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Equal under the law...
on 29 September 2017
Scout Finch and her older brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become fascinated by the story of the neighbour they have never seen, Boo Radley. After getting into trouble in his youth, Boo's father has kept him in the family home all this time and, although he's now a man, Boo still stays hidden from the world. Unsurprisingly all kinds of rumours and legends surround him, and the children develop an almost obsessive desire to see this mysterious figure. Meantime Scout's father has reluctantly taken on the task of defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Many in the town think he should have refused to take the case, but Atticus Finch believes that all men have the right to equal justice under the law. Over the couple of years covered by the book, Scout will learn much about the prejudices and cruelties and kindnesses of the people in her small town of Maycomb, Alabama.
As with so many of the classics, I first read this long ago when the world and I were young, round about the late '70s, I'd imagine. Of course back then it wasn't really a classic yet – it had only been published less than twenty years earlier in 1960. Oddly, my major memories of it have always centred on the Boo Radley storyline rather than the Tom Robinson one, so at that time, had I been asked, I don't think I'd have mentioned race specifically as the major theme of the book. I'd have said it was about how society demonises difference, how justice can be distorted by prejudice, and how poverty brutalises us. Over the years, as its status has grown, and as racism has become a subject much more to the fore over here than it was back in those more innocent-seeming days, I've accepted rather unthinkingly that this clearly is one of its major themes and felt for a long time that I should re-read it rather than relying on my frequent watches of the film (which I also think says more about Boo than race).
Re-reading it now with all the current arguments around race in America in the forefront of my mind, it's hard to see Lee's portrayal as being as enlightened and forward-thinking as I'm sure it seemed back when the book was published. To modern eyes, her black characters seem to be very much a product of white wish-fulfilment. They are 'good' because they are respectful and subservient; they are intellectually inferior, not just through lack of educational opportunities but through 'laziness' and lack of ambition; and they are entirely passive, relying on a white knight to defend them, and not only in the legal sense of that word. Even Calpurnia, the Finches' maid, though more educated than most black people in the town through her family's long association with white folk (as servants obviously), comes across rather as the stock black character of older American fiction, whose main function is to show how kind (or sometimes how cruel) their white masters can be if they choose. Calpurnia knows her place and accepts it gratefully, though it's a lowly one. It is of course a sympathetic depiction of the black characters, but one that jars a little now. There is no challenging of the innate superiority of whiteness here – merely an encouragement to treat 'good' black people better.
Even Atticus, generally held up as the pinnacle of just men, clearly doesn't think of black people as in any way equal. He believes they have constitutional rights under the law, but that's pretty much as far as he goes. There was an outcry a couple of years ago when Lee's second book (which I haven't read) came out and appeared to show Atticus as racist – while I wouldn't go anywhere close to saying that about him in this book, I didn't feel he could really be seen as fighting for equality either. I have previously criticised that other American novel always hailed as an icon of anti-racism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for portraying black people more as pets to be treated kindly than humans to be treated equally. I fear this book left me with the same kind of taste, though a less bitter one.
Other aspects of the book have stood up better to the passage of time, I feel. The writing is wonderful, particularly Lee's use of various levels of dialect to differentiate class and social status. Although I have reservations about the black characters, the white characters ring wholly true, as does the town of Maycomb which becomes a character in its own right. Boo's story is still a great commentary on society's wariness of “difference”, although I found the ending a little too neat – the point made a little too pointedly, perhaps – on this re-reading. This time around I was more moved by the rape storyline than Boo's, though more because of Mayella than Tom.
Mayella's story (the alleged rape victim) is devastating in its portrayal of the powerlessness of women denied education and opportunity, and the trial scene must surely be one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the English language. Trying to avoid spoilers means I have to be a little vague here, but Lee does a marvellous job of showing both accuser and accused as victims of the white patriarchy. The callous treatment of Mayella both at the time of the rape and during the trial, (yes, even by Atticus), and the way she is then left in the power of the father who has been shown as a violent bully, if not worse, made me wonder who was actually lower down the social order – the black man or the white woman. Of course, Lee makes clear that poverty plays a major role here; one of the major strengths of the book is the comparison Lee draws between black and dirt-poor white people in terms of how they are treated by society, and of the subsequent resentment of the white people – Mayella's father is more offended that Tom should have dared to feel sorry for Mayella than that he might have raped her. It's a searing depiction of the sense of what we now call "white entitlement" that remains at the root of much of the race-related division in American society today.
So, although I found Lee's portrayal of the black characters more than a little problematic, I think it's fair to say that the major themes of the book - the inequalities inherent in the justice system, prejudice against difference, white poverty, the powerlessness of under-educated women – all still have much relevance to the race debates going on today, and to contemporary American society as a whole. Judged in its totality therefore, the book fully merits its place as a classic.