‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ offers ageless wisdom

“Things are always better in the morning,” says Atticus Finch after losing Tom Robinson’s court case in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Despite the prejudices and injustices that Finch fights against in the famed novel, he never loses his sense of optimism. After failing, he picks himself back up to see what the morning will bring.

I remember reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” just before entering high school, in sixth or seventh grade.

I still own that copy – covered in clear contact paper. Harper Lee’s famed novel is a compassionate yet engrossing story of human nature. So many excellent quotes and lived learning experiences are derived from that text: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around it in.”

Such words of wisdom are passed down from Atticus to Scout early in the novel and guide her moral development. It’s a novel about discrimination, racism and cruelty to others – all topics that continue to be relevant and in need of dissecting and discussion in the classroom. And also in real life.

As I re-read Lee’s novel in preparation for Lee’s later published “Go Set a Watchman,” I saw it from a different perspective.

The vocabulary and style of Lee’s first novel may seem out of date, but the issues that Maycomb County face reflect an important part of American history.

Set during the time of the Great Depression, but published at the height of the civil rights movement, the novel exposes continuing conflict in our society today.

When I teach literature in the college classroom, I’ve noticed how little of the history that my students have encountered in high school or grade-school classes have been retained.

Narratives, I’ve found, are helpful ways of exposing history, practices and mindsets in a way that sticks.

I may not remember every aspect of the Depression or civil rights movement, but I do remember Atticus Finch.

During my re-acquaintance with Finch, I recognized some of the problems with Finch’s portrayal and Lee’s depiction of racism in Alabama.

But those problematics weren’t present during my initial reading. In middle and high school, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a reminder of the injustices that minorities face, and a call to action for readers – like Atticus Finch – to rethink their positions.

As an adult, re-reading a novel that conjures up reminders of childhood and adolescence, I remembered the importance of Lee’s novel, despite the abundant scholarship that showcases the problems of using Atticus Finch, a white man, to portray the worldview of Tom Robinson, a Negro accused of rape.

Hindsight is always 20/20. We can call out Lee’s portrayal as not doing enough to condemn Maycomb County, but we must acknowledge the historical time period. In the 1960s, during publication, and during her time writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lee’s portrayal provided a necessary framework for discussing – and portraying injustice of – the increasing racial tensions in America.

Aside from Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” it’s one of the lasting novels from my childhood imagination – the plot and its characters are unforgettable. And perhaps that’s because we can still recognize the traces – and sometimes the very overt qualities – of the plot in the continuing tensions in America. Perhaps it’s because the novel is set in the South, and we recognize elements of our own background.

But more importantly, I think it’s a lasting novel because of the hope it inspires: the optimism for tomorrow and the break of day.

Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .   

Catholic World News