Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: To Kill a Mockingbird, Part One

To Kill a Mockingbird is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the twentieth century. In our national consciousness it stands for equality, for freedom, for peace and innocence just as boldly as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel.

Yet To Kill a Mockingbird still retains an identity of its own, apart from Uncle Tom. It is written with nostalgic in lieu of bitter passion, with gentle simplicity thriving at its beating heart. I cannot completely describe its charm, not even as I listen to Elmer Bernstein’s suite (which I am doing as I write) or as I reflect upon Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in the 1960’s film adaptation.

What I shall do here (as I always endeavor to do with each “Literary Wisdom” post) is not simply to laud the book or abhor it and then explain why. No. This week I’d like to stand back from the podium and let Lee speak for herself, filling my microphone for a spell while I sit back and try to reveal what is so lovely about the acoustics of her setting or the diction of her words. Thus, I implore you—sit down, inhale, and immerse yourself in the beauty of language.

“There are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” ~Maudie Atkinson, Chapter Five

As I grow in maturity and understanding, I cannot help but feel my heart longing for the paradise world awaiting me, a world where pain is blown away as the white tresses of a dandelion are. On some days, I study my Bible as closely as possible and try to meditate on my sovereign and very real God as much as I can. Yet when that happens, I can occasionally fall into a snare. See, the thing with faith is that the spiritual part of pursuing God must carry over to the social aspect of it—reaching out to others while Christ radiates outside our hearts. Miss Atkinson’s words remind us that, while Christ has saved us from this world’s evils, we are still here. We are still here because God is not finished with any of our life stories, and we have a duty to fill others’ with His joy, love, compassion, and all the other noble qualities He has established in us.

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” ~Atticus Finch, Chapter Ten

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” ~Maudie Atkinson, Chapter Ten

As you have guessed, these quotes are the basis for To Kill a Mockingbird‘s title. Lee’s novel seeks to compare the blacks, the elderly, and everyone else commonly looked down upon with mockingbirds. Those we treat with prejudice often “don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” This is not to say that humanity is perfect (I’ll discuss Lee’s refutation of that idea in the next post). Rather, it is to say that those we hate for no reason are usually better than the first impression they leave on our hearts. No matter how abhorred they may be to us, those who are mockingbirds always deserve a chance—or two—to spread their wings, raise their voices, and sing for joy.

“Scout, when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things…it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things[.]…This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.” ~Atticus Finch, Chapter Eleven

The key of this passage lies in the last sentence. Atticus could not go to church if he did not defend this mockingbird of a person. How could he, resisting the urgings of his sense of right and wrong, refuse to carry the wrongfully-wrought stigma and shame of a fellow brother in humanity and worship God as a hypocrite? The two concepts did not fit together. Atticus Finch, this tender and quietly wise father, always reminds me of the only One who has the right to govern the spirit of my decisions.

I must choose as He chooses and listen to the whispers of my conscience.

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody…I’m hard put, some times—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name.” ~Scout and Atticus Finch, Chapter Eleven

Whenever I think of this conversation, I am always reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Oftentimes we are afraid to oppose the tide of common opinion and throw ourselves into the waves and shifty sand, never thinking that the greatest people who ever lived did the opposite: stand firmly on the overlook and hold a different idea, even if they were alone in doing so.

By writing these things, I do not intend to say that we should look to finding an enemy everywhere we go. That goes wholly against Christian doctrine, which mustn’t be refuted  by God’s own children. I merely wish to say that when you are standing alone on the rock of righteousness and someone insults you for it, blind to the peril surrounding them, you must not take it to heart and splash into the tide with the others. Your work is not in vain, and someone is bound to join you at some time or place.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” ~Atticus Finch, Chapter Eleven

In the book, Atticus Finch is talking about a miserable elderly lady who had always seemed frightful and vicious to Jem, Finch’s son. Earlier in this conversation, Atticus Finch revealed that although Mrs. Dubose knew she was going to die for weeks, she still persisted in life until she could not fight death any longer.

When struggling with chronic illness or anything else trying to subdue our lives, we often feel as if we are better left for dead. We are shut up in the midst of our black mourning-cloths and never realize that our suffering can inspire and uplift others. In the case of chronic illness, we know we will never get out of our trial and sink in despondence.

But courage does not lie in sinking. It lies in swimming with the burdens still on our backs. It lies in allowing God to be our buoy, our burdens our testimony, and our lives worth living. When you see it through, you don’t need a gun pointed at your chest. You have your arms raised to heaven, and that is enough.

Thank you for reading today’s “Literary Wisdom” post! Stay tuned for part two:)


~Sarah Merly

January 23, 2018

Isaiah 53