In which John Green teaches you about Harper Lee’s famous (and only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. John will cover a bit about Harper Lee’s personal life, (seeing as this novel has some autobiographical elements) and her long association with Truman Capote, who figures as a character in the book. You’ll get an overview of the plot, and we’ll talk a bit about Mockingbird as an example of bildungsroman (again(man, this description is heavy on parentheses)) and Southern Gothic, and look into the novel as a commentary on the racism and patriarchy of the Alabama in which Harper Lee grew up.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we’re going to talk
about To Kill a Mockingbird. So Mockingbird is the rare class of American
literature that is both one, relatively easy to read and two, pretty fun to read.
I mean, it’s got a cool and somewhat creepy plot that draws you in. There is a young girl,
Scout; her brother, Jem; and their weird neighbor, Dill, who become obsessed with their even
weirder neighbor, “Boo” Radley. The kids spend a lot of time reenacting Boo’s backstory
— the highlight of which involves him allegedly stabbing his father in the leg with scissors
— and the children become schooled in gender, race, and class relations in Depression-Era Alabama.
MFTP: Mr. Green, Mr. Green, I’m from Alabama!
I know, Me From the Past, because I am also you. Anyway, the kids, and also, of course,
we as readers, are schooled in all things ethical by the Gregory Peckian Atticus Finch:
public defender, sharpshooter, and one of the most beloved father figures in American fiction
So, To Kill a Mockingbird was an absolute literary sensation when it was published in 1960.
The Chicago Sunday Tribune called it “a novel of strong contemporary national
significance.” Time Magazine said that it “teaches the reader an astonishing number
of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life.”
Now some disparaged Lee’s treatment of poor Southern whites and African Americans as one-dimensional,
but Mockingbird so far, at least, has a kind of timeless appeal to it.
And to be fair to those critics, there is something simple about Mockingbird and the
way that it imagines justice, but it’s also very compelling.
And there are times when it feels dated, but again, it was written in 1960.
Anyway, it won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it’s been printed over 30 million
times, translated into over 40 languages. That’s a lot of dead mockingbirds. So who
would write a story with such a depressing title? Well, Harper Lee.
So Harper Lee was born in 1926 in the bustling metropolis of Monroeville, Alabama.
MFTP: Alabama! Roll Tide! Ooooh, yes, Me From the Past, we are aware.
So critics often point out that there are many parallels between Lee’s childhood and
that of her main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Lee’s father was an attorney who
unsuccessfully defended two African American men accused of murder. Lee’s brother, Edwin,
was four years her senior. The family employed an African-American housekeeper
who was central in Lee’s upbringing. Lee’s mother, was not dead, but she was quite distant.
And Lee’s childhood playmate, Truman Persons, was a weird kid who spent extended periods
visiting relatives next door. Now in literature, this boy Truman provided the model for Dill
Harris. In real life, this Truman reinvented himself as Truman Capote — icon of American
letters, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. That’s right – he spent
his summers in Monroeville. In fact, there’s a longstanding literary
conspiracy theory that since Harper Lee never wrote another book, maybe Truman Capote is
the real author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Which, if you read Mockingbird alongside anything
Truman Capote ever wrote, you will immediately realize that it’s just ridiculous. Harper
Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee has not written another novel.
She didn’t enjoy the spotlight and has declined most requests for interviews and speeches.
But she did write a brief, and piercing foreword to a later edition of Mockingbird:
“The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose
to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years
without preamble.” Her publishers were like, “We need a new
foreword so we can sell more copies of the book.” And she was like, “All right, but
my introduction is gonna be about how useless introductions are.”
All right, before we discuss how Mockingbird manages to “[say] what it has to say,”
let’s look at the plot in the Thought Bubble: So, Scout, Jem, and Dill spend two summers
sipping lemonade and cultivating fantasies about their mysterious homebound neighbor,
“Boo” Radley and daring one another to touch his door. The children act out events
from Boo’s life. And although Boo remains hidden, his chewing gum does not. This gum,
along with other gifts, appears in a tree outside the Radley house.
Meanwhile, Scout learns that her father, Atticus, has been appointed to defend Tom Robinson,
a black man with a deformed left arm, wrongly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a friendless
white nineteen-year old who lives behind a garbage dump. Mayella lives with a gaggle
of filthy and uneducated siblings and an often-drunk father, who beats and possibly molests her.
Despite Tom’s obvious innocence, I mean, Mayella was hit on the right side of her face
by a man without a left arm, the white population of Maycomb resents Atticus for being his court
appointed public defender. With the help of Jem and Scout, Atticus dissuades a mob from
lynching Tom. Atticus is less successful, however, at swaying the jury. Tom is declared
guilty; He escapes from prison and then is shot and killed.
Bob Ewell, the father of Mayella, is miffed at being ridiculed by Atticus in court. After
spitting at Atticus, Ewell attacks his children. Boo Radley comes to the rescues and makes
good on his history of stabbing people, and the children are saved.
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So there we see, like, two of the biggest problems with To Kill a
Mockingbird. First, that the Ewell family is kind of like one-dimensionally villainous.
And secondly, that the great hero of the story is this, like, rich white dude.
But having acknowledged that, I don’t wanna miss all the stuff that’s still really resonant
and important to contemporary readers. So throughout the book, Scout is encouraged
to look at things from other peoples’ perspectives. Which of course was, like, the great fundamental
failure of the Jim Crow South. Like at the end of the novel, Scout no longer
sees Boo as this, like, terrifying other, she’s able to imagine how events appear
from his perspective. And in doing so, she’s following Atticus’s famous advice:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view —
until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.“
I just want to clarifying that we’re not talking about, like, Silence of the Lambs-style
walking around in someone else’s skin, I’m talking about empathy.
That said, it occurs to me that bringing up Silence of the Lambs allows us to talk about
the macabre and Mockingbird as, like, a Southern Gothic novel.
So you all remember the Gothic novel from Frankenstein, with its blend of horror and
its interest in the sublime. So Gothic literature relies on archetypes,
like grotesque monsters, innocent victims, heroic knights, etc.—to create dramatic
tension and it uses dark settings, like medieval castles, to heighten the emotional impact of a story.
Now in the Southern Gothic movement that emerged in the American South, “real,” although still fictional,
people replace those Gothic archetypes. Like at the start of Mockingbird, Boo is a reclusive monster;
Jem, Scout and Dill are his potential victims; and Atticus is an heroic knight.
Now later, ignorance, racism, and violence prove to be the novel’s real “monsters.”
And Tom and Mayella are their victims. Atticus, of course, gets to remain the hero.
And in Southern Gothic fiction, decaying buildings or bodies replace the medieval castle as the
dark settings that heighten a story’s emotional impact.
I mean, we’re told that Maycomb is a town in which,
“In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the
courthouse sagged in the square.” And many of Maycomb’s inhabitants also have
bodies that are broken, infected, or off-balance, right? Like Atticus is too old to play tackle
football and, to his daughter’s inexplicable horror, he wears glasses.
He’s a monster! Now he’s a regular person. Now I’m a monster again.
Mrs. Dubose, the cantankerous morphine addict, has a particularly heinous mouth. Tom’s
left arm has been torn apart in a cotton gin. Jem’s left arm is eventually deformed by
Ewell. And ultimately, these broken, off-balance,
horrifying attributes of Maycomb and its inhabitants expose the corruption and decay of Southern
culture itself. So Mockingbird is one of the great Southern
Gothic novels, but it’s also one of the great American bildungsromans.
Like Jane Eyre, it’s a novel about a young person’s education and coming of age. So
at the beginning, I’m like – Ooohhhh, it must be time for the open letter.
Oh hey there, Darth Vader. An open letter to the German language:
Dear German, you’ve given us so much. “Vader” for instance, the German word for “father.”
“Schadenfreude”, the pleasure we experience when others suffer. “Kummerspeck”, which
literally translates to “grief bacon,” the way we eat when we’re sad.
And, of course, terms like “sitzpinkler,” a man who sits to pee.
But perhaps your greatest gift is “bildungsroman,” because not only did you give us the word,
you also kind of gave us the idea. So this sitzpinkler would like to thank you
for that and all of your many linguistic gifts. Best wishes, John Green.
So at the beginning of Mockingbird, a six-year-old Scout can already read the newspaper, in spite
of a lack of formal education, and when Scout demonstrates that she can read at school,
Miss Caroline — a teacher with a loose grasp of John Dewey’s philosophy — commands:
“Now tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a
fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage—“
But of course both academically and morally, Scout doesn’t get her education in school,
she gets it precisely from her father. Scout’s also called a tomboy, and most women
in her community critique how she speaks and dresses and plays. Yet who can blame her for
wanting to be a tomboy? Jem often tells her that girls are hateful and embarrassing and
frivolous and worse, when Dill begins “following Jem about,” he starts to treat Scout as
an object: “He had asked me earlier in the summer to
marry him, then he promptly forgot about it. He staked me out, marked as his property,
said I was the only girl he would ever love, then he neglected me.”
Scout consistently resists the notion that women are a form of property. In fact, throughout
the novel, Lee uses Scout’s reflections to expose the performative aspects of gender
— or the ways in which gender, like, results from what feminist critic Judith Butler describes
as the “repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid
regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a
natural sort of being.” That’s a bit complicated, but basically,
Scout stands in opposition to the idea that you have to do or be a, b, or c in order to,
like, be a real woman. But of course, there are limits to how much
Scout can act like a boy. Like when Jem and Dill spend afternoons “going in naked”
swimming in a creek, Scout is left to divide the “lonely hours” between Calpurnia,
the housekeeper, and Miss Maudie. And these two women prove to be Scout’s
strongest female allies. Calpurnia supports Scout’s independence by teaching her to
write in the kitchen. And Miss Maudie bolsters Scout’s confidence. Like when a neighbor
ridicules Scout for wearing pants, Scout recalls, “Miss Maudie’s hand closed tightly on
mine, and I said nothing. Its warmth was enough.” Vitally, neither of these women is able to
serve on a jury in the town of Maycomb — Maudie, “because she’s a woman,” and Calpurnia,
because she is both a woman and black. This not-so-subtle social commentary provides the
backbone for Harper Lee’s argument about the dangers of limiting women’s political
rights, like had those women sat on that jury, Lee implies, the trial might have gone very
differently. But of course, the jury ends up taking the
side of Mayella Ewell. And although it’s difficult to forgive her for wrongly accusing
Tom, it’s clear that she is also a victim of this perverse form of patriarchy.
Rather than being permitted to, like, attend school and have a normal life, Mayella has
been forced to care for seven siblings and keep house for a violent, drunk father. She’s
isolated and friendless, and she tries to kiss Tom and when her father catches her,
he beats her, and possibly rapes her. And only then does she allow herself to try to
escape that violence by blaming someone else. Mayella’s world is circumscribed and terrifying,
which is strongly contrasted with Scout’s pre-adolescent freedom and wonder.
So in the end, I would argue that what some critics read as a one-dimensional treatment
of the Ewell family, turns out to be a pretty sophisticated commentary on gender relations
in the time and place of the novel. This reminds us again that when we read, we
as readers are empowered to make choices. A novel really is a collaboration between
the author and the reader. And Harper Lee’s great novel may be straightforward
in its prose and in its plot, but when it comes to opportunities for that collaboration,
it is extremely rich. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
Crash Course is made by all of these nice people, and it exists because of your support
at Subbable.com, a voluntary subscription service that allows us to keep Crash Course
free for everyone forever. Through your subscription, you can also get great perks. Thank you for making
Crash Course possible; thanks for watching, and as we say in my hometown, “Don’t forget to be awesome.”
This post was previously published on YouTube.