A Discussion of To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird


The following is a largely verbatim transcription of a discussion some time in the early 1990s, in Arcadia, California, of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, and the movie for which Gregory Peck won an Academy Award.  Participating were Alan Carl Nicoll, Brady Conerly, and Mary Conerly, members of the “Mighty Handful Reading Group.”  The group disbanded after perhaps a year of monthly meetings.

Brady Conerly:  Remarkably faithful adaptation the movie was.  Captured so much of the same spirit of it.

Alan Nicoll:  I feel the same way.

BC:  In fact, when reading it I never replaced the characters with different people than the actors.  Gregory Peck as Atticus is about as perfect a choice as I could imagine.

AN:  I think the movie might have been better if they had devoted more to the business with Mrs. Dubose, I mean, her and Jem.

To Kill 2

BC:  The little boy, yeah, this is written in two parts.  I was trying to make sense out of that, make it very telling, and that’s what turns the first part of it, which is totally cut out.  I didn’t remember from the movie until the very end that Scout literally resolved the Mockingbird metaphor, I feel like it has a lot more significance in the book.  Maybe the mockingbird was the youthful innocence of the children, and that the first act was Jem losing his, and the second act was Scout losing hers.  The first act turns with Jem realizing that somebody that is racist and what he always imagines being wrong could still be the most courageous person that he knew to date.  And while he was wizened and certainly no worse for his maturity, from that point on he couldn’t look back, you know, the innocence was gone.  And Scout loses hers at the end when Boo Radley is finally revealed to her.  So that’s what I was thinking maybe the significance of the mockingbird thing was and that would make sense as far as the two parts of the book and also that when you adapt it to make it fit into the 2« hours that that would be too many stories.  You just kind of lose Jem story and deal with the Scout story.

AN:  Yeah.

Mary Conerly:  That’s interesting, I didn’t think of that.

BC:  So many of the names are so descriptive that they kind of beg allegorical comparison, and if you think of the allegory I just made, it might be significant that the family is named Finch.

AN:  That’s very good.

MC:  I’d thought about that, yeah.

BC:  Only novel.  I was boggling on the way over

MC:  If you’re only going to write one novel, this is a good one.

BC:  How old was she when she wrote it?

MC:  She was a child in Alabama in the ’30s.

BC:  It was written in the ’60s, so she wasn’t very old, 34?

AN:  I’m sure they refer very often to what the mockingbird refers to or might be.  They compare Boo Radley and Tom Robinson to innocent victims of prejudice.

BC:  Those are pretty literally drawn in the book, certainly the Boo Radley is because she says to put Boo Radley in jail would be like killing a mockingbird.  But it seems to reach well beyond that.

AN:  Except, well, you were talking about Mrs. Dubose in relation to Jem’s innocence.  I don’t see that he lost his innocence or that it’s been killed by this experience.  He’s done a piece of growing up, certainly, but that doesn’t really fit so well with the metaphor, I don’t think, with the senseless slaughter.  In his case I don’t think it fits very well.

BC:  What the children all along… Scout seems so enlightened the whole way through, although she’s never quite right on the mark, she always has profound and insightful observations but they’re never exactly right and I think one of the things is that kids are always wanting to understand the world in black-and- white, consistent terms where they could have a rule that would apply to everybody, and what they consistently learn is that it just never works that way.  And I think that’s what’s shown to Jem at the end of Part One.  He’s closing in on getting a grasp of the thing, when he really sees that, that what he thought, clearly she is bad, and he has to find out that not only is she clearly not bad, but she’s one of the most courageous people he’s probably ever met.  In that sense, that kind of innocence, where you can see the world in terms of black-and- whites, in a consistent rule you can apply to everybody is lost.  Even if “innocence” isn’t the right thing, and it might not be, certainly something changes because Jem’s story ends there.  Jem becomes a minor character from that point on.

AN:  That’s true because he withdraws more.

MC:  And Scout can’t understand him any more or relate to him.

BC:  And you see that he becomes a minor character and also then an older brother.

AN:  I guess as far as Scout is concerned he’s become an adult.

BC:  I think that’s right.  But she probably has, too, at the end.

AN:  For her it would be when she’s standing on the Radley porch.

BC:  Boy, what remarkably complex and beautiful characters are made in here.  But there’s something interesting that happens even with Aunt Alexandra at the end.

MC:  She transforms…

BC:  She seems to have some kind of enlightenment that I certainly didn’t expect of her.  She doesn’t seem to have very much patience for any kind of sensitivity towards human kind relative to the formalities of proper life, but she seems very upset at the end.

MC:  Well I think that she goes through the same kind of thing that Scout and Jem do.  She has a very set idea of what life is and how everyone should behave and be, and I think it’s shattered for her.

BC:  I’m not sure I caught that as much as…

MC:  I’m not sure exactly what it is that does it, but it seems like . . .  because she’s so strong in what she says, how Scout should behave, how Jem should behave, how wrong Atticus is, how, you know.

BC:  Also there’s a piece of the mockingbird metaphor that I can’t quite put my finger on but it seems to me it’s got to be there somewhere, that what a mockingbird does is imitate all the other creatures in life and not have kind of an existence of its own, which fits with so much of the society people which definitely come to the fore in the second part with Aunt Alexandra and the teas in the house and all that, but doesn’t seem to jive with the innocence that the mockingbird represents, that is clearly drawn as part of the literal metaphor of the book.  What’s interesting here is that “To Kill a Mockingbird” as the title and clearly an important metaphor to the book seems an abstract sort of metaphor, but the characters in the book paint it very literally, but that doesn’t seem to undermine the abstractness of it that also is there.  I think in a lot of works, especially when the title is a metaphor in the book, when it’s painted literally by the characters, that’s about as deep as it goes, but in this book it seems to transcend well beyond that, and I think it’s a credit to the author.  That’s she’s actually able to paint it literally but not have it rob it of it’s abstract sort of sense that permeates deeper levels and asks you locate or to find a meaning to the metaphor.  You know what I’m saying?

AN:  I think so.  But I don’t know that I see that much more there to be gotten out of the metaphor.

BC:  The structure of the book doesn’t lead you to believe that the metaphor is as simple as it is.  Because the book is certainly about much more than Boo Radley.  The metaphor is painted for us in terms of Boo Radley.  Boo Radley is an innocent, and we learn at the end that you can’t shoot him because he’s as innocent as a mockingbird.

AN:  Right.

BC:  It goes much deeper than that and clearly even beyond the Tom Robinson thing.  It seems to me most primarily addressed with people’s understanding of the rest of the world and particularly in racism, in kind of a . . .

MC:  Don’t you think that because Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are both representatives of the mockingbird, you can’t shoot a mockingbird, it’s so innocent, it only sings.  Tom Robinson is shot, he’s a mockingbird that is shot, but at the end of the book Boo Radley is one that isn’t, and I think that it shows how these people go from thinking to the enlightenment at the end of the book.

BC:  I think that’s really true.  I assume that’s kind of what this is supposed to address here, society’s move to a more tolerant society.  The end is very bitterly ironic that Atticus has to sacrifice everything that he believes in and has taught his children to, in order to have this change to society.  Sheriff Heck has to force him to not do what he thinks is right, and that is to force the issue and let Boo Radley face his . . .

MC:  But isn’t he deciding what is the truly right thing to do?  Is it right to put a human being through this?

BC:  That’s why the innocence thing seems to be, because the biggest thing in the book seems to me Atticus going up and lying to Scout at the end, when he says, “Scout, Bob Ewell fell on his knife.”  And that’s the last thing he says to Scout, right?

AN:  Well, she understands that this is a fabrication.

MC:  That’s what I thought.

BC:  Right.  But up until this point . . .  Well, sure she does.  But Atticus has never lied to his children in any respect, and that’s been the most important thing to him the whole way through, and that’s what he argues with Heck Tate about on the porch.

AN:  That’s true.

BC:  So it’s such an ironic thing that he has to sacrifice everything he’s built his life on and tried to teach his kids in order to get justice.

AN:  Uh huh.

BC:  So he has to compromise his sense of justice to achieve a real justice.  So, was it the right thing to do?

MC:  Yeah.

BC:  It’s so blurry, and that’s what makes the book so resonant, and gives me gooseflesh even talking about it.

MC:  It was interesting because the day after reading the book the film was on TV and I watched it and how, of course, in the film it’s to the end of the movie when the Sheriff says that he fell on his knife and everybody kind of accepts it within a few minutes and how Atticus in the book, you know, it takes him an awfully long time to realize that Jem didn’t do it, that Boo Radley did . . .

BC:  That seemed awfully strange to me, didn’t it to you?

MC:  And I thought maybe he didn’t want to appear biased for his son, and so he was maybe going to the other extreme.

BC:  I think there’s a really romantic interpretation too, that he was just so distraught that his mind wouldn’t even let him paint a scenario where the same thing could happen again in terms of Boo Radley.

MC:  He also could have felt, I mean, I don’t know if there’s anything in the book to support it, but a sort of sense of loss and guilt over Tom Robinson, I mean he knew that there was not much chance that he was going to get him off, but it was still his case, still his client.

BC:  What a noble, noble character Atticus is.  What a book!  What a marvelous book!

MC:  Patty doesn’t know what she missed.

BC:  The fact that the ending is so ironic is one of the things that points to the fact that the metaphor can’t be as simple as Boo Radley and Tom Robinson.  I think she’s talking about it in terms of all of the society . . . she spends so much time dealing with other little details of society, and the whole notion of formalized society, especially in terms of this tea party that comes up at the end.  Certainly Atticus shooting the rabid dog has to play into the metaphor somehow because it makes use of the literal words of the metaphor, “shooting,” and . . .

MC:  We’ve kind of come to the conclusion that Scout goes through her enlightenment, Jem goes through his, where he becomes an adult, Alexandra maybe goes through some kind of change, maybe Atticus’s change is realizing that there is no straight path of truth and . . . it’s not like that.

BC:  I think that’s exactly right.  Every significant character in the book comes to terms with the fact that there is no black-and-white, and that the world is a compromise.

MC:  That’s right.

BC:  And even Atticus, who we think to be the most balanced, just man, he’s always, “Make sure you step in the other guy’s shoes,” and we realize at the end that there’s room for compromise in his life too, and not until he does can any kind of justice be served, but there’s also a sense that this is going to be really devastating to Atticus when he kneels down and has to lie to Scout and has to ask her to understand why he’s lying.

AN:  I don’t look on it as his lying, though.

BC:  But he does, though.  Very literally he does in a way that he never did in the book.

AN:  True.  But it seems hard to call it a lie when there’s no real deception going on.

BC:  Except that he’s never done it before, and I think that in the terms that we’ve come to understand Atticus’ character, it’s a lie in his mind.  Even in the fact, that I think you’re right, that’s a very good point, there is no deception, so in a literal sense you could make the argument that it wasn’t even a lie, but I think in terms of Atticus and his character it is.

AN:  It’s more like an inside joke than a lie.  I mean, it’s not a joke at all, but . . .

BC:  But don’t you think he’s going to spend a lot of nights working through that.

MC:  I don’t think so.  I don’t think he will be up at nights trying to rationalize why he lied to his daughter.  I think there’s an understanding of the way that the world works, that he kind of accepts at the end, because here’s this child who understands it so clearly.

BC:  But if that’s what you’re saying, that his whole life is redefined in that moment, which is what I’m arguing, I’m just saying that nobody undergoes a total life transformation and then goes back to life as usual the next day.

MC:  I’m not saying that he’ll go back to the way he was, I’m saying I’m not sure that he’ll spend the next week, or whatever . . .

BC:  But if he went through a life change, that’s something that you’re going to think about every day for the rest of your life.  I mean, you can’t just resolve it in one moment and never have it come up again.  If you’re changing your whole attitude towards life, that kind of course and direction is going to be part of your existence from then on.

MC:  That seems different than he’s going to have a lot of trouble justifying lying to his child.  It seems to me he would just begin to live his life in another way.

BC:  That’s going to be a building process.  His whole conception of reality and he thought that he had control and he told his children, if never lied to his children, and always proceeded on one path he would be all right and would never have to rethink that, but I think now that he will have to rethink every aspect of his life.

MC:  Maybe.  I could agree with that.  But also it’s not like he’s blatantly lying to his children, and his children are sitting there not knowing.

BC:  Oh, no, I know.

MC:  And that seems to me to make it somewhat of a different . . .

BC:  I think he felt he could protect his children with the truth, which is a strange and unlikely approach you don’t see very often.  You know, other people protect their children by lying to them and withholding certain things.  And he always thought that if he told his children the truth and explained things to them just as they were, that then he would be able to protect them in that sense, but in the end he realizes that that won’t work, that the approach that he had is flawed, and that he is going to have to enter the world of common men in many respects, even though he always argued that he was never afraid of the world of common men.

MC:  Yea, but this is different, Bob Ewell lied, but it was a different sort of thing.

BC:  Oh, absolutely.  That’s what’s kind of interesting about the book, that, in many ways, a lot of the people that have racist notions, including Alexandra, and maybe that’s why she’s there, to represent society as a whole, she has that metamorphosis at the end . . .

AN:  Well, certainly Southern womanhood, I think.

BC:  Right.  But they both have to take a step towards each other.  She’s going to take a step away from her conventionalized societal racism, which outwardly says that they aren’t racist, but clearly are, but on the other thing, Atticus has to come off his pillar at the end and move in the direction of the bad guys.  The bad guys have to move towards the good guys, the good guys have to move towards the bad guys, and only then can society move forward toward a newer kind of justice and understanding.

AN:  I think I’m having trouble with use of the word “lie,” because I don’t think Scout is deceived at all, but it’s forcing him to live a lie in the sense of having to accept what he knows is not really true.

BC:  I think that in that sense it’s a lie in itself.  I can’t say that he lied to Scout.

AN:  Well, it’s accepting hypocrisy, whereas, before he’d always rejected it.

BC:  Not only accepting, but embracing it, to meet his ends.  That’s exactly right.  The hypocrites, in terms of Aunt Alexandra, make a little move towards enlightenment, but the enlightened people, in terms of Atticus, have to embrace hypocrisy a little bit for society to be able to be more just.

AN:  That sums it up.

BC:  Wait, that’s a big, heavy thing to be able to accomplish in a novel.  It’s remarkable.

AN:  Yes, I agree.  What did you see changing in Alexandra?  I didn’t pick up on that.

BC:  It’s very vague, I think.

MC:  She loses that cool, Southern woman sort of thing, where she’s so critical, and she becomes somehow gentle and very understanding.

AN:  This is after the attack?

MC:  Yeah, it’s very brief.  But I just remember noticing how her character was different.

BC:  So did I, but it didn’t seem to come out.

MC:  Maybe she wasn’t as thought out as the other characters.

BC:  On the other hand, I was reading this book that Jeff wrote, and one of the arguments that he makes, and it’s kind of a literary Marxism that he preaches, is that when you distance the reader from the changes in character, it forces you to look at the changes in less personal, and therefore more political, terms.  And I think one of the reasons I can come to the conclusion is perhaps that she represents society and the society of women, and probably organized society as a whole, and where she makes a change that we don’t understand where it comes out of, it lets us look in terms and say things like maybe she represents the fact that these two events are going to make the hypocrites of the world have a little more sympathy and a little more understanding.  Whereas if we saw a cause and effect motion where she goes into Jem’s room and lifts up his hand and sees the bruise on his arm and starts to cry, and then we see her change and be more sympathetic, then we would be less drawn to look at it and ask questions about does it have significance in a political or societal terms, we would understand it more as a cause and effect relationship in terms of character.

MC:  I’m not sure.  One of the most interesting things about her is when she has that one church women’s group over, and they’re all kind of ganging up on her because of Atticus defending Tom . . .

BC:  And Miss Maude says that thing.

MC:  Yeah, she backs her.

BC:  But I didn’t understand what Miss Maude was saying.

MC:  I’d have to look at it again.

BC:  Let me find that . . .

MC:  But I thought that that was the time that she would understand what it was like to be on the outside, but then there was nothing that really happened right . . .

BC:  Well certainly the scene was played like that was her first step.  I didn’t understand what Miss Maude was saying.  Here we go.  Let me read the paragraph up to it.

“Mrs. Merriweather nodded wisely.  Her voice soared over the       clink of coffee cups and the soft bovine sounds of the ladies       munching their dainties.  “Gertrude,” she said, “I tell you there       are some good but misguided people in this town.  Good, but       misguided.  Folks in this town who think they’re doing right, I       mean.  Now far be it from me to say who, but some of ’em in this       town thought they were doing the right thing a while back, but all       they did was stir ’em up.  That’s all they did.  Might’ve looked       like the right thing to do at the time, I’m sure I don’t know, I’m       not read in that field, but sulky . . . dissatisfied . . . I tell       you if my Sophy’d kept it up another day I’d have let her go.  It’s       never entered that wool of hers that the only reason I keep her is       because this depression’s on and she needs her dollar and a quarter       every week she can get it.”             “His food doesn’t stick going down, does it?”             Miss Maudie said it.  Two tight lines appeared at the corners       of her mouth. . . .  (p. 245-6)

MC:  Because she’s saying, “You’re sitting here in Atticus’ home, eating his food and enjoying his house . . . ”

BC:  Atticus . . . She’s referring to Atticus, yeah.

MC:  I loved Miss Maudie, she was one of my favorite characters.

BC:  What a great attitude when her house burned down.  “Too big, anyway.”

AN:  I found that a little hard to swallow.

MC:  The house burning or . . .

AN:  Her attitude about it.  It was more like she was putting the best front on it that she could.

BC:  Well, I think so too, but it was either that, in which case it’s very noble and very strong, or I kind of assume that she had a good insurance policy.

MC:  It’s part of that Southern woman thing where you always have this gracious, happy exterior, and that’s what she, I mean, she was a good person and she . . .

AN:  Well, also she was also something of an outcast, I think.

BC:  Because of her radical liberal views, do you think?

AN:  The only thing I can think of offhand was, she was criticized for having so many flowers in her yard.

MC:  Being vain?

AN:  Something like that.

MC:  Remember these people were driving by, some kind of event, and they started yelling out . . .

BC:  They were the foot-washing Baptists, or foot-bashing Waptists.

MC:  Yelling things to her.

BC:  Didn’t John tell us that was Robert Duvall’s first film role?

MC:  Um hum.

AN:  A pretty small part.

BC:  Yeah, but pretty . . . his face!

AN:  Certainly significant.

BC:  Boy, he looked exactly like he’s described here, the wispy hair . . . and that ham costume!

MC:  It was interesting because in the book she decided to wear her ham costume home because it’s easier, but in the movie it’s because her dress was stolen . . . actually a better choice.

AN:  Yeah, that dealt with it and got it out of the way, the other way would have been less clear.

MC:  It was kind of neat, because I’ve always loved that film, to see their lives expanded in the novel.

AN:  What did you think about Sheriff Tate saying about having gotten the switchblade off a drunk?

BC:  He was saying that that wasn’t . . .

AN:  Was that Ewell’s?

BC:  Yeah, that’s what he was attacking with.  The kitchen knife had come from elsewhere.

MC:  There were two knives?

BC:  Boo brought his own knife.

MC:  Well I knew that.

BC:  But that’s what he was saying with that speech.

MC:  Wasn’t it interesting about the judge and all the court stuff?  Seemed like the judge was on Atticus’ side, anyway.

BC:  Wasn’t that a fine closing statement?  I’m always so skeptical, that’s the thing now, that in courtroom movies where the character explains the whole plot of the movie in his final summation and it’s always way too “on the nose” and not that interesting, but I thought Atticus’ final summation, the thing was such genius prose was just so perfectly motivated by the character and not preachy at all.  His argument about why he shouldn’t be convicted was just gorgeous.

MC:  Why do you think before he made it, he pulled up his sleeves and took off his coat?

BC:  I don’t know, maybe to be “the common man.”

MC:  That’s what I thought, but I wasn’t sure.


Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
NOTE:  I don’t know enough about copyright law to say who properly owns the inherent copyright of these words.  I presume that it would be shared by the participants, and would not be solely mine.  The transcription was done by Alan Nicoll from a tape recording that no longer is in my possession and perhaps no longer exists.

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