Monday, November 9, 2009

Back to School: The “grotesque” of Southern Gothic


My main reason for starting the Back to School Reading Challenge was to give myself an opportunity to read all of those classics from high school I remember nothing about. I haven’t read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird since the 8th grade (and I shudder to think that was 10 whole years ago), and it’s very different than I remember.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer in 1961 and even earned Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 (yes, she is still alive!). The novel takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression (1935, or so). It’s the kind of setting that defines the story and all of the people in it. The story is told from the perspective of 6-year-old Scout Finch as she lives and learns about life and reality for a couple of years. It’s a coming-of-age story, just using a much younger age than usual. Scout and her brother Jem (four years her senior) are the two children of a widowed defense lawyer, Atticus. The story begins with the childhood innocence of a new summer as the Finch kids and their friend Dill try to coerce Boo Radley, the town recluse, out of his house. Over the next two years, however, Scout and Jem learn more about the real world than they expected as Atticus defends a black man against a rape charge in a racially charged Southern town.
I don’t know if anyone else likes to do this but when I’m reading books like this one that have such renown, I like to Wikipedia- and SparkNotes-search them so I get the full picture—the history, the context, the little-known facts. This is one of those classics that has so much behind the story that it’d seem a shame to simply read the book without Google-searching it as well.
I love Scout. It is hard to fathom that what you’re reading is supposed to be the voice of a six-year-old, but I don’t think the language used requires a completely realistic interpretation. Lee uses a child’s voice to get her point across which is this: children aren’t naive just because they don’t know the way of the world yet. They notice behaviors; they notice language; they notice injustice. The unique thing about Scout (and Jem) is that they each have a mind of their own. They notice things, but instead of just accepting actions and behaviors as the “way things are,” they question what they see. They ask “why?” and they form their own sets of beliefs. 
I read another reviewer state, “[Scout] wanted to be a person first and then a girl,” which is a mentality I am sure stemmed from the kids’ relationship with their father. Atticus is older than most other fathers, more serious, less gloat-worthy (the Finch kids have never been able to brag about his shot or athletic ability). In the two or so years spanned in this novel, Jem and Scout learn more about their father and his rules on life than they probably ever expected. Atticus teaches by example, not by words. He feels a moral obligation to defend Tom Robinson against an unjust charge, even though race relations determined his fate before the trial even began. He teaches Scout and Jem that some things are worth fighting for because they are right, even if they may be a lost cause. He treats his children with respect and earns theirs in return.
I know there are dozens of themes and motifs and symbols that one could analyze during and after reading this book, and that’s part of the fun upon finishing it. If you finish the last page and put it back on the shelf, you’re missing half of it. You wouldn’t know how the story is partly autobiographical or that it was never expected to sell. But as you read the story, savor it, and save the analysis for the end.


Kathleen said…

This was one of my favorites when I read it the first time…more than 10 years ago. Your review makes me long to reread it since I think it is such a beautiful story and I remember just adoring Scout!

colin said…

Interesting New Yorker article by Gladwell where he explains why Atticus Finch is really a horrible role model. Kind of rocked my world.

softdrink said…

I'd forgotten how young Scout was. I have this image in my mind of her being about 10.

This is the only book from high school that I'd like to re-read someday…and also one of the few books that I think the movie does justice.

J.T. Oldfield said…

I am not big on rereading, but if you can't remember it, it might as well be new to you!

Matt said…

I'm keen on re-reading and digging classics. I think classics beg re-reading because every time new ideas and themes come alive for me.

nat @book, line, and sinker said…

i love this novel and re-read it every year or so with my students. i'm with jill (softdrink)–this is one case where the movie is an excellent interpretation of the book.

you should revisit 'a raisin in the sun' or 'of mice and men'–two classics that i really like.

Rebecca Reid said…

I absolutely love this novel. I reread it after ten years and I've since decided I need to read it every couple years or so. So much in there to enjoy.

I am a HUGE fan of rereading.