“To Kill a Mockingbird” is widely considered as Harper Lee’s magnum opus, a brilliant work that has earned a space on many a bibliophiles’ shelf.
The book is a long-time bestseller, earning a spot on BBC News’ list of the 100 most influential novels and awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
But what is it that makes this book so popular?
Even Harper herself wasn’t expecting her book to be such a massive hit when it was first published in 1960.
She said in a radio interview “My reaction is not one of surprise, it is one of sheer numbness.”
The film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was also a success
In 1962, the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck was released and it too proved to resonate with audiences.
Despite the success of her book, she shied away from the spotlight, even actively avoiding writing an introduction for her book.
Harper was born on this very day – April 28, 1926 – in the state of Alabama, and there are many parallels that can be drawn from her childhood with that of her book’s main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.
Like Scout, Harper’s father was a lawyer tasked with defending two African-American men at one point in his career.
The book follows Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the American south who defended a black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.
Despite the man being obviously innocent, racial prejudice held strong in the town frustrating the lawyer’s best efforts.
Even though he successfully dissuades a mob from lynching his client, Atticus is unable to sway the jury.
The theme of the book was relevant at the time it was published, when the Civil Rights Movement was starting to gain momentum in the United States.
American society was segregated along racial lines, with African-Americans being treated like third class citizens and frequently facing institutional racism.
Whilst Harper was writing her manuscript, a black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus and black men were frequently and unjustifiably lynched by racist mobs.
African Americans were frequent targets of blatant racism
Hence, the fact that Scout is frequently encouraged to look at things from other people’s perspectives resonated with a lot of people back then.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it,” says Atticus to his daughter at one point.
The call to empathise with people and not judge them on the basis of skin colour is a message that holds true with Malaysians today.
“You know what’s going to happen as well as I do,” says Atticus to his innocent client.
Despite the fact that he knows he’s doomed to fight a losing case; Atticus argues honestly and brilliantly in an attempt to save his client’s life.
Interestingly, he does this not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because he wants it to serve as an example for his children, to prevent them from being racist.
Malaysia too has had a long struggle with racism which continues to this day, and it is important to remember that no one is born a racist.
To change things for the better, Malaysians must teach their children to judge people fairly and not on differences such as skin colour or culture.
In addition to the theme of racial injustice, Harper also challenges gender roles through her character Scout, who is described as a tomboy and is derided by the other characters.
She resists the notion that women are a form of property and insists that they can think and act for themselves.
The combination of nostalgia and criticism contribute to the book’s success
This is a reminder that a good book allows and even encourages its readers to make their own choices, especially in everyday life.
The book looks back on the past with a sense of longing, but also doesn’t hold back its thoughts on the injustice of the period.
This combination of nostalgia and criticism thus makes “To Kill a Mockingbird” both endearing and enduring.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” bears the universal message that it requires moral courage to understand another person’s perspective and to listen to others across racial and religious lines.
Like Atticus Finch, to try and treat everyone with basic human dignity regardless of our differences is indeed the right thing to do.