Is To Kill A Mockingbird really the best book of all time?
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When you ask someone what their favourite book is, they’ll often say without missing a beat… To Kill A Mockingbird.
Published in 1960, the novel written by Harper Lee, (and the 1962 Academy Award winning film adaptation) has become a cult classic, and it’s ingrained in the lives of so many of us. For me, it was on my school curriculum and I spent my final years at school buried in the life of Scout Finch.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) // Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
What is it actually about?
Simplifying its plot, To Kill A Mockingbird is a story told through the eyes of young Alabama native, Scout. Her mother has died, with her and her elder brother Jem being raised by their father, literary hero, Atticus (more on him later.)Together with her brother and their friend Dill (who is allegedly inspired by Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote) they run riot around the town, and terrorise their poor reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley.
The plot follows Scout and her family, as a man in their town is wrongly accused of raping a young woman. That’s the gist of the story - so why, decades later are we still so intoxicated by the tale of the Finch family?The answer in short is Atticus. Atticus Finch is the literary protagonist of dreams, the father we all wished we had. He’s a lawyer, and the only one who is willing to represent the accused - because the suspect is black, the town has already found him guilty and in their eyes his death penalty is already signed.
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Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her father Atticus. // Image credit: James Vaughan, via Flickr
Is Atticus a 'white saviour'?
If the book was written in 2019, I’m sure it would be criticised for Atticus’s ‘white saviour’ complex, and that in part is true. At the heart of the story is a man who has been accused of something purely because of the colour of skin, yet the character we all remember and love is the white man who defends him.
Contextually this book was published in the ‘60s when it was very rare for race to be written about in any way, so Harper Lee was breaking boundaries. Having a white family of protagonists made it more “socially acceptable” for white children to read, and it became part of the required reading at millions of schools across the globe. It teaches them the issues with racism, and the importance of empathy - which at its very heart is much more important than who the main character is.
So why do so many people love it? What’s so good about it?
It’s a book about human nature, and in my personal experience as a white child growing up in England, it was the first time I’d ever really been made to think about race.
You learn about race in history - the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King - but there’s an aspect of separation. To Kill A Mockingbird takes you to the heart of the deep south, where racism is still rife today. The lessons learnt are learned through the eyes of Scout, she’s young and naive and doesn’t yet know how awful people can be.
Through watching her father she learns to never really judge a person until you’ve walked in their shoes. In the case of Boo Radley, she has no idea who he really is and what his story is. She decides to stop judging people from the stories other people have told her, and instead form her own opinions.
It's stood the test of time because it's a story about domestic relationships; it's not an action-packed story full of twists and turns. It’s a book that doesn’t have a happy ending, but equally it isn’t sad either. It's a story of hope and forgiveness, of love and friendship. And it teaches you to be kind to everybody because you never know what they’re going through.