Saturday, April 28, 2018

Harper Lee – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

[Spoiler alert: usually I try to avoid discussing the endings of books, but here it seemed unavoidable.]
One Christmas I lurked in corners nursing a twisted splinter in my foot, permitting no one to come near me. When Uncle Jack caught me, he kept me laughing about a preacher who hated going to church so much that every day he stood at his gate in his dressing-gown, smoking a hookah and delivering five-minute sermons to any passers-by who desired spiritual comfort. I interrupted to make Uncle Jack let me know when he would pull it out, but he held up a bloody splinter in a pair of tweezers and said he yanked it while I was laughing, that was what was known as relativity. (pp. 86-7)
Fiction is often the spinning of the yarn in order to reveal the splinter. Narratives drift in a certain direction, either leading the reader to a conclusion, or providing the framework for an argument which could lead in several directions. To Kill a Mockingbird uses the yarn of childhood innocence to pick at the festering splinter of racism in 1930s Alabama, and it does it in the main by showing the genteel end of white society (the respectable inhabitants of the town rather than the country bumpkins), set in their ways, living alongside black society only insofar as they employ black people as servants: the splinter is well hidden, only perceptible to the young, who have yet to absorb the prevailing attitudes of their time and class.
Jem was scratching his head. Suddenly his eyes widened. ‘Atticus,’ he said, ‘why don’t people like us and Miss Maudie ever sit on juries? You never see anybody from Maycomb on a jury – they all come from out in the woods.’ […]
        ‘Well, what if – say, Mr Link Deas had to decide the amount of damages to award to, say, Miss Maudie, when Miss Rachel ran her over with a car. Link wouldn’t like the thought of losing either lady’s business at his store, would he? So he tells Judge Taylor that he can’t serve on the jury because he doesn’t have anybody to keep store for him while he’s gone. So Judge Taylor excuses him. Sometimes he excuses him wrathfully.’ (p. 244)
Well-off whites outsource the responsibility of judgement to the poor, and since it is the poor whites who live in close proximity with black communities, it is they who, fed by trickle-down resentment, insult and abuse them. Mayella Ewell, the lonely and mistreated daughter of drunkard Bob, assuages her condition by making advances to Tom Robinson, a black labourer and young father, whose daily walk to work takes him past the Ewell house. She asks him to fix things in the yard at first, and then, having bribed her siblings into making themselves scarce, she asks him into the house and makes a pass at him. Her father, returning at the wrong moment, spots them through the window and intervenes, chasing off Tom and savagely beating Mayella. This then becomes a charge of rape against Tom, who is also blamed for the beating. The court case is the talk of the town, and Scout and Jem gradually become aware of a wave of public disapproval directed against Atticus, whom Judge Taylor has appointed the defence lawyer in the case. It’s a very distanced way of telling the story: the basic facts of it emerge slowly, and the characters involved in its defining scene are flung to the periphery. It’s not a story about the victim (Tom), or even the perpetrators (Mayella and Bob), but about the layers of society above them: the internal struggle within well-off white society between those (the majority) who want to see the black man executed for having broken a taboo the rules of which prevent the instigator from being blamed, and those (Atticus, Judge Taylor) who know this is wrong and make a valiant attempt to sway justice in the direction of justice, based on such slivers of conscience as they can encourage in the jury.

Most of the time, this is a book about growing up: from Scout’s first day at school to when she’s eight years old and dresses up as a joint of ham for a pageant (she fluffs her entrance, so is a failure as a ham actor – I wasn’t sure if the pun was intentional). She plays in and around the house with Jem, and Dill, a friend from out of town who spends his summers with an aunt in the same street. They become obsessed with a neighbour who never leaves the house, Boo Radley, who becomes a kind of ghoul in their imagination, but is actually very tolerant of their unwanted attentions, leaving small presents for them to collect in a hole in a tree in his yard (‘Two Indian-headed pennies, chewing gum, soap dolls, a rusty medal, a broken watch and chain’ p. 267). He is white, of course, or he couldn’t be a neighbour, but his constantly absent presence is almost certainly a comment on a society living alongside people it chooses to never really see, and on the paranoid myths the mind will construct around the unseen. His only appearance in the novel is right at the end, when Bob Ewell, eaten up by rage at Atticus for the things he accused him of during the trial of Tom Robinson, attacks his children on their walk home in the dark from the pageant. He leaves Jem with a broken arm, and crushes Scout’s chicken-wire ham costume, which fortunately protects her long enough for Boo Radley to come to their rescue.

In the wake of this attack, with Jem safely in bed, sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus debate what to do about the aftermath: Bob Ewell lies dead under the tree from behind which he sprang, a bread knife thrust under his rib cage. Did Jem do this? Did Boo? Did Bob fall on the knife? For a while Atticus insists that this killing must come to trial, such is his belief in the law and due process. The sheriff is against this, seeing that justice has already been served, and seeing also the injustice of bringing the reclusive (now heroic) Boo Radley into the limelight of a trial. And so the yarns of the book pull in opposing directions: Atticus is a moral ramrod for most of its length, but the final pages show that he is not unswayable in his devotion to the law. It, and society, are arguably moving in the right direction (evidence for this: it took the jury a long time to make the wrong decision about Tom Robinson), but at a glacially slow pace. The novel makes a powerful case against segregation, but more than that, its purpose is to show how racism can sustain itself within a society, how entrenched it can become within its structures. That, and the power of youthful idealism against it.

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