The Perfect Book: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee might just be the perfect book.  It is number 5 on the BBC book list, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. As I reread it for this post, I gaped at how perfect it is.

It is essentially many stories told through the eyes of Scout, or Jean Lousie, as Aunt Alexandra calls her.  Scout tells of her life in fictional Maycomb, Alabama, as the daughter of an older single man named Atticus, the town lawyer.  Her brother Jeremy, or Jem, shares in all of her adventures along with a boy who visits in the summer named Dill. The three do a lot of the normal things kids do, like prowling around neighbor’s yards and making up games, but they also witness the grownup problems.

two mockingbird

As I listened to their perspectives on the difficulties faced by the community, I realized that these children were more mature and well-equipped to handle some of the difficulties of adulthood than the adults were.  In some ways, the adults acted like children in their handling of racial situations.  Scout, Jem, and Dill seemed to be able to see people for what they were, while the many adults in the novel couldn’t see past skin color.  However, these children have Atticus as their guide, and he is very nearly a perfect person and parent.

For his perfection, I envied Atticus and found him a little annoying, but only slightly so.  I mostly admire him, and I find his way of viewing the world close to the way I try to view it. (The key word here is “try.” I’m no Atticus.)  He is always patient and mature.  He forgives others for their faults, even when those faults threaten his own life.  Of Mr. Cunningham, he says, “He’s a good man but he has his blind spots.” We all have our blind spots, and Atticus remembers this and teaches his children what it means to be a forgiving and good citizen.  He is a model of what adults should be like, but unfortunately he is surrounded by adults who don’t have the skills for dealing with the world in the way he does.  He and his children suffer for it, but really they learn from it and become better because of it.

When Atticus takes on the defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, the town nearly explodes with gossip and hate.  Neighbors say mean things to the children and Atticus becomes an outcast.  Old Mrs. Dubose is particularly hateful and spiteful, and one day her words prompt Jem to act in a fit of rage by pulling up all of her flower beds.  While his actions seem justified, Atticus does not let him get away with it.  Instead, Jem is taught to be patient and to suffer the consequences of his actions, although Mrs. Dubose doesn’t seem to deserve the deference that a “gentleman” should give.  Jem spends a month reading to her and fixes the plants.  In the end, she dies and Atticus explains that she was a morphine addict who wanted to die free of the addiction, so much of her pain in the last days of her life was self-inflicted, due to her will to kick the habit.  Atticus explains how much he admires Mrs. Dubose for this bravery.  Jem comes to see her in a new light, although I still think she was terrible.  The lesson overall is not to judge others and to look for the good in them.  It reminds me of that great quote about being kinder than necessary for everybody is facing some sort of battle. Atticus understood this and passed that perspective onto his children.

The adults are childlike in their resentment and fear of anybody who is other, and specifically in this novel it is black people and Tom Robinson, accused of rape.  The children display this same fear toward their neighbor Mr. Arthur Radley, whom they call Boo.  They haven’t seen him, because he never leaves the house. They are curious about Boo and want to coax him out, but the adults keep telling them to leave the Radleys alone.  I saw a juxtaposition of the adult and childlike behavior in the way we sometimes fear those who are different and consequently mistreat them for it. Fortunately, the children are able to overcome their fear of the “other” and set an example for the rest of the town.

In the end, the mystery of Boo is “solved” in a dramatic twist that involves him saving the children’s lives. I won’t spoil all of the details, as I haven’t told you how the rape trial turns out, but I assume that the vast majority of you have read and loved this novel.  I’m sure you already know how it all turns out.  We learn just how wrong it is and would be to kill a mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, the quintessential American novel.  It is and should be required reading, and I hope that someday somebody can equal it with a novel about some of the issues we face currently.  I don’t know what that would look like, but I do know that we need one.  Thank you, Harper Lee, for writing this one.  I will never tire of reading and rereading it.

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89 thoughts on “The Perfect Book: To Kill a Mockingbird

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  1. You captured everything I love about this book! The re-readability of this novel is amazing. I have read it probably…oh, five times? And each time I pick up on something or think about a scene of the book in a new light. The reader’s perspective and age really affects what the story is about.

    There are so many relationships in the story as well!

    I think my favorite is the growth of the children’s understanding of Boo Radley.

    Now you’ve got me wanting to read it again! 🙂

  2. I think one of the reasons people still love it so much is because these are all still issues we are dealing with, among others. I haven’t read this in a long time. I think it would be fun to read it again when my daughter reads it for the first time. (That is, if she is willing – she better be! 🙂 )

  3. Favorite book of all time, favorite book to teach. One of the best scenes in the book is when Scout’s aunt is taking care of the kids during the trial, the ladies are having tea and discussing saving the poor natives somewhere in Africa or South America. It shows the reality of how closed minded they were, the inability to view others as themselves. So they thought they were providing charity and love, when really they were only showing their bigotry.

    1. Yes, exactly. It is an eye-opening book to our own inability to love perfectly and our propensity to judge. I think awareness, which Atticus has, is what we can learn from this. I can imagine that this would be fun to teach!

  4. Emily, this is also one of my favorites, both the book and movie. Two moments say a great deal to me. First, when the neighbor is comforting Jem after the verdict, she says to him, there are people in this world meant to do our unpleasant tasks; your father is one of them. This and the scene when Atticus leaves the court room and the Reverend tells Jean Louise to stand because her father is passing.

    I agree Atticus is the person we should aspire to be. He tells the children that you never know a person until you walk around in their clothes. That is a lesson for us all.

    Thanks for sharing your passion and perspective. BTG

    1. Yes, Atticus is pretty great. I loved that part too, and I loved that Atticus was willing to be that person and willing to turn the other cheek. His children were lucky to have him, despite the fuss made of his “old age.” I loved when Scout told her teacher how she learned to read and the teacher told her to stop and then she and Atticus just kept on reading together.

  5. I really enjoyed the book and the movie. The book provides a great picture of a girl’s relationship to her father and how this has helped her to grow up. Similarly, the children’s view of Boo Radley at the end of the book is a great coming of age story. I agree with your astute observation that the children are often more mature than the adults blinded by prejudice.
    All those positives being recognized, I think the book is also a product of its (late 50s-early 60s) time. The black characters are passive and in awe of Atticus (rather than just respectful of his courage) Wouldn’t they also be angry about the kangaroo court (although it was expected) and skeptical of the story that Tom was shot “trying to escape?” The black characters don’t really have fully developed personalities. That wasn’t so much a criticism of Lee as a reflection of the times.

    1. Yeah, I can see that. I think that Lee was trying to expose some of it, at least the folly of the justice system and the ridiculous and unfair way that Tom dies. There’s power in allowing the story to take that route, as much as we don’t want it to, because it reflects the awful problems that face us. I think Calpernia could have been written with more depth, but like you say, it is a product of its time.

  6. LOVE this book too. My favorite all time read. A must for everyone. You really get something different out of this book at each stage of life as well. We watch the movie at least once a year at our house. I swoon over Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus… I’ve even had dreams about Atticus. Every facet of human nature is covered in this book. And I too agree that we are in need of another great American novel for this present time.

    1. I think your point about it covering every facet of human nature is exactly why this one resonates with all of us. And yes, Gregory Peck is awesome. I need to watch the movie again so I can have Atticus dreams! 😉

  7. I read the book about a year ago and loved it, however, once forced to trawl through it at a painful pace and write essay after essay for my GCSE, I was unfortunately put off for life and now can’t even look at a copy anymore. So while i agree that the plot and characters are both perfect portrayed, i cannot stand this novel.

    1. I can totally understand why. Did you ever watch Everybody Loves Raymond? His wife Deborah’s favorite book was this one too! I bet you are in good company with this as a favorite. 🙂

    1. I know. I was fascinated to see the portrayal of her in Capote. I guess she helped him with some of his work, including In Cold Blood. I am guessing she did other stuff, just not novel-writing. I should look into that. Hers would be an interesting biography.

      1. Some say the reverse is true–the reason she never wrote anything else is because Capote (her next door neighbor) wrote Mockingbird. There are similarities between the two authors’ works, but I like to think there books are alike because they were kindrid spirits.

  8. I read this book my sophomore year of highschool, and I am so glad I did! It definitely made my list of 50 books to read before college graduation that I just blogged about! Great post and great book!

    -Michelle
    simplymichelleraven.com

  9. This novel is an important part of my childhood till know I always find time to go through this stunning childhood novel. Yet, it amazes how Harper Lee with her low profile managed to write this masterpiece. Finally, your blog addressed everything that I enjoy about this novel

    1. I’m so glad I was able to cover the important parts. I felt like I could’ve written my own novel-length post just gushing and talking about how great this one is.

  10. I fell in love with this book when I had to read it for my high school freshman or sophomore (I can’t remember – I had the same teacher for both years!) English. We also watched the film, which I recently purchased. One thing I remember my teacher pointing out was that Scout’s narration was juxtaposed and transcendent through time: there were moments of the happenings from her young self, and insights as her adult self.

    I agree – we need a To Kill A Mockingbird for society today. Some of the issues have remained, but there have been many more added.

    1. What a great idea for a society! And I love what your teacher pointed out. There’s definitely a maturity and clarity in Scout’s storytelling that tell us she is viewing this as an adult as well. Next time I read it, I’m going to look for those parts!

  11. This book has been half on/half off my reading list for a while. However, as it is listed as one of the modern classics, I will definitely be reading it soon. I hope I can talk more about it with you once it’s read!

  12. I first read this book in seventh grade. I read it last year and then again for my sophomore English class this year. I love it more than I can ever explain. It just means so much to me. It makes me happy to see other people love it as much as I do.

  13. When I studied this book at school I found it alright – I came back and read it again recently as an adult though, and have a greater appreciation for it now. It is damn near perfect.

    1. Yep! It is funny how our perspectives change as we age. My sister hated Angle of Repose when she read it in high school, but I love that book. I wonder if she’d appreciate it more now if she gave it another chance.

  14. The book was excellent. I enjoyed reading it and the movie was excellent. Everyone should read the book and see the movie.

    Elizabeth htttp://2sellmybooks.wordpresss.com

  15. This is one of my favorite books too. I couldn’t put it down when I first read it!

    Atticus is definitely one of my favorite literary characters. He is a near-perfect character, but what I love is that his heroism is based on his ability to put himself into other people’s shoes and sympathize with them. It is an ability that everyone can learn, but many of us are unable to process this ability because we are blinded by our own selfishness and prejudice, and Atticus is willing to put down these blindfolds and master this ability.

    1. You’ve described Atticus perfectly. He seems to represent the very best humans can be if we are willing and able to love. Thanks for your comment!

  16. I read this book when in my early teens – about 40 years ago. Never read it again but the very fact i can pretty much can recall the story is testament to what a great story it is and how beautifully told. No wonder it is a classic. The character of the little sister is fantastic. (Jessie ??)

  17. I agree wholeheartedly, TKAM is the perfect book (for me) and my favorite of all time. But consider this – I wonder if it would have the reputation it has today had Tom Robinson been a white man. I mean, Atticus was still doing the fundamentally decent and heroic thing (defending a man falsely accused of a terrible crime) but instead of the focus being on man presumed guilty by standards of the 1930’s because of his race, he’d be defending a man presumed guilty by the standards of the post-post feminist/liberal media saturated 2010’s because of his gender. Despite doing fundamentally the same decent and honorable thing, Atticus Finch may well nowadays be reviled as a “rape apologist” or a “rape enabler” by the media instead of as a hero of high principle. I guess the book teaches us that times change, for the better, but never completely for the better and that the hypocrisy of Maycombe just finds a new vessel.

    That, of course, doesn’t stop it being a wonderful book and the best possible conduit for us to address such provocative issues

    1. You make a good point. Nobody likes a rapist. Because Robinson was black, that made him more sympathetic through the eyes of Scout and by extension Atticus, because we knew Tom was innocent. And we are primed to care about the civil rights movement from our twenty-first-century perspective. A white man today, if innocent, and his “noble” defender wouldn’t feel as heroic. You’ve raised an interesting question. Thanks for making me think!

  18. Oh yes, I love, love, love this book, not least because it is so accurate. And accurate in a kind way. I think it’s one of the only “classic” novels that no one at school ever complained about having to read. The Scarlet Letter, on the other hand, was another matter entirely!

    1. LOL! Yeah, this one is accessible while Hawthorne isn’t when you’re young. I remember hating his short story “Young Goodman Brown” in college for the same reason.

  19. I meant to tell you: your post inspired me to pick up To Kill a Mockingbird at my library booksale. I haven’t read it since I was twelve, and I’m looking forward to it!

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