14 June 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird

If you had to describe ONE work of art that has influenced you, what would it be? And how would you explain that influence? This was the question I wrote for my application to the Washington and Lee University. I also used the same prompt for my application to Harvard University. Here is that essay:

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

This line always makes me wonder whether I have understood all that Harper Lee poured in her book To Kill A Mockingbird. I read the book two years ago but every time I re-read the book, I feel there exists some part which I haven’t truly understood. That is the power of this book, a true classic. It seems attainable, understandable, but yet there always seems to be some aspect of the book that makes me feel as if there is more to it. Like a true work of art, it only gives a fleeting impression of understanding the creator, but that fleeting impression in itself is powerful enough to influence countless people. In its elusiveness, lies its overwhelming influence.

I had read a lot about the book before I read the book. 2010 was the 50th year of the book’s release, and a long list of articles in a variety of publications caught my eye. Columnists talked about how the book influenced them, about how the book hasn’t still been out of print. I was intrigued. I wanted to read the book which had literally moved the world. If people talked about how the book still influenced them, years after reading it, I was definitely reading it!

I was deeply influenced too. The book is powerful and charming; honest and pleasant; humorous and humane. Harper Lee talks about issues which challenge adults through the eyes of eight year old Scout Finch; a girl with whom I could completely relate. Lee takes a stand and sticks to it, but in a pleasantly affirmative manner. The book can bring a tear to your eye and a smile on your lips both with effortless ease; you never realize how involved you get till Boo Radley puzzles you and Bob Ewell disgusts you. Set in the nondescript town of Maycomb, To Kill A Mockingbird is about accepting diversity and celebrating humanity. What I especially like about the book is how it never shies from reality. Scout’s father, a lawyer Atticus Finch, chooses to defend a black man against the very vocal wishes of his neighborhood because he knows it is the right thing to do. He strongly believes in his profession, in the “integrity of courts [being] a working, living reality” as he strives to maintain his sense of justice despite challenges. He is heroism personified; a character I look up to, a person I wish to be.

Channeled through the lenses of Atticus, Harper Lee effortlessly highlights how life and situations change but how morals remain unchanged. Through a series of lovable characters, she paints a portrait of diversity enclosed with a community which doesn’t seem to tolerate it. She questions how some people are considered “fine people”; is education, land ownership or social reputation the parameter? She shows how transient opinions can be, when viewed from different perspectives. She lets Scout Finch explore; she lets her fight with her father and argue with her aunt; she lets her think and speak her mind; she makes her question why it is acceptable to hate Adolf Hitler but unacceptable to discriminate against Afro-Americans. It is through the eyes of Scout that Harper Lee takes the liberty to explore, and eventually define moral grounds.

But, most importantly, the book transcends borders and cuts across generations. Moral conflicts will always remain, integrity will be challenged, and decisions will be questioned. By addressing such pertinent issues, the book never loses its charm. Its poignancy is captured by the fact that it questions what humanity should do when ethics cross and ideals intersect.

The book influences me because of a plethora of reasons. I connect to the challenges described, and the moral conflicts highlighted. The largest influence though is Atticus Finch. He inspires through his ethical aloofness and lovable fathering. He is a man of honor, which is what makes the book what it is. It represents ideals, not through idealism, but through realism. It motivates one to stick to ethics, to form a belief and hold onto it irrespective of the consequences. I believe everyone should aim to be what the book describes: a human being of integrity, humanity and humility. Little wonder then, that at the end of the book, Scout Finch believes that “… [We would] get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except probably algebra.”

Without a doubt, To Kill A Mockingbird is an example I strive to emulate, a book which inspires and amuses with amazing ease; a perfect role model.