Monday, October 21, 2013

Thirty years ago, I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school. Today, my son is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school. "Why?" asked my husband. So over the weekend I reread the novel, and these are my observations.

1. Harper Lee is excellent at characterization. Even her minor characters are clearly delineated (i.e., every lady who lives on the street is a separate being), and her control of dialogue is scintillating. At the same time the characters have an archetypal quality, a sort of classical predictability. Atticus will always behave like Atticus; Scout will always behave like Scout; a Ewell will always behave like a Ewell.

2. These characters revolve around each other within a particular time and place that, like the characters, is both vividly present and symbolically remote.

3. The author does not shy away from using polemic as her theme: "As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it--whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."

4. All of these characteristics mean that the novel is easy fodder for creating tests on plot elements, character elements, theme, tone, symbolism, etc., etc. This is not a bad thing, but it's noticeable; and if I were Harper Lee, I might, after all these years, have a sinking feeling every time I glimpsed yet another stack of Popular Library paperbacks on the back shelf of a schoolroom. No wonder she never wrote another novel.

5. In contrast, I imagine Shakespeare would be entertained by his schoolroom eminence.

6. Which reminds me: I love the word farthingale. And when I looked for a poem that uses the word, I found this one, by Linda Gregerson. "A young Welsh actor may play a reluctant //
laborer playing Thisby botching / similes / and stop our hearts with wonder." That, I suppose, is more or less why teachers teach and parents cry and teenage boys sing.

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