Harper Lee: To KIll A Mockingbird

May 2, 2015

9780434020485It’s curious, coming to reflect on a book which I taught every other year throughout my entire career; I haven’t opened it for four years now, and wonder if I’m developing a different perspective on it. The world and his wife know that a ‘new’ novel in some way related to it is due to be published in the summer (Go Set A Watchman) and there has been controversy over whether this involves some sort of exploitation of the ageing writer who may not be fully in control of what is going on.

I have found myself wondering who the book is aimed at (target audience, for all my ex-students!). Dozens of millions of copies have been sold, and they cannot all have been to UK schools preparing students for GCSE. I’m not sure how English departments across the land are going to cope since Secretary of State Gove’s ukase removed it from the specification on the grounds that it’s not English litereature.

Because I’ve always taught it to young people, I’ve come to see them as the ideal audience for the novel (so I would be very interested to hear from anyone who disagrees). To me, it has seemed to speak to them, and deals with issues that have some significance at their stage in life. A main theme is clearly parenting and relationships with parents, and the way in which this links into the need for mutual respect; we see a parent striving to live by his principles, and surely, young people spend some time trying to make sense of their world and they way they feel it should work, as well as the ways in which they propose to relate to it.

The children in the novel are gradually working their way towards self-actualisation and self-realisation in the world, and we see how they are helped by their peers, neighbours and experiences. Most importantly, I think, they come to realise that the world is not always a good and safe place, and that there comes a time when parents cannot protect you from the horrors and nastiness of the world, they are not all-powerful, as young children need to believe: Lee explores a crucial phase of growing-up through the trial and its aftermath, where even Atticus’ faith in the world is badly shaken by the attack on his children.

Because I’ve loved teaching the novel, I’ve found myself looking for its flaws. The lengthy introductory section has often been an issue, with students wanting the story to get a move on, when there are a hundred pages just introducing characters and the town; on the other hand, this has offered the possibility for exploring writer’s choices in terms of how they construct a novel, and after the event, students have been able to accept how Lee has been working as a writer, and the effects she has striven to achieve.

The framing of the storytelling (an older Scout remembering and relating her childhood many years later, perhaps through rose-tinted spectacles, where even the horrors are somewhat subdued) does not help, either, and perhaps allows a rather sentimentalised portrait of a black community through the eyes of a white child. And small-town US is not representative of the whole country.

But hey, it’s a novel! Perhaps semi-autobiographical, depending on what you read, involving characters, certainly places from the author’s own childhood. Lee has things she wishes to say, lessons she wishes to teach – and which I feel she does without becoming didactic – and students’ response was often along the lines of “well, it’s not the sort of book I’d have chosen to read myself, but I’m very glad we studied it”. It’s a novel, and it makes readers think and reflect on themselves and their own lives, which, if you’re a regular reader of these pages, you will know constitutes a good book by my criteria.


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