“Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy... [they] sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” [i]
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is, of course, the mockingbird-metaphor in question. A seminal novel, I studied it at school but remembered little of it, except that it was about racial injustice, and that I didn’t not like it (as was the case with the too boy-sy for my tastes Huck Finn, and The Mayor of Casterbridge – I still shudder at Hardy’s ridiculous over-use of the semi-colon and his impenetrable pages of one bloody paragraph!). A few years ago, I saw To Kill a Mockingbird for sale and thought I should buy it for the bookshelf so I could read it again – and though it’s taken me a long time, I’m glad I did.
I’m not going to rehash the plot here, as I’m guessing (hoping) that most people have an awareness of it (if not, have a quick Google of it, otherwise this post won’t make much sense to you!). From a technical angle, I find its narrative perspective occasionally flawed – as one who, at the same age as 9 year-old Scout, burrowed into a dictionary daily, I can accept her wide and, at times, specialist vocabulary; but I have trouble believing that even with her learned and inclusive upbringing, she can describe the history and backstory of other characters, places and events so roundly, so thoroughly. For me, these setting paragraphs suffer from an intrusion of either an omniscient narrator or an authorial voice, both of which are tolerable in a third-person narrative, but are not feasible from Scout’s first-person point of view.
However, this is Harper Lee’s first novel – the first draft written when she was 31 (co-incidentally, the same age as I am now!); the novel completed two years later, and published the year after that, in 1960. It’s fair, then, to speculate that these lapses of narrative perspective would’ve been ironed out with further writing, further practice and experience. Yet she has never published another novel. Wikipedia tells me that her literary career post-Mockingbird is brief. She assisted her good, childhood friend Truman Capote in the research for his book In Cold Blood, and she later had her second novel called The Long Goodbye on the go, yet “[filed] it away unfinished.”[ii]
The fact that she hasn’t published anything else intrigues everybody, I should think; it certainly intrigues me. As a fellow writer, I don’t take the fact that she hasn’t since published to mean that she hasn’t since written anything else; a writer must write, after all. In the same Wikipedia entry, there is a statement given by Lee herself in answer to this question:
“Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”[iii]
As a fellow writer, the worry of repeating yourself in your work is always there. While it is fine to have a theme running throughout your body of work, you don’t want each piece to be a regurgitation of the last. And so I wonder, is this what Lee worries about too? Or is it more that perfection can only be hit once; once you’ve said what you need to say so very, very well, saying it again only weakens the message. And then you’ve got other people, readers and critics, taking what they want from your text, and putting what they think you meant into it. Of course, only Lee knows which side of the argument she is on, and I respect her reticence to articulate this: it is her right to own the truth about her creations, not ours.
In reading the article this quote comes from, I stumbled on another point of view that is fascinating and deserves consideration. Lawyer and ‘executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative’ says,
“I've always had a complicated reaction to the book. It's beautifully written, great story-telling and I enjoyed reading it, but I'm also provoked by the reaction the book gets.
“If you're a person of colour and you see yourself as one of the people sitting in the balcony, or you see yourself as Tom Robinson, it's not an affirming story, it's not inspiring and it's not encouraging. It's a familiar story. Tom Robinson ultimately dies from a lack of hope.” [iv]
Lack of hope, lack of a belief in the mockingbird metaphor.
I, like many of you, I imagine, am fortunate: though I have been bullied, I have never been persecuted. I have never experienced it, and neither, in the book, did Scout or Jem or even Atticus. But for those readers of To Kill a Mockingbird who have experienced persecution, do they read the mockingbird metaphor as hopefully as I do? Or is it, instead, a contrived or deceitful one? Certainly, Lee does not write about Tom Robinson and his feelings, his experience, his lack of hope; nor does she write about his wife or his children and what they are thinking and feeling. Again, this is a limitation of Scout’s first person narrative, but its exclusion does make me wonder what more the book could have said if it included these issues, these experiences – but then this is my extrapolation of the text, and not Lee’s meaning, not the story she wanted to tell.
Thinking, now, about To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of the story and its themes, I find the book incredibly moving on a moral level – its exploration of racism and persecution inspires me to be a better person; to stand up for the everyday injustices I encounter. I have always stood against racism, sexism, ageism; against hatred, injustice and persecution – but often I feel unable to do much, to make a change in the world.
On lunch break at work yesterday, I was talking with a colleague, and though he hasn’t (yet!) read To Kill a Mockingbird, he has read and been moved by The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. Now, I urge you – everyone must read this book: it is a heartbreaking and searing child’s account of the Holocaust simply written; it won’t take you long to read but will stay with you forever. What struck us about both books was the persecution; the horrific, unspeakable, murderous side of humanity – how we humans can visit such violence and hatred against each other in the name of greed, glory and supremacy.
Looking again on Wikipedia (terribly lazy of me not to search more widely and perhaps more reputedly, I know, but I only wanted a quick, communal glance at what others’ had said or thought!), I found another counter-view, just like I had for To Kill A Mockingbird, of the goodness I personally found in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Wikipedia says that Rabbi Benjamin Blech argues:
‘The plot is highly improbable and gives credence to the defence that people did not, and could not, know what was happening within the death camps. Students who read it, he warns, may believe the camps "weren't that bad" if a boy could conduct a clandestine friendship with a Jewish captive of the same age, unaware of "the constant presence of death" ’[v]
Again, this makes us non-experienced aware of the other side of the argument, the sufferance. However, I personally agree more with Kathryn Hughes, who Wikipedia quotes that ‘whilst agreeing about the implausibility of the plot, [Hughes] argues that:
"Bruno's innocence comes to stand for the wilful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses"[vi].
For me, Bruno’s innocence is also the innocence of the untouched by persecution; the unworldly and yet hopeful mockingbird inside us all. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a children’s book, and my reading is that John Boyne wrote to educate children how innocence can be corrupted, but yet how innocence is made up of good morals too.
As awful as our world can be, the other side of our humanity sings as steadfastly, if not as loudly. For me, the mockingbird metaphor is seen in Bruno’s innocence, goodness and friendship in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, just as it is with Tom Robinson and Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. These are morals to be proud of, to aspire to.
Yes, we have to listen harder to find this mockingbird in our materialistic, power- and adoration- obsessed 21st Century (get down off your soapbox, Deb!), but it is there: –
Decency does exist in all of us. And that is something to celebrate.
[i] pp 99-100, To Kill A Mockingbird, (Arrow Books, 2006)
[ii] Wikipedia search on ‘Harper Lee’, found under subheading ‘After To Kill A Mockingbird’, 19/02/12
[iii] Wikipedia search as above, reference17, article by Paul Toohey (July 31, 2011), "Miss Nelle in Monroeville", The Daily Telegraph (Australia), http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/the-town-where-a-mockingbird-lives/story-fn6b3v4f-1226104905164
[iv] As above, from article text.