Classic is a word bandied about a lot when it comes to books. There are many, many lists of classics out there, and some writers are lucky enough to have just about all their books called classics (and not just because they were written many years ago).
Harper Lee is a writer whose entire output is classed as classic, but that’s because she’s only released one book. Well, that will remain true for just a couple more days and then, more than 50 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was first published, we’ll get to read a second book by the famously reclusive author.
In preparation for the release of Go Set a Watchman, I decided to reread To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I remember enjoying, but one I haven’t read in more than a decade. Would To Kill a Mockingbird stand up to memory and be as good as I thought it was? And would it still be relevant?
Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is growing up in Maycomb, Alabama. The tomboy prefers spending time getting in trouble with older brother Jem than she does putting on dresses and playing with dolls. The siblings are both fascinated and scared by Boo Radley, the mysterious recluse next door, while the rest of their neighbours and town bore them. But when their lawyer father, Atticus Finch, is called to defend a black man accused of raping a white girl, Scout and Jem become more aware of the prejudice, violence and racism at the heart of Maycomb.
Told from the point of view of Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that has a character with a beautifully distinctive voice. Scout is by turns witty, dry, knowing, naive, and always, always, very much her own person. She’s a headstrong girl, never afraid to say what she thinks, whether the subject matter is clothes or her classmates. Scout is wonderfully brave, which is partially down to her naivety – if she’d known better she wouldn’t have intervened between a mob about to attack her father for defending Tom Robinson. Ultimately, Scout is one of the great heroines of literature.
Scout’s father Atticus is the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird. An older, single father, he is the novel’s conscience, asking Scout, Jem and the readers to constantly examine their prejudices, conscious and unconscious. We see Atticus through the eyes of Scout, who doesn’t always appreciate or understand her father. But Lee writes in such a way that we can see through Scout’s frustrations and anger to the man that Atticus is – noble, brave, intelligent, and perhaps sometimes a little too perfect.
But if Atticus is the conscience of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Scout is its soul, then dear Jem is its heart, or he has mine at the very least. We see Jem grow up and apart from Scout, much to her chagrin, but he always cares about his sister, and he has an understanding she doesn’t of the way the world works because of the years he has on her. Watching Jem’s heart break as he discovers true injustice is itself heartbreaking.
To Kill a Mockingbird‘s great characters are accompanied by Lee’s brilliant insights into the Deep South in the 1930s. Central to that is race and class, and the court case of Tom Robinson displays both of those. Racism is rife in Maycomb, but I’d completely forgotten how much the novel also dealt with class, and how ingrained the class system in Maycomb is. But no matter how low class, and classless, some of Maycomb’s residents are, the colour of Tom’s skin means that he will always be at a disadvantage. Lee captures the casualness of the racism of the time and place, as well as its devastating consuquences, with a spareness that drives it home all the more.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautifully rendered book, and yes it does still feel relevant – its discussions of racism and the attributes ascribed to certain people because of their ethnicity are discussions we’re still having today. I don’t know what Go Set a Watchman will be like, but if it’s half as good as To Kill a Mockingbird it will still be a decent novel. Whether it will become a classic remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that when applied to To Kill a Mockingbird, classic is a word that cannot be bandied about enough.