Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit “em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
—To Kill a Mockingbird
**Note: All quotes below were taken from this novel.**
In the previous Fiction Friday I wrote a piece about the literary news of the year so far:
where I spoke about the announcement of her recently-discovered manuscript from before the release of To Kill a Mockingbird and the suspicions some have had about the whole thing coming out now, after all this time.
This time instead, rather than focusing on the part of our human nature which is being suspicious of others, I wanted to focus on the compassion that our world could always use more of.
This week I wanted to tie in more about this classic with the blogging project I have been participating in.
It is called 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion, and what story is more about that word than To Kill a Mockingbird?
I suddenly wanted to showcase all the ways in which compassion is illustrated, but first I had to reread the novel, which I hadn’t read since high school.
If I could choose one word to define what To Kill a Mockingbird is about, it would certainly have to be:
The above quote is the most famous of them all throughout this classic work of fiction.
This novel has more than one “mockingbird”: Tom Robinson and Arthur (Boo) Radley.
Throughout this period of a few summers in the 30s, mid-depression era Alabama, brother and sister Jem and Scout, along with friend Dill, learn several life lessons.
They learn compassion.
In the beginning Jem says something about how turtles can’t feel pain.
Soon he must pay off a debt of punishment by sitting and reading to an elderly and dying neighbour. He starts out thinking she is an evil, unbearable old lady, but his father, Atticus, he teaches his son that people aren’t always what they seem and that those we think are the worst human beings of them all are, more often than not, dealing with pain we did not see. We all experience pain sometime.
The children are fascinated by a spooky house, a few doors down the street. It is rumoured to house a raving mad young man. He is never seen and this provides a vast span of imaginary possibilities in the children’s mind’s eye.
They see this frightful phantom of a neighbour as a monster in the shadows and the house he hides in, “inhabited by an unknown entity”.
As long as they kept seeing this neighbour and this house in this light, their compassion for what else could be going on wouldn’t be permitted to grow.
Their father works hard to help them see that things aren’t always so black and white.
Scout is naive and quick to speak without thinking. She is quick to anger and soon her and her brother must develop tough skin, when their father, a lawyer, is appointed to defend an African-American man against charges of raping a young white woman.
Scout fights children, at school, who call her father ugly names for his doing his job. She fights them and must learn to get her emotions under control.
The children slowly learn about what compassion means, throughout the novel, but with Atticus as their father, they really can’t fail at this.
“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.”
Okay, despite the slightly gross imagery here about people in other people’s skin (yes, I am very literal), this line is the second most poignant line from “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
Scout is able to find compassion for Mayella Ewell, the young woman who accused her negro neighbour of rape.
This girl is obviously lying, even evident to Scout at her young age, which makes Mayella the enemy of Scout’s father, who is defending Tom Robinson.
“I wondered if anybody had ever called her “ma”am,” or “Miss Mayella” in her life; probably not, as she took offence to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like? I soon would find out.”
Scout suddenly realizes what a tough life this young lady has had, feeling sympathy for her, even after everything.
This compassionate muscle is being developed in Scout, by experiences like this, all throughout the novel.
Atticus has taken on a case, which in the 30s is unwinnible, but he takes it anyway. He puts his children and himself through so much for this case. People, even his own sister think he’s doomed to failure and just plain foolish.
“If a man like Atticus Finch wants to butt his head against a stone wall it’s his head.”
When the case is lost, both Jem and Atticus allow themselves to give in to the bitterness, for a while:
I peeks at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them.
How could they do it, how could they?
I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it seems that only children weep. Good night.
The reference to “only children weep” is why these children in this novel are at centre stage in learning these lessons on compassion and empathy.
It takes a motherly neighbour’s wise words to help Jem deal with his anger at the injustice he’s learning exists:
“I simply want to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.”
Atticus is able to move forward from his loss in court and for a poor innocent man, finding compassion even for the last person to deserve any:
“Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?”
When the children finally do come across Boo Radley, it turns out he was nothing as outrageous as they had been picturing him to be.
Scout discovered things about him that surprised her and she received one more lesson on how things aren’t what they seem always and her compassion and threshold for empathy grew once more.
I took him by the hand, a hand surprisingly warm for its whiteness. I tugged him a little, and he allowed me to lead him to Jem’s bed.
Jem’s life was saved by Boo Radley, pretty well vilified by their young minds all that time.
“I had never seen the neighbourhood from this Angle.”
Scout received one final bit of perspective, as the novel came to a close, and her compassion, just like her fathers’, had been imprinted on her heart.
“Atticus was right. One time he said you don’t really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
The countdown is on with less than one week to go until the 20th and
There have been some wonderful contributions, from fellow bloggers, leading up to the day we all post for compassion.
I wish I could recognize them all, and I have been doing my best to share as many as I could on
but here are just a few, before I wrap up the post for today: