literature, writing

Year of Required Reading, Part 1: To Kill a Mockingbird


A series in which I read books on required reading lists and discuss their merits.

Ask anyone in the US to name a book they had to read in school, and they will probably say: To Kill a Mockingbird. Ask them to tell you what it’s about, and they will probably mumble something about Scout and childhood and Boo Radley and the tree.

Some people with very good memories, and who actually read the book, might tack on something about a trial.

to kill a mockingbird

It’s interesting that this book has two main storylines. It is indeed about Scout’s childhood and her obsession with the mysterious neighbor who never leaves his house. It is also largely about Scout’s father defending a falsely accused black man in the racist South.

Part of what makes this book so good is that these two completely separate narratives tackle exactly the same theme in two different ways: prejudice is often wrong and hurts people. The one is the childhood and more innocent version of kids making up scary stories about the unknown neighbor. The other is far more dangerous, the penalty of which is death, about assuming guilt based on someone’s skin color.

But the book also has seemingly endless subplots. There’s the rabid dog that has to be shot as it saunters through the town. There’s a house fire. There’s Mrs. Dubose going off her pain medication to die.

Let’s actually talk about that one for a second. When I was in school, I was taught this was a “brave” decision. She had an addiction to morphine, and she proved to the world that she could break the addiction and die sober and clearheaded.

Now that I’m older, this explanation is wholly unsatisfactory.

These days we look at palliative care for end-of-life decisions as a humane and worthy advancement in the field of healthcare. We put people on morphine for their last moments so that it’s a peaceful experience.

Going off her meds wasn’t brave. It just ensured that her last moments alive would be painful, and that she would be suffering from withdrawal. I can’t think of anything worse. This book paints the wrong picture about what that would be like and whether it was a good thing.

Scout is an Unreliable Narrator

One interesting thing we never discussed in school was whether Scout is an unreliable narrator.

As a kid, I never realized that Scout is only five or six years old in the first chapters. That’s really, really young. Yet she speaks, reads, thinks, and acts like she’s thirty years old.

This raises the question: was she really this mature, or is the narrator recalling these events as an adult with a biased viewpoint. I think it has to be the latter, which means we have an unreliable narrator on our hands.

At one point, she even discusses an entailment lawsuit with an adult man to persuade an angry mob to back down. As much as that scene works on a narrative level, it is quite a stretch to believe when you think about Scout being six.

Overall, this book is well-written and excellent for discussion about various themes. It teaches solid moral lessons about prejudice and justice. This makes it a good choice for required reading.

Downsides

On the other hand, let’s discuss some downsides.

the great gatsby

The book is quite unfocused. It reads like most “first books,” where the author tries to do too much. Unlike similarly structured required reading like A Separate Peace and The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird has thematic and tonal inconsistencies.

There are many scenes that feel out of place. The beginning has comedic scenes with the teacher not understanding the idiosyncrasies of different families of the town. This tone doesn’t mesh at all with the seriousness of the death penalty for a falsely accused man.

I get the purpose of these scenes, but I don’t get why they are done that way. These idiosyncrasies could have been woven into the story more naturally in scenes that actually advance the plot or develop the main characters.

The first few paragraphs establish the wrong theme. They talk about what caused Jem’s broken arm. It starts with standard proximate causes, but then widens to maybe going back to Andrew Jackson and the founding of Alabama. If that hadn’t been done, they wouldn’t even live there for it to have happened.

So the opening chapter establishes the main concept for the book as a look at free will and determinism and the consequences of choices we make. This is a fine theme for a novel, but as I pointed out above, the two later plots are mainly about prejudice, fairness, and justice.

One can argue these are related, but only in the sense that everything is related. These are starkly different in terms of theme.

The numerous subplots raise a smattering of tangential ideas and themes from bravery to honor to free will. This is far too much for a book of its size, and these tangential ideas don’t reinforce the central themes in any direct way.

There’s a reason no one remembers any of these parts of the book a few years after they read it. It’s quite simple: they don’t actually contribute meaningfully to the overall novel.

But these are minor nitpicks. The book changes from a smattering of short stories about childhood in the beginning to a pretty gripping courtroom drama in the second half.

As I said, I still wholeheartedly endorse this novel as required reading.

~~~

Year of Required Reading, Part 0

The Grapes of Wrath: Should it be Required?

5 thoughts on “Year of Required Reading, Part 1: To Kill a Mockingbird”

  1. I find it tricky to accuse a novel of not sticking to its “theme”, when a “theme” is a pretty fuzzy concept anyway. Things that may not seem related to you may have felt inseparable for the author. Especially an author that wrote 50 years ago, in a different society. There is no question that this author connected powerfully with the people of her time, so it’s fair to say that her intended readers didn’t feel that the book went all over the place. You seem to be complaining that the author failed to guess how a reader of a much later time would react, and that’s always unfair.

  2. I actually compared it to two other novels that came out before hers that don’t have this problem. I strongly disagree that this is a time sensitive thing.

    If you look up interviews with any longtime author or director, you will find they all say that they learned to have more focus in story and thematic consistency as they got more experience. It’s unfortunate, but early career artists always want to throw every idea they think of into a work. It’s not only a common thing but also a concrete concept.

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