To Kill a Mockingbird is more complex than you think.

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, a review of the film The Help, which in passing says something with which I strongly disagree. The reviewer, Patricia A. Turner, writes:

“Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.”

This is an interesting, and typically overly class-focused, charge to level at To Kill a Mockingbird–both the film and the book–and I have to say that, especially in the latter case, I disagree with it. First of all, while it is a stereotype, I suspect it was true that those who had received an education from the schools–which were largely established by the North during Reconstruction–would be more likely to have more liberal views on race,  and those who didn’t–like the Ewells in the novel–would be less likely to.

Moreover, it is believable that the lower-class whites would be more likely to have to resort to racism at that time. I hate to keep quoting Paul Graham all the time, but once again, he put it very well:

“To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn’t need taboos to protect it. It’s not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo.”

This offhand comment in Turner’s review is symptomatic of an increase in hostility towards not only the film adaptation, which I suppose is reasonable, but also towards Harper Lee’s excellent book itself in recent years. About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal published a critique of it by Allen Barra, in which he criticized the book for being too simplistic. Barra claims–correctly, in my view–that “[i]n all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity,” but then goes on to say that “[t]here is no ambiguity in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'”. However, Barra does make one interesting point when he compares the character of Atticus Finch to the portrayal of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons.

Barra’s choice to make this comparison is interesting to me, first because I love both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Man for All Seasons, and second because it sets up an interesting compare and contrast exercise. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from Bolt’s play, when Roper is demanding that More have someone arrested and More refuses:

 “ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down–and you’re just the man to do it–d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”

Compare the philosophy espoused here by More with the final scene of To Kill a Mockingbird. The sheriff says he’ll do exactly what Roper would do: ignore the law to see what he considers “Justice” done, despite Atticus’s hesitation. Who is right?

Both Atticus and More are what D&D players call “lawful good”.  And both of them pay for it; Atticus’s children get attacked by Ewell, and it is only by the actions of Boo Radley that they are saved. Radley and the sheriff, not Atticus, are the ones who ultimately save the day. In A Man for All Seasons, More pays with his own life for his insistence on adhering to both his conscience and the law.

You can can look at them as exemplary, flawless heroes–or you can look at them as naive, holier-than-thou types who cause needless grief to their loved ones because of their own righteousness. The point is, there’s more moral complexity here than some people realize.  

1 Comment

  1. Great comparison of two excellent works. The play Man For All Seasons has the one character who portrays the common man in various characters pointing out that More's infexibility is his undoing, that no matter how smart he is, this was stupid.TNT did a great version of it with Charleton Heston as More.

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