Monday, March 7, 2011

The Heart of the Matter: To Kill a Mockingbird

This blog began as a celebration of one of my favorite novels to read and teach, To Kill a Mockingbird. One reason for this book’s appeal is that Harper Lee brings to life characters with heart, and her point of view never fails to have some measure of compassion. Two of the worst characters, Mayella Ewell and her father, Bob, are almost inconsequential cogs in a much larger evil machine: racism--until their actions lead directly to the death of a good man, Tom Robinson, and hard times for the family he leaves behind. The Ewells become villains when false pride leads them to deceive.

What Atticus underestimated in his defense of Tom Robinson is the length to which a man will go when he loses his only possession: false pride. Bob Ewell hangs on to the belief that he is something in this world simply because he steps into it as a white man. When his daughter Mayella defiles the family name by consorting with a black man, Bob beats her so badly that he must seek medical care for her and invent a lie to cover his own savagery. Thus, he labels an innocent man a brute to deny his own brutality.

In a racist world, such a charge cannot go unanswered. Such a charge feeds into the lies that white men and women told themselves for hundreds of years. Such a charge must be upheld so that the veil of superiority will not fall, but the cost for upholding the lie is high: a jury must become complicit, a judge must issue a sentence, an innocent man must lose his freedom, and the perpetrators, Bob and Mayella, must continue in a community that now has one more reason to hold them in disdain.

When given the chance in court and beyond, the Ewells lack the courage to recant and the wit to comprehend that their lives, lived on the edges of the town dump, are reprehensible. While they cling to their innate superiority as members of the group with white flesh, everyone else recognizes that they are outliers. They have cast themselves from the group by living in filth, having no discernible moral standard, and flaunting any ambition to learn and improve.

Bob Ewell cannot allow the final assault on his false sense of security to go unchallenged. He stalks the judge and defense attorney, Atticus, but unable to confront them in the marketplace, he works in stealth, striking at innocent children, Scout and Jem. His shame is so complete that he cannot risk losing against men well armed with intelligence, the law, or even weapons. He wants to deliver a blow as most cowards do--by wounding those who are weaker than himself.

Bob does not succeed. Boo Radley, another outlier, delivers a final judgment upon Bob for his crimes against Tom Robinson, Scout and Jem. Mr. Arthur Radley kills Bob while defending Atticus’ children, and the executioner goes free. The sheriff and Atticus agree to protect Radley’s shy ways and prosecute Robinson’s killer a second time, this time without the benefit of a courtroom. Their verdict is that Bob Ewell
died when he fell on his knife, an explanation that the town will surely agree to believe, just as surely as they agreed to believe in Tom Robinson’s guilt. The scales of justice have been balanced without ever having to expose the original lie: racism. All’s well that end’s well (Shakespeare), the citizens might have said.

Still Lee does not condemn the town. She places a man like Atticus among them. Fully aware of Maycomb’s disease, he dwells among the sick, even treating its afflicted citizens, like the venomous Mrs. Dubose, with respect for her virtues in spite of her vices. More important, as an attorney and legislator, Atticus speaks against injustice and acts for good. Is there any better way to live?