One kind of
I heard about To Kill a Mockingbird as a great novel of the American literary culture. A book often referred to, quoted, analysed and taught. A story that somehow defines and is part of the American general culture and history. I am a late bloomer – and not American– and I heard about this novel only two years ago, in the wake of an innocent black American citizen killed by a white American police officer. It became a to-read book.
It was a pleasure, a disappointment and a heartbreak at the same time. // Book Review :
The pleasure comes from the sense of a mystic world unsealing before our eyes. The eerie atmosphere – underlined by the Bradleys’ house, the tree where so much happens, the lone dog shot by Atticus, the glasses in the snow, Mrs Dubose’s witch-like feeling – enshrouds us in a magical world where the children live an epic adventure. Their progress and coming-of-age as the events unfold, Scout’s wit and Jem’s bravery along the way, embark us in a tale worthy of the brothers Grimm.
There’s a particularly delightful sequence towards the end of the novel. The passing of seasons through the lenses of an external figure. Pure cinematography. Perfect. Epic.
It can become unsettling, thus, that this universe sometimes falls to reveal a raw, hard, bare town which seems small and oppressing, and which shelters closed-minded, prejudiced and egocentric people. The story is at times very infuriating, not only because of the prejudices, but also because it seems that people in Maycomb do what they do only to fit a narrative.
With such complex themes as racism, social fracture and injustice, shouldn’t we expect more complex characters ? It is not to be. Apart from Atticus’s sister who shows more subtlety towards the end of the novel, and Mrs Dubose, who is redeemed by Atticus revealing her history, people are either black or white (no pun intended). Is it because the children live an epic adventure that the characters need to be so one-dimensional? Is it because we see them in the eyes of Scout, who, despite her relative brightness and maturity, is still a little girl with a narrow vision of the world? Scout doesn’t always grasp some of the adults’ complex settings. Yet, the story could have been more nuanced, if not in what Scout sees, at least in what the characters really do. Take Bob Ewell for example. There’s no redemption for him. He lives bad, and he dies bad. Isn’t it borderline ridiculous that he is so nasty and stupid that he tries killing children who have nothing to do with his fate ? Killing children. Scout may live in a fantasy world, but Maycomb is a very realistic place, and one may have a hard time comprehending why Bob Ewell, as flawed and resentful as he is, would go after Jem and Scout.
But To Kill a Mockingbird is a story with a moral. It seems that there’s no other way than describing the people as either baddies or goodies to make a good moral point. Atticus Finch is the quintessential one-dimensional character, he is THE good man, the righteous who fights the world for what he believes is good, who doesn’t judge, who really cares. His apparent flawlessness actually becomes a weakness because his unconditional tolerance and absolute restraint are not always coherent with his stand. This was the disappointment.
To continue with the moral narrative, two sudden and strange events occur.
First, how convenient is Bob Ewell’s death ? At the hand of an innocent hand no less. Are we to be convinced that there is justice after all because the dirtiest guy was killed by the purest one?
Second, how nonsensical does Tom Robinson’s death appear to be as well? Why a man who seemed so sensible and gentle would try to run away from a guarded facility? Even if he didn’t believe in the success of an appeal, and didn’t trust the white man anymore, Atticus included, what did he think would happen when he tried to climb the fence, with only one arm functioning? What did he think would happen to his wife and children afterwards? Because the good people of Maycomb, who sided with him (not in action obviously but in their useless conscience), would have resented that a black man tried to escape justice, even a biased justice. We could ask ourselves if the author took the shorter and simpler way, and made him become crazy at the last minute. Or, we could think that Tom Robinson was once again victim of racism and fell under a gratuitous murderous act. Either way, there’s something dark and unreal about it. But, like Bob Ewell’s death, it fits the narrative (and I should add, the seventeen shots are not that unrealistic considering what is still happening in the streets of some American cities).
The narrative is about killing a mockingbird, and letting the dead bury the dead. It is about the fight between the true, the good and the fair. This is when the heartbreak comes.
Because it is unfair to Tom Robinson to let the dead bury the dead. Tom Robinson will fade away as much as Bob Ewell and the story that unfortunately tied them up together. It is also a betrayal of truth to let people believe that Bob Ewell killed himself inadvertently. As it was a major betrayal of truth, as well as a major injustice, to condemn Tom Robinson for something he never did, and to let his shooting to death unquestioned and eventually forgotten. But ultimately, it is good to let the dead bury the dead, in order to spare a mockingbird and let him take refuge back to his nest. One mockingbird is already down. Let’s not kill another…
In all this fight, of course, the sense of injustice is emphasised by the confirmation of racism because, in the end, the one who was unfairly killed is black, and the one who is spared is white. And the white people of Maycomb won’t ever know how prejudiced they were, and they will forget all about it, in their small-mindedness and carelessness. Even Atticus, the almighty righteous man, stays a member of this small world, by being complacent with the most prejudiced of them all.
Let the dead bury the dead is being complacent with what is wrong. Untrue, bad and unfair. It suits only a bigoted society. But it is a hard reality for the victims, their family, their memory, and the reluctant participants like Atticus, Jem, Scout (and somewhat Aunt Alexandra). What is the lesson for the children in this resignation? That we have to let things go, and not fight for social justice. That the Ewells of this world are poor and bad, let them be, we can do nothing. That the Robinsons of this world are poor and black, let them suffer, we can do nothing. And hide away in our afternoons of missionary tea in our closed comfortable homes, it is what it is.
This is heart-breaking, and the more so because it is still relevant today, in 2016: the violence of prejudice, denial and carelessness, whether you are American or not. But especially if you are a black American.
Maybe if white people put things in perspective, and saw things in the eyes of the other, like Scout did for Boo Bradley at the end, they would understand. Stop being prejudiced. For the non-prejudiced, stop being complacent. Maybe if black people could see what white people see, they would understand – that white people would never really get black people’s fights, and it is not necessarily because they are inherently mean. It is their own history of narrow-mindedness and they also have that fight to lead, to be awaken.
And maybe, if we all did that, “climb inside of [the other’s] skin and walk around in it”, we could all see what Scout sees: there’s just “one kind of folks”.
(edited from my former blog kickaspeaking.com / published in Goodreads & soon at kickaodisea.com // 2016)