Harper Lee’s only novel to date is To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 but set in the 1930s in America’s deep-south. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was quickly made into a successful film starring Gregory Peck. The popularity that the novel immediately attracted endures to modern times.
The semi-autobiographical story concerns the trial of an innocent black man, Tom Robinson for the rape of a white woman, Mayella Ewell and around this central drama the novelist has woven a tale which reveals the appalling nature of prejudice in many forms, not just that of colour, as her ‘mocking birds’ which must not be harmed because they do none, suffer from the cruelty and ignorance of those around them.
The story is told through the eyes of the child narrator, Scout, who lives, along with her brother, Jem, with their father, Atticus, the town lawyer and destined to represent the ill-fated Tom Robinson, and their cook/housekeeper and friend, Calpurnia. In his attitude to Calpurnia, as to much in his life, Atticus challenges the contemporary view because though Calpurnia is black, she is treated as a member of the family, much to the annoyance of his sister, Alexandra. Atticus is in fact the means by which Lee examines much that is wrong with Maycomb society, from his lack of prejudice, to his defence of Mrs. Dubose and Boo Radley and his skilful means of challenging the education system which denies Scout the freedom to read by simply ignoring it. The motto by which he lives is that, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ and this he passes on to his children. However, Lee is keen to avoid making Atticus appear patently and self-consciously heroic, as in the mad-dog incident and, indeed, his defence of Tom Robinson, he only acts ‘heroically’ when he is compelled to do so.
Lee treats the reader to a succession of humorous, sympathetic and engaging characters as the story develops, none more so than the pivotal and mysterious Boo Radley and the quaintly eccentric Dill (the latter is thought to have been based on the author Truman Capote, with whom Lee grew up). Boo is in a sense both the greatest victim and the ultimate hero in the book and in many ways Dill is the ‘comic-relief’ as well as being the representative of what we would now call a dysfunctional family as much as is Boo.
By using the device of the child narrator, Lee invites both advantages and disadvantages. She gains the innocence and naivety of Scout together with her ingenuous curiosity and her ability to diffuse tense situations by her inherent innocence but she also has the commensurate disadvantage of having to get round the problems that necessarily attach to a child being the principal means by which a trial for rape is discussed. Lee solves this in the main by having Scout overhear conversations which she does not...