Friday, July 8, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird 2.0

A few nights ago, Trevor and I went to see To Kill a Mockingbird as part of the Summer Classics Series at the Kentucky Theater in downtown Lexington.  I have always loved the book as well as the film.  Gregory Peck as Atticus?  Holy lawyer crush, Batman!  (Coincidence that I'm married to an attorney?  I think not.)

The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was in sixth grade.  I had my paperback copy of the book with me at school, and surprisingly my teacher had a problem with me reading it.  He called my mom, one of the only times I can remember ever really getting in trouble at school, and asked if she knew what book I was reading.  Since she had given it to me, she was fully aware of my reading material.  Apparently he thought different elements of the book were too mature for me.  He might have even suggested that my mom take the book away from me.  What he didn't know was that my mom was instrumental in whetting my appetite for the classics, both film and literature.  When I was a newborn, I had my days and nights mixed up, so my mom sat up with me in the wee hours of the morning and read Gone with the Wind out loud; it's still one of my favorite books.  She introduced me to Tasha Tudor and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and Edith Head.  My sixth grade teacher had no idea that my mom had never taken a book away from me, and she wasn't about to start with Harper Lee.

My copy of To Kill a Mockingbird is well worn by now; I'm sure I have re-read it dozens of times.  And I know I have also seen the movie on numerous occasions, but for some reason, watching the movie this time felt like an entirely new experience.  Seeing it on the big screen was incredible, that's for sure, but it was more than that.  I think seeing the movie for the first time as a mother really changed the message for me.  When I was a kid, I was all about Scout, Jem, Dill, and their adventures.  As a young adult, I understood more about racism and its effects on society.  This time, I found myself noticing more, questioning more, and feeling sympathy for characters that I had never felt
before. (I also wonder of Atticus and Miss Maudie were friends or friends but that's neither here nor there.)

Trevor and I had a particularly interesting discussion about Arthur "Boo" Radley and Mayella Ewell.  Boo is portrayed, in my opinion, as a sympathetic character.  There are implications that he's violent and crazy, lives under his father's thumb, and is regarded as a pitiful soul by the inhabitants of the town.  I, too, pitied Boo until I saw the film again, but I don't think he deserves pity.  I think Mr. Arthur is generally a pretty content guy.  He's not social, he's painfully shy, and he doesn't really want the company of the other townsfolk.  The people he chooses to befriend are children, and even then, there is no conversation, no true relationship, other than the gifts left in the tree, until he saves the children from Bob Ewell.  In modern times, Boo Radley would be considered a stalker.  When Scout delivers him to his porch at the end of the long night, he quietly slips in the door and is never seen again.  That's exactly why I don't feel sorry for Boo; he could have easily begun to rejoin society after saving the lives of two children, but he's content to stay at home and watch life from the fringes.  His heroic act redefined his life: he didn't have to do more because he had already done enough.  It's sort of like Harper Lee herself, who, when asked why she never wrote another book, answered, "I didn't have to."

My reaction to Mayella Ewell surprised me.  I had always seen her as a sad character and viewed her with a bit of disdain.  Now I see her as a tragic character, one who had no childhood, no life, and no chance.  She's beaten by her father, forced by him to lie, made to be a mother to her siblings, and completely cut off from any kind of social life.  She's confused by Atticus's question about her friends because she doesn't know what a friend is.  Her only contact outside of her family is Tom Robinson, and we all know how that ends up.  As a mother, it kills me to see a child who doesn't get to be a child.  A child who reaches out to the only person who has ever been kind to her for a little human touch, and she's rejected.  Mayella's whole life is about rejection.  I think I feel the worst for her because she wants to make a better life for herself, but her situation will never change.  Deep down, she knows that, and that's no way to live a life.

Being a parent changes you.  It forces you to see the world in a different way and rethink priorities and long-held beliefs.  The older I get and the older my children get, I find myself searching for kindness, acceptance, and decency in the world and in myself.   And in To Kill a Mockingbird, I can find all of it in places I never looked before.  Sometimes I think we'd all benefit by giving that a try every now and again.

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