Lee’s acclaimed novel is told through the eyes of young Scout Finch. The prevailing public perception of the novel is that of the trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell. This does form the centrepiece, and by far the most gripping section of the novel, but the majority of the book is devoted to constructing the environs that Scout and her brother Jem inhabit. This is more than mere scene setting, it is essentially the heart of the novel. In giving so much time to the every day Lee allows a deep understanding of the kind of society the events happen in, so constricted by a sense of the way things should be, blind to the potential benefits of allowing some deviation from the ‘norm’.
To Kill a Mockingbird is in many ways a coming of age novel. We see Scout wrestle with the expectations and unknowns of growing up – from her first day of school where she is told she must stop reading until she reaches the designated year to wondering at Jem’s change of behaviour as he reaches puberty. She is constantly being told how she should behave - Jem and their friend Dill laugh at her for acting like a girl and she also has to contend with the opposing pressure of Aunt Alexandra who is shocked at her perceived lack of appropriate female behaviour. The roles and expectations of people in society is a theme that arises throughout the novel whether it be the Finch’s reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, Scout as a young girl, Tom Robinson, or Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and of high regard, they are encouraged to conform to the roles and behaviours expected of them.
Atticus is painted as a moral figure, facing the backlash of his peers for taking on Tom’s case. The fact that he is doing so because the judge chose him to is somewhat brushed over but can leave the reader a touch disheartened. Be that as it may, he does a fine job, indicating that he is not as close minded as many of the others who would not necessarily have done their best in a similar situation. The trial itself is intense and incites outrage in the reader at the injustice. By setting the Ewells, a family shunned by the neighbourhood, against Tom, Lee skillfully emphasizes just how bad the prejudice is and how little hope there was.
Scout and Jem are witness to the trial and their reactions are an important indicator of the morals they will take on. This exposure to injustice strips them of their innocence and is a significant moment in their transition toward adulthood. It is telling that Scout can pick up on the hypocrisy of the adults condemning the prejudices of Hitler’s actions whilst happily sending an innocent man to his death for nothing more than the colour of his skin. The use of a child narrator adds to the poignancy of the tale.
It is always interesting encountering such a well-known story for the first time. Less of the book is given to what I’d always believed to be the main thrust of the novel, but it is in these other sections that the characters and settings are built, and the themes are dealt with more subtly. It also serves to show the characters who could easily be condemned for their prejudice as human, and as the norm. The world may have moved on (to an extent) but this story is still relevant, and Lee’s writing remains gripping.