Monday, March 9, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird: The Master Class of Novel Writing?

Image from 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

With the recent announcement of the impending publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which features a grown-up version of the Scout character she introduced in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), I was inspired to revisit the latter. According to, this Pulitzer Prize winner is part of the curriculum in 3/4 of American public schools and sells about a million copies a year. All told, the book has sold 30 million copies in more than 40 languages (Crash Course Literature 210). The 1962 movie version was nominated for Best Picture and garnered Gregory Peck an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Unsurprisingly, some critics made it their mission to knock the book as overrated. They're wrong. In fact, some of the criticisms of the book are precisely what make it great. For example, Scout, who ranges from ages 6 to 9 during the book, serves as a first-person narrator. However, the sophistication of her language, storytelling, and awareness feel more like an adult. Despite the inconsistency of the approach, it gives the novel an added dimension of allowing the reader to view the story through a child and adult's eyes simultaneously.

Another criticism concerns the potentially disjointed nature of the vignettes about the townspeople. Rather than distract from the primary stories around Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, these seemingly superfluous stories immerse the reader in Maycomb, Alabama. In addition, each of Scout's (and her brother Jem's) encounters leads to another lesson handed down from their father, Atticus, about not judging other people.

The novel also has characters painted in one-dimensional strokes, from the noble heroics of Atticus to the without-any-redeemable-quality nature of Bob Ewell. However, these polarizing characterizations of good and evil remind readers how a child oversimplifies perceptions - and serve as warnings for us to not do so as adults.

In my own writing, I can only dream of achieving half of what Mockingbird accomplishes. Harper Lee paints her characters and the town with such vivid language that the reader is transported to that place and time. Scout's sense of exploration and child-like curiosity is fully embraced even as she is exposed to ugly truths about racism and prejudice.

These are all qualities which play into my current project, Abigail's Atlantis, about a 12-year-old girl coming to grips with the transition from childhood to adulthood. While the language and perspective I employ may occasionally feel too adult, that's precisely the point. Like Mockingbird, I want to capture that in-between state of sometimes seeing things as a child and at other times as an adult. If I can make the same mistakes as Mockingbird with even a modicum of the same ability, I'll consider my book a success.

1 comment:

  1. With the pedigree that To Kill a Mockingbird has achieved it's a challenge to challenge the novel's revered status. Lee captured the moment in time that was the the bitterness of racism in the south, but I have to wonder about the veracity of a character like Atticus Finch. I understand he was based upon Lee's father, but while I don't doubt for a minute the existence of a man with such high standing morality, I question the likelihood that such a man, in the atmosphere of the south in that time in history, would represent a black defendant. I doubt back then that a scenario like that ever happened. That said, it is still a work that one could say captures the imagination in impressive fashion.

    There is enough to contemplate with this novel, but to stick to a point made in your piece I find relevant: to say that if you can make the same mistakes as TKAM made while considering your own abilities to be barely equitable to those displayed in TKAM (not sure I really got what you were saying there but I hope so) would then allow you to consider your book a success is letting TKAM off the hook in a big way in my view.

    Regardless the stature of any work of art it is still unprotected from immunity to criticism, and criticism that may be just as valid as the praise this ir any other novel has received.

    So it is that I question the idea that the inconsistency in the narrative approach is acceptable because of a caveat that allows the reader to see through two sets of eyes, i.e. child and adult. The reality is.... it seems it may be a mistake on the author's part. Regardless of intention, if we are looking through the eyes of a 6 to 9 year old then the language used is too sophisticated. This inconsistency isn't made up for because it allows dual perspective. We can argue it's aesthetic value, but it's a problem from my view, because it takes us out of the narrative flow that's been established by looking through the eyes of the young child. The child is a child period.

    Now if you want to say the story is being told by Scout as an adult looking back... then fine, but is that ever established? I don't think so.

    The pedigree of Mockingbird is without question. But it's not immune to criticism, and maybe it's just not as great as we all think. And you can't make excuses or exceptions for flaws that violate the value of the uninterrupted narrative dream. Let the work stand on it's own. It gets plenty of adulation. It's flaws don't deserve manufactured false remedies.