The recent announcement that the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee may be dropped from the GCSE syllabus has sparked great surprise and opposition by those familiar with the book and its main character, Atticus Finch. Its author – Harper Lee – effortlessly demonstrates the horror of how ignorance and prejudice puts the innocent in danger. It’s a story that still has relevance today and one that provides a useful reminder of how people should behave in order to achieve justice. To condemn an innocent person is a grave injustice.
Scout tells the story of her father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer in an Alabama town. When Atticus is appointed to represent Tom Robinson – a man accused of raping Mayella Ewell – many locals disapprove because Tom is black and Mayella is white. However, despite all the disapproval Atticus and his family face, he defends Tom to the best of his ability. Meanwhile the local recluse, “Boo” Radley, preoccupies Scout and her brother Jem. A man misunderstood and condemned as a bogeyman. The children are urged by their father to walk a day in his shoes before passing judgement on his.
Although the story is told through the eyes of a child, the novel contains adult themes of rape and racial prejudice in the American South during the 1930s. The injustice of racial inequality is the dominant theme of the story but the book speaks of the need for universal justice; to not judge someone before knowing more about them, the dangers of prejudice, the need to show moral courage so that innocent people are not convicted for crimes they did not commit.
During Tom Robinson’s trial Atticus proves that lies have been told. That Mayella herself although wrong to tell lies, had done so because she was a victim of poverty and ignorance. Atticus understands that people are a combination of good and bad qualities. He is a lawyer, who not only can show integrity in the face of great criticism but also believes in showing compassion and understanding.
Following Atticus’s efforts it’s clear that Tom is innocent but nonetheless he is convicted. Atticus’s children are put in danger by their father’s defence of Tom but are ultimately saved by the very person they themselves have unfairly condemned. Atticus was right when he warned them against assumptions as they can turn out to be fatally flawed.
During the story the children are given air rifles as Christmas gifts. Atticus – who doesn’t like guns – warns them that although he’d prefer them to shoot at tin cans he knows they’ll try and shoot birds, so they can shoot at Jaybirds but not Mockingbirds. To shoot at Mockingbirds would be a sin. When Scout questions why, it’s explained to her that you shouldn’t kill a Mockingbird because it does no harm and has committed no wrong, it doesn’t destroy the garden and it simply sings.
There is still a lot to be learnt from this story for our generation. Even here in the UK it a story that drives many solicitors.