A rape trial turns out to involve incest in a Pulitzer Prize–winner set in the South in the 1930s
A Book-of-the-Month Club survey once ranked To Kill a Mockingbird among the top five books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives. And Claudia Durst Johnson, a former English professor at the University of Alabama, found that it appeared on secondary-school reading lists as often as any book in English.
What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Harper Lee’s only novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961? Certainly it tells a powerful story of an honorable lawyer, Atticus Finch, who accepts the near-hopeless task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the mid-1930s. It also has one of the most engaging child heroines in American fiction: Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, six years old when the story begins, who has an unselfconscious integrity as admirable as her father’s moral courage.
But the novel has more going for it than a strong plot and memorable characters. To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core an idea at once simple and vital to civilization: When everyone else is doing the wrong thing, one person can still do the right thing.
Young as she is, Scout understands that her father stands all but alone in defending Tom Robinson. Why has he taken on a case in which, as she sees it, “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong”?
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” Finch tells his daughter, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult looking back on the defining event of her childhood, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Some critics see Finch one-dimensional, too saintly to be credible. But much of the writing in the book is exquisitely subtle. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping the lonely Mayella Ewell, whose father has brought charges against him. And as the facts of the case emerge, it becomes clear that she was making advances to him and that her father caught her in the act. At his trial Robinson says that Mayella told him she had never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”
“What her papa do to her don’t count.” Has any novel ever described sexual abuse with such delicacy? At that moment, we know that the crime in this novel is not rape but incest and that the motives of Mayella’s father, in accusing Robinson, went beyond racial prejudice.
Novels about such crimes abound today and often show only the worst of human nature. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy, but shows good and evil, side by side. It tells us that when much of the world wears blinders, some people see clearly. If they have a vision of justice, their children – like Scout – will remember.
This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), and Greater Expectations (Wednesday).
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.