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Rereading the Classics: To Kill a Mockingbird

Tue, 10/31/2017 - 12:30pm by ballybeg

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird something like 45 years ago, and I thought recently it was time to revisit it. How long has it been since you read it? Have you ever read it? It is one of the finest works of literature I know of, universal in its themes, distinctly American in its details, and a novel of such astounding excellence and rare insight that it shouldn’t be missed. Its message is never old.

Even if you haven’t read it before, I would guess you still know the story. The film version of the book, starring the incomparable Gregory Peck as the compassionate and principled lawyer, Atticus Finch, has assured that the plot line is familiar. But there are so many reasons to read this book (again) besides remembering what happens next.

Besides an engaging story, the book offers much more: a dead-on picture of small-town, Depression-era, Southern life; enduring insights into childhood games, insecurities, and fantasies; a view of the bond of love between family members, and neighbors, that is both uplifting and heartbreaking; characters so finely-wrought that they endure in your mind long after you put down the book; a subtle and effective examination of the themes of injustice, small-minded prejudice, making moral choices in the face of hatred and ignorance, accepting the ‘other’.

Harper Lee writes the book from the viewpoint of a young Scout Finch, and captures her seven-year-old voice with pitch-perfect accuracy. She effectively uses Scout’s immature perspective to explore the serious events which unfold in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Scout’s unassuming observances of the big and small events swirling around her; her feistiness, humor, and fears; her striving to understand her relationship to her family, her school-mates and neighbors who are different from her, and to the wider world; her innocence and wisdom; are all used to unfold the memorable story.

Who is the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird? One of the beautiful things about the book to me is that you could make a case for any number of people having that honor. Atticus is the epitome of the literary hero, quietly dignified, moral, and unpretentious, standing alone, if need be, to do what is right. But what about Scout and Jem? Calpurnia, Tom, Heck? The judge, the doctor, the nosey neighbors who look out for each other and the children? What about Boo? Each of them carries some of the light of the story forward and they create, collectively, the full complement of the heroic impulse and the human response to the world.


I missed reading this in high school and read it as an adult. The thing that stuck with me was the depressing statement, made in a way to suggest it is a fact, that mixed race children fit in nowhere, which is said (I think) by their white father. Given the ever increasing numbers of children of dual heritage in this country, it is not a very inspiring assessment. I did not find the book a very optimistic read.

I never got around to reading the sequel when it came out, but I have gathered that most readers would cross at least one of those heroes off their list after reading it.

Maybe things are not so black and white as they once were, after all.

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