This marks the third time I’ve read this novel. I first picked it up when I was a naive twelve year old, my first impression being, this is definitely not a story for children. Some of the situations described—the abuse Arthur “Boo” Radley suffered at the hands of his father and older brother and the dialogue of the rape trial—disturbed me. At the time, I had wondered why through all those years no one offered to help Arthur escape from his situation. There were all of those neighbors, not to mention a lawyer living next door, yet everyone turned a blind eye. It seemed so cruel and unjust I couldn’t understand it. I also couldn’t fathom the reason why Tom Robinson felt compelled to help Mayella Ewell when it was common knowledge across the town that this family was trouble. I thought he should have known better, especially on that particular day when he noticed the house was deserted and felt that something was not quite right. Back then those negative images eclipsed all the good elements, which I now consider strengths in Harper Lee’s writing. As an adult, I can now understand the emotional desperation of a young woman isolated and abused being attracted to anyone regardless of race to show affection to a man who showed her kindness and in turn for Tom to forgo social restraints to feel pity for such a girl.
I had to read the book again as a freshman in high school, and even though only the themes of childhood innocence and racial oppression and opposition in a small town were addressed, I began to develop a new respect for the novel and made a mental note to revisit it again. As this year marked the 50th anniversary of its publication and since TCM aired the film a couple times in the past month, I thought now would be a good time for a reread.
Harper Lee is a visual writer, her words paint strong images in your mind’s eye—the only other author that I’ve come across with the same ability is Truman Capote. My favorite part of the novel is Harper’s depiction of the collective mindset of a mob. The mob is not a group of individuals, but an anonymous collective sharing one goal in mind. Showing the simple fact of a child naming one person in the collective could immediately dissolve that mob mentality and turn the collective back into individuals was a depiction masterfully done. Love it! When Scout calls out, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.” it’s like a celestial ray of light piercing through the dark cloud of mob rule and helping Mr. Cunningham and the others find their individual conscience.
I also like the ambiguity of the ending: Was it really murder or was it just an accident… did Bob Ewell really just trip and fall on his own knife after being pushed away by Boo Radley? Though personally, I prefer the latter version.