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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Review

Introduction

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 and adapted for the cinema in 1962, is set in Maycomb, a small Alabama town, in the middle of the Great Depression. The story is told by Scout looking back at the time when she was the six-year old daughter of the town’s best-known lawyer, Atticus Finch. The story centers on the trial of an African American, Tom Robinson, charged with raping a white woman and defended by Atticus; but the real story of the book and the film is in the division of characters between those who honor the mockingbird and those who would kill it, symbolized by the blue jay. The mockingbird represents unselfish love, a Christian quality also known as lovingkindness, examples of which are found throughout the film and which add up to its moral.

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Analysis

Most interpretations of the film name Boo Radley and Tom Robinson as the mockingbirds of the story, two men who represent goodness but who live in a world that refuses to acknowledge it. Claudia Durst Johnson makes that case when she examines the novel’s imagery and symbolism:

Atticus and Miss Maudie explain that to kill a mockingbird is a sin because it is a harmless creature that gives others its song. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are clearly identified with the mockingbird: Mr. Underwood, the Maycomb newspaper editor, “likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children” (241); and when Atticus and Sheriff Tate contemplate the effect of arresting Boo Radley for murder, Scout interjects, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (9)

Tom and Boo are good men and deserve the town people’s love and protection but symbolism is never quite that straightforward. When Harper Lee was asked to explain her novel she could get testy but responded to one interviewer by saying that “surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners” (Anon.). That is what makes the concept of lovingkindness so important in the interpretation of her book and the film and what makes its opposite, bigotry, the mad dog of the South, a dangerous anomaly that can’t be explained, only shot.

Lovingkindness is used in the Bible to denote unmerited kindness, being slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. It is said that God “retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in lovingkindness” (Ex. 34:7) and that this quality was something that could always be relied on (Walker). Clearly, Atticus Finch is the personification of that Christian ethic. His kindness to Tom Robinson is unmerited but given freely, he is slow to anger even when confronted by the despicable Bob Ewell ; and in the scene where he guards Robinson by sitting in front of the sheriff’s office he faces down the lynch mob with equanimity and bears them no grudge later. Atticus treats everyone with respect, his children included, and although he takes one step toward Bob Ewell when he spits in his face, he decides to retain his dignity instead. Atticus will apply the law to human affairs but for occasions like that he leaves justice to God.

There are examples of lovingkindness throughout the film, such as Calpurnia’s taking over some of the duties of the children’s deceased mother. When she scolds Scout for questioning Walter Cunningham’s table manners – “that boy is your company!” – it is with Atticus’s unspoken approval. Their mutual respect shows he has no regard for race or class. When Walter Cunningham brings Atticus produce in payment for legal work, Atticus knows just how to set the poverty-stricken farmer at ease. He also knows that Scout has the right instincts but has yet to learn how to express them, and he pays far more attention to her than Jem because the ten-year old boy is already following in his father’s footsteps. Other examples of lovingkindness are found in the way the children indulge Dill Harris’s tall tales, and Atticus’s extra courtesy when he talks to the abusive Miss Dubose, and Boo’s presents he leaves in the tree for the children as an offering of friendship.

The film also shows the dangers a mockingbird faces. Tom Robinson is a good man in spite of the society he lives in. In the crowded courtroom he makes the mistake admitting he felt sorry for Mayella, implying he did odd jobs for her as a matter of Christian charity. Atticus knows it is a fatal mistake and hard as he tries to overcome it in his speech to the jury, even imploring them in the name of God to find Tom innocent, he cannot persuade them. Robinson is doomed and decides to try to escape. Atticus is told that Tom “ran like a crazy man,” a man who understands that when lovingkindness becomes a crime, all is lost.

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Boo’s rescue of Jem and Sheriff Tate’s defense of Boo and his “shy ways” against any thought of letting the ladies of the town know what he did or they would be at his door with angel food cake, add to the film’s powerful theme. It is Scout who voices it when she tells her father that charging Boo with murder would be “like shooting a mockingbird,” and out-lawyers the lawyer.

Therefore, while it is true that Boo and Tom Robinson are mockingbirds in this film, they are not the only ones. Lovingkindness is found in most characters, if not consistently then at least in response to that mockingbird quality in others. It is an optimistic film, one that promises a better world for all those willing and able to walk around in someone else’s skin.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “Harper Lee Twits School Board In Virginia for Ban on Her Novel.” The New York Times: p. 82. 1966.

Durst Johnson, Claudia. Understanding to Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Walker, W. L. “Lovingkindness.” Bible History Online. Web.

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