Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Why To Kill a Mocking Bird is One Of the Most Influential American Novels Ever Published

by Lily Godkin

During her life, Harper Lee only wrote two novels. The one for which she is most famous is To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, for which she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature; she also received numerous honorary degrees. To Kill a Mockingbird explores the dynamics of 1930s America and the racism that consumes it. The novel considers the social and racial hierarchy within the community and also looks at the expectations of a woman in the early 20th century. 

The second of her novels was a sequel to To Kill a Mocking Bird, Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015, over half a century after Mockingbird. And yet, despite having only ever released two actual novels and some articles, Lee is still considered one of the most successful novelists of twentieth and twenty-first century American literature.

I think that one reason for her success is that she explores a theme central to American experience: race. In 1960, Martin King's movement was beginning to bring civil rights into the national debate. In Mockingbird, Harper Lee portrayed racism in its raw, naked form, exposing people's ignorance and revealing that although not everyone practiced racism, the majority condoned it. 

I believe To Kill a Mockingbird’s success was not only due to its thematic relevance but also to Lee’s portrayal of characters. Each figure is presented as complex and ambiguous. Even the antagonist, Bob Ewell, is portrayed at some point in a sympathetic light. Lee describes the lower class white males in a derogatory manner; by clearly explaining that both women and black people are lower in terms of social hierarchy than such white males she makes us question the unjust nature of American society because their lives are valued by the community as worth less than Ewell. This shows their social inferiority, emphasised by the insignificance of a black man, Tom Robinson's, death from the perspective of society, in prison for a crime Lee encourages us to believe he didn’t commit.

Lee’s decision to write in the third person, from the viewpoint of a young girl, allows her to have an innocent, uninfluenced narrator; the child, Scout's, confusion and disorientation throughout the series of events intensifies the emotion of the novel and elicits sympathy for her, something which has already been established with the young girl having lost her mother. Lee’s choice to not have an omniscient narrator allows the novel to have a sense of ambiguity and forces the audience to establish their own opinion on the series of events as opposed to agreeing with the opinions of one of the characters; this is one of the most interesting things regarding To Kill a Mocking Bird, making the novel so thought-provoking. 

In addition, Lee writes from the viewpoint of a young woman in the misogynistic world of the 1930s, allowing her to be placed in the middle of the spectrum between the discriminators and the discriminated. Furthermore, Scout’s point of view allows all characters to be explained with simplicity, for example Boo Radley, their neighbour and a figure presented by the children as monster-like. However, ultimately, Scout and her brother Jem are able to see another side to Boo; with their child-like curiosity and open minds, they are able to see Boo as a mockingbird, who saves them and showers them with small gifts; as stated in the novel “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird . . . Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.” I believe this belief in the need to preserve innocence goes to the heart of Lee's novel.

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