of criminal prosecution in order that he, the father, can live up to his own unflinching, unwavering moral code? What kind of a man can't here bend a little for the sake of his son's well being, for the sake of protecting his son, can't find another way with his son to deal with all this short of inviting legal process? Is he Abraham willing to slay Isaac in order to heed God's command? What kind of moral preciousness is this?
There are (at least) two problems I see with Lee having Atticus take this firm position. One is that it fails aesthetically. It's simply not believable that a man like Atticus who is not shown throughout to be at his core a rigorous fanatic, who is shown having weak moments, who is shown knowing the way of the world, who is not a naïf, who knows what evil lurks where, wouldn't take the out he thinks Hec Tate offers.
The second is that Lee means to shows Atticus as morally exemplary in his fine refusal to make an exception of his son even in these benighted circumstances. But this high morality is really an (unmeant by Lee) repugnant moralism, both inhuman and unreal, that gets away from her. And presenting Atticus so is of a piece with a certain thematic soft headedness that flaws this novel.
In touching on that, I ask why exactly is Atticus ok with the contrived "fell on his knife story" once he comes to understand that in fact Boo Radley killed Ewell and Jem didn't? Why the bending now? Why the exception now? Sure Jem is Atticus's son and Boo Radley isn't in Atticus's charge. But, still, Atticus is a lawyer, an officer of the court, duty bound to do the legally right thing and here's a sheriff fabricating a false narrative to spin the reality of what happened in order to spare Boo Radley all manner of legal and other consequence (including even being bothered by the Maycomb community in thanking him.)
But now not even a word in protest, no counter argument that in principle it's not right. Why alright for Boo, but not for Jem? Why solicitous compromise sparing Boo but all inflexible moral stricture for Jem? My argument is that it makes no sense and is ill thought through.
The encapsulation of what I call Lee's soft headed piety--on display in Atticus being too morally superior to hate Hitler, on display in his (intended by Lee as admirable) insistence that Jem be made to face the consequences of killing Ewall--is evident in symbol of the mockingbird and in the maxim that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. The theme in this is that it's a sin to kill something so innocent, that makes no problem for anyone--not like (say) those thieving blue jays--and which only sings prettily, copying the songs of other birds. Atticus knows that Jean Louise understands the wisdom of covering up what Boo Radley did when she says that to pursue him for killing Ewell would be like killing a mockingbird. Atticus approves and agrees.
This supposed insight, however, accords Boo Radley not an iota, not an ounce, of human agency and contradicts what Atticus has been trying to teach his kids about Boo throughout the novel in order to demystify him, that, in effect, he's a person too, to be understood as such and respected as such. Boo watches the kids, plants gifts for them--some of which he made. Not only does he watch them, he watches over them. He too is their protecter. And so he fulfills what Atticus has been trying to teach about him.
If so, then how does the mockingbird come to stand for him, for a flesh and blood human being capable of love and violence and who acts out of his own agency to kill Bob Ewell? Why is the mockingbird, without its own song, merely singing prettily other birds' songs and, so, mocking them, likened to him? My argument is that Lee has undermined her novel thematically and symbolically in this deep inconsistency with Boo.
While likening Boo to a mockingbird is textually explicit, it's arguable that there's a similar likening of it to Tom Robinson. True it is that he has a record for fighting, but in relation to Mayella Ewell, he's a total innocent, merely doing her kindnesses, taking no money from her for them, befriending her in ways on seeing how pitiable and ill used she is, even to the point of not wanting to upset her or make her feel rejected when trying to resist her. And he's killed in his innocence.
So in fact it's highly arguable that the symbolic and thematic import of the mockingbird attaches to Tom Robinson too. If so, then the just discussed flawed contradiction concerning Boo Radley is even more deeply and offensively apparent in relation to Tom Robinson. To deny him, a mentally fit man, agency by way of the symbol of the mockingbird is, finally, racism, unaware racism, but racism nonetheless. The descriptions of Tom reflexively running away enhance that depiction of him.
I can see an argument that Lee subverts, or chips away at, the pedestal on which she places Atticus. But in my heart of hearts I think that's a stretch, a way of rationalizing his flawed piety. The book just doesn't read to me that way. For example, with Atticus's refusal to hate Hitler, the teacher who in contrast hates him is later shown to be a hypocritical anti black racist, which reinforces Atticus's smug dismissal of her hatred of Hitler when he says, "I'm sure she does." The symbol of the mockingbird seems so misbegotten to me for among the reasons I note that I can't see Lee capable of such subtle subversive tough mindedness.
I understand that a novel isn't a polemic. It's not an argument to be picked apart by showing how it doesn't stand up for any number of reasons, or to be counter-argued. That said, still a novel must be thematically and symbolically coherent. It must, so to say, be able to live with itself. Where it has incoherence, things that can't stand together, parts that defy believability, then it is fairly criticized for those failings. I think this is the case with To Kill A Mockingbird as I read it.