On World Day for International Justice (17th July), Law Lecturer, Dr John McGarry shares some thoughts on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The other day, some friends mentioned that their daughter who, after years of saying she wanted to become an engineer, had decided that she now wants to study law. Part of the catalyst for her change of mind had been the death of George Floyd in the US, as well as other allegations of police brutality, heavy-handedness and injustices against black people, and other members of BAME communities, both in the US and in the UK.
I suggested that she might enjoy the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. The book had lately been on my mind because, being one of my favourites, I had recently persuaded my 12 year old son to read it. Also, as it happens, I am writing this in July 2020, the 60th anniversary of the book’s publication in July 1960.
The book’s narrator is Scout Finch who tells of events from her and her elder brother Jem’s childhood. It is set in the 1930s, Depression era America, in Maycomb, Alabama, a society rigidly and deeply divided by racial bigotry.
At the story’s heart is the false accusation of rape made against a black man, Tom Robinson, by a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. Scout and Jem’s widowed father, Atticus Finch, who is the town lawyer and a representative in the State legislature, is appointed by the local Judge to represent the defendant. He explains to Scout that, despite there being some ‘high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man’ he was morally compelled to do so because ‘if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.’ So, contrary to the sentiments of many of his neighbours, Atticus defends Tom fully and to the best of his ability. Despite this, and despite his obvious innocence, Tom is found guilty of the rape. He is later fatally shot while trying to escape from custody.
What shines compellingly throughout the book is the outright simple decency of Atticus Finch. Even in his questioning in court of Mayella and her father, he acts with courtesy and humanity. This is especially so with Mayella; he recognises the ignorance, poverty and brutality that blights her life. And it is clear that it causes Atticus significant anguish to reveal beyond any doubt that Mayella is lying, which humiliates Mayella and her father, but which Atticus must do to defend Tom and attempt to save his life.
Scout and Jem’s relationship with their father is also central to the book. Jem, in particular, as the older child, gradually begins to realise with dismay the inherent injustices of the society in which they live and to appreciate the remarkableness of his father. Atticus, in turn, tries to instil in his children his own values, including that they should try to understand those around them and see things from their perspective, saying to Scout ‘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’ (incidentally, Barack Obama adopted this quotation in his farewell address as President).
I have always been struck by one particular vignette in the book: Atticus teaching his son about courage by making him read every afternoon to their dislikeable neighbour Mrs Dubose as punishment for Jem attacking the camellias in her front garden. We later learn that Mrs Dubose was dying, that Atticus asked Jem to read to her in order to provide a distraction while she weaned herself off the morphine to which she was addicted, and that this was because she wanted to leave the world free of her addiction. Atticus later explains to Jem:
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
This, of course, is also true of Atticus’s defending of Tom Robinson – that in a society like Maycomb in the 1930s, Atticus was beaten before he began in trying to defend accusations against a black man made by a white woman, but that he saw it through anyway, no matter what.
Many find To Kill a Mockingbird to be poignant and uplifting; and many lawyers were motivated to pursue their careers because of it and they continue to be inspired by the character of Atticus Finch. An illustration of this enduring influence is the erection, in 1997, of a monument to Atticus Finch by the Alabama Bar Association in Monroeville, Harper Lee’s hometown.
Yet, the book has also been subject to criticisms. It has been criticised for perpetuating a white saviour myth whereby the poor black man needs to be saved by the good, honest white man. I acknowledge the charge but think that, in depicting a particular time and place, the book probably accurately reflects the reality: that in 1930s Alabama a black person would need a white lawyer if charged with a crime as serious as rape. It has also been said that Atticus does not sufficiently challenge the bigotry of those around him, his friends and his neighbours. This criticism seems to me to have some strength; indeed, as I have already indicated, Atticus advises his children to try to rub along with those around them. But I also wonder whether it is completely valid. How many of us call out every injustice that we see or every illiberal opinion that we hear? Not many, I imagine; most of us pick our battles and try to do good where we can.
Besides, when it would have been easier to do otherwise, Atticus defends Tom Robinson to the full extent of his capabilities. And he does so even though this comes at significant emotional, and sometimes physical, cost to himself and his children – even camping outside Tom’s prison cell the night before the trial to protect him from a lynch mob.
So, despite the criticisms, I see Atticus Finch as a hero and, while a work of fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird, like all fiction, reveals truth – that injustices are perpetuated by human beings, not monsters; and that people are complex, they may be thoroughly abhorrent in some ways while being noble and virtuous in many others. The book also serves as a worthwhile reminder to would-be lawyers of the good they can do in a world where justice is sometimes in short supply and where lawyers often acquire a poor reputation; indeed, it is a reminder that lawyers may sometimes be the only ones that stand between people and the injustices they face, that it may take real courage to do this when the client or the case is unpopular but that they do it anyway because it is the right, the decent, the just, thing to do.