Considered by most to be an American classic and studied by many schoolchildren around the world, To Kill a Mockingbird is a disturbing yet entertaining story that is easy to read, harbouring significant themes of race and injustice. Harper Lee’s novel will always be an important book in my eyes, as it was the first book that I properly read and analysed (if you can call it that, at GCSE stage).
The key to the novel is its narrator: a child, called Scout. We, as readers, learn alongside her throughout the book. Hence, Lee is able to deal with large, serious issues such as racism without giving the book a heavy, oppressive tone. Set in a town in 1950s Alabama, Scout’s story is rooted in her father’s tragically doubtful quest to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl. Her father, Atticus, is an honest, liberal lawyer, whose unbiased knowledge is a breath of fresh air from the stifling prejudice of the other characters. The narrator very rarely sees what happens in this story and, instead, we are treated to an innocent sequence of childish squabbles, troubles and mischief tainted with glimpses of the harsh reality of 1950s America.
Another thing that really sets this novel apart is its characters. Not only does the reader empathise with Atticus, Tom, and many others, but we are deeply affected by the heart-wrenching ordeals they are dragged through. Atticus is perhaps my favourite character. Despite the horrendous treatment that he and his defendant, Tom, have to deal with, his angelic intelligence shields most of this trauma from his children. He is a firm source of protection and knowledge, even when his children do not realise. It is from this character that we receive the aphorism from which the book gets its name:
“Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
An explanation: ‘Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ This is a key metaphor in Lee’s novel: the idea of good, innocent people who ‘sing their heart out for us’, only to be senselessly treated badly, or ‘slaughtered’. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are two examples of this type of character. This is the key moral message of the story, and it governs the most respected characters in the novel such as Atticus.
This Pulitzer Prize winning book (1961) is worthy of the proud collection of awards it has won over the years. You have to admire Harper Lee for writing this book when she did; the message she delivers was 20 years too advanced for a nation that was so full of prejudice against the African-American population. After all, what is more simple than the justice of no person being sentenced to a crime they did not commit based on their race or religion? The book is well worth a read, presenting these potent, sad and important messages through an innocent view of a child. Even if you read it a while ago, it may be worth your while to visit Scout’s tumultuous world again.