To Kill a Mockingbird and Death and the Maiden

Watching the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird was an extremely different experience than reading the novel. While the plot stays deceptively similar to the book’s–several things are cut, but it sticks largely true to what it does show–seeing the action take place was jarring in a way reading the novel was not. This speaks to the true strength of Harper Lee’s version: Scout’s perspective and her singular, childlike view on everything around her. Without this guiding the story, the film is largely centered around and led by Atticus. The movie paints a wide picture of his life as both a single father and a lawyer in the Deep South in the 1930s. Through focusing on Atticus and the trial rather than Jem and Scout’s youth, the story takes a much different turn for the viewer. Instead of being ensconced in Scout’s innocent, simple life, there is no longer any buffer between the viewer and the dark, disturbing happenings in Maycomb.

I am not sure whether it was because of my own naivete, or Scout’s, but while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I did not grasp the significance of the scene with the crowd outside of Tom’s holding cell. Not until we discussed it virtually did I fully understand that Mr. Cunningham and his friends tried to lynch Tom Robinson before his case had even come to trial. I did not understand, as Scout did not, what exactly the stakes were for Atticus as he sat on the steps and threatened them with the sheriff. I knew there was danger, but the vague feelings of discomfort and forbearance were replaced by an immediate sense of fear and disgust in the film’s version. Seeing it played out, it is clear and repugnant. Mr. Cunningham, the man who doesn’t like to be thanked, tells Atticus: “You know what we want.” Instead of being somewhat in the dark with Scout, this time I knew what he wanted, too. Replacing the perspective of the story entirely changes the tone, though the outcome remains the same. 

Likewise, when seeing the ending with Bob Ewell and Boo Radley, I was similarly disenchanted. Scout sees Boo as a kind of talisman, protector-like figure, perhaps even an imaginary friend. He represents the curiosity and daring of her childhood, and his rescue of her and Jem is a heroic moment, though he speaks little. Seeing him in the movie, he was actually kind of scary, and it hit me for the first time: he actually murdered a man. Not that Bob Ewell deserved less for his numerous crimes, including being basically responsible for Tom Robinson’s death and attempting to kill two children. The fact remains, though, that Boo Radley came out of his house, for the first time since stabbing his own father, and killed a man with a kitchen knife. It made me wonder if perhaps Atticus had been right to tell his children to stop obsessing over him, and if maybe there was a reason he had been locked away for so long. Without the veneer of childhood, the happy ending in the movie falls short in a way that I don’t think the novel’s ending did. Without Scout running the progression of events and narrating them in her own way as they related to her, the movie simply told a sad story and did nothing to fix it. Not that it could have been fixed; the damage was done. We even see Tom Robinson’s family react to his untimely death, in perhaps the scene hardest to watch. The film sorely missed Scout’s ability to seamlessly pair awful stories with the mundanities of school, summer, and her neighbors; the resilience of a child.

In comparing Atticus’s court scene to the other such representations of trials we have studied, I was drawn to thinking about Death and the Maiden. The cases involved are utterly and completely different, but both victims–Paulina and Tom Robinson–face obstacles that they know the law cannot, or will not, overcome for them. I am conflicted about the comparison between Atticus and Gerardo, but it begs to be made. They are both operators for the state with an interest in seeing the right thing happen, but both fall short in this pursuit. Of course, it is difficult to blame Atticus for the jury’s vote, and impossible to fault Gerardo for trying to dissuade Paulina from killing someone. However, Atticus’s ultimate loyalty is to justice more than to individuals, which reminds me of Gerardo in a sense. Gerardo was affected by his wife’s sufferings, and Atticus by Tom’s, but as lawyers devoted above all else, to the peaceful carrying out of the law, both of them lost something in the process.

Someone else talked about Atticus’s reaction to losing the case, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. He was resigned, not angry, which he had every right to be. Whether or not in the novel this was simply because he hid his anger from his children, in the film we see him grapple with Tom’s sentence and Tom’s death–he is affected, but not changed. He and Gerardo, while committed to justice as they see it, are ultimately serving a future that does not include the current grievances of their clients. Paulina, while on the opposite side of the “courtroom” than Tom, has a lot more in common with Tom than Mayella, her obvious counterpart. Though comparing Mayella and Paulina would reveal an interesting dichotomy; a woman seeking vengeance though held back by her husband, and a woman seeking a wrong vengeance under directions from her father. In Mayella’s case, her testimony did lead to the eventual death of the innocent man she accused. In Paulina’s, we never find out whether or not Roberto died, or whether or not he was innocent. Both show vastly different scenarios of the aftermath of a woman being sexually abused, but showcase the power–whether welded correctly or not–victims have when they say their piece. At the same time, they show the powerless; Paulina is never allowed to fully put Roberto on trial, and Mayella, in the end, put the wrong man to death because of her father’s continued hold over her. Atticus and Gerardo, though they might have won or lost their respective cases, have the power in both the play, the film, and the novel. With the law on their side, right or wrong, they are the heroes of their respective stories, and the ones with the most ability to affect change in their respective worlds.

Go Set a Watchman: a different side of the same coin

I recently finished this reread of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman for the first time. After reading both texts consecutively, I understand the comments about the latter novel being something of a departure from the original story. However, I thought that the two fit together naturally, and paired wonderfully as complements. In fact, I loved Go Set a Watchman even more than I do To Kill a Mockingbird, and reading it made me appreciate Harper Lee’s skills as an author more than I did before. 

WARNING: spoilers below for Go Set a Watchman!

Perhaps because I can personally relate to Scout’s plight in Go Set a Watchman, or perhaps simply because I knew to expect it, I was not at all surprised by the opinions that Atticus expresses in this second novel. I do not think that they change the significance of his character’s actions in To Kill a Mockingbird. Certainly, Atticus is taken off of a pedestal for the reader–just like he is for Scout–but I do not think that Lee contradicts herself at all. Instead of playing around again in Maycomb, she enters the real world, along with Scout, and the reader. The first novel had terrible things occur–but seen from Scout’s eyes, everything ended up with a rosy veneer. In this novel, Scout instead faces the true difficulties and ugly realities of a society so plagued by its nasty history.

Calpurnia might have loved Scout and Jem, and I believe she did, but there were lots of issues to address with those relationships once an adult narrator was available. The scene in her bedroom was heartbreaking for Scout, but it was critical for Lee to include. With Atticus, I see it the same; it isn’t easy to read, but he cannot be perfect. His devotion to the law led him to defend Tom Robinson and crusade for the cause of equal treatment. But still, his devotion to the law led him to stand against potential violators, even those protesting for equal rights and better treatment. 

To be honest, Atticus, despite becoming much more complicated and harder to like, remains my favorite character. I still want to believe that he believes in equality under the law–my interpretation of his remarks, which could be wrong, were that he is angry and even scared concerning the “lawlessness” of the Civil Rights Movement happening at the time, and the pressure on the South to change its ways immediately. I would argue that Atticus would not despise a world where blacks and whites live in true equality; simply that he would want such a world to come about naturally, slowly, and with regards to the laws and traditions of the South. Obviously, this is an empty and gross placation; if anyone had waited for that to happen, we would probably still be living like they do in the novels right here in South Carolina (not that we either have reached our peak of racial equality, we definitely have not). So I am fully on Scout’s side when she argues with him and calls out his beliefs, but I can see that for a man of his age in his time, this is nearly the best that Lee can do in giving the readers an accurate, “unproblematic” lead male adult character. He doesn’t hate black people, but he doesn’t want them to be judges. Of course. Atticus is brought down to Earth, for his daughter and the reader; now I can recognize him as human, someone I’ve seen before, and so can Scout.

The ethical grey area of Robert McBride

The film, Long Night’s Journey into Day, and the first part of Antjie Krog’s novel Country of My Skull, have moved me profoundly. Both have made me cry, and both have forced me to think about things in ways I never have before. Trying to decipher out right from wrong in the world of post-apartheid South Africa is messy, but I generally have been able to keep my own moral compass straight. There have been lots of different kinds of villains presented, and numerous types of victims. I have wondered what evil truly is, and pondered the question of how guilt disperses between organizations and people. Right from wrong, though, I have not had to question–until Robert McBride.

McBride is the one figure in the movie that I still cannot come to terms with. It is hard to consider him good, but hard to consider him bad. He seems genuinely remorseful for killing, but he is blatantly unrepentant for his acts of violence. From his point of view, he was a soldier fighting a war, and civilians were caught in the crossfire. Thus, he can be sorry for such sad outcomes, and wish the deaths had never happened, but he cannot be held responsible for them. In his view, the deaths had to happen, because they sent a message to his opposing army. He even compared his having to take the stand and confess for the Truth Commission to an Ally soldier being judged on the same terms as a Nazi soldier. At first, I was taken aback by the gall of that, and I thought the two were completely uncomparable–then I started thinking, how far apart are they really? The Holocaust and apartheid were two completely different systems of oppression, obviously, but can one way of holding down an entire people be better or worse than another? And if we look at apartheid as a cruel and violent system which solely did harm for purposes of oppressing people based on racial lines-which we should-can we blame a young person for joining a fight to end it, no matter what lives were unintentionally lost in the crossfire? War is not pretty. I also think it is important to note his point that he has still never received an apology for what apartheid did to him. I think it is interesting that most of the people we saw apologize in the film were black, and I think it says something about the intended audience.

Eichmann and the power of the law

The most interesting part of Eichmann in Jerusalem to me was the question of what a court can do to “prove” guilt that is simply apparent. We all know that Eichmann committed atrocities the likes of which it is difficult to even comprehend, and he did them to human beings who had done nothing to deserve them. The court knows it, the reader knows it, Arendt knows it, and Eichmann knows it. The question thus becomes where a court’s authority runs out; obviously Eichmann’s argument that concentration camps were legal when he sent people to them is moot, but that raises many other ethical dilemmas. If one court can retroactively wipe the legitimacy of an entire legal system-one not its own, even-where is the line drawn between Israel condemning Hitler’s orders as bunk and Hitler himself stripping Jews of citizenship in order to kill them with no legal culpability under German laws of his day? Obviously the answer is that one of these is right and one is wrong-I can see that because I am human. But the question of what the law can do, being that the ideal of just law is its objectivity and its independence from human presumptions of right and wrong, is a lot murkier. 

The easy answer to this is that no human law will ever be able to make sense of such questions. Eichmann and every other complicit cog in the machine of the Holocaust will serve their due justice in due time, whether or not any judge on earth pronounces them guilty. This is a somewhat comforting answer, but it is not sufficient, particularly not for a newly formed Israel with lots of wrongs to attempt to right. Though I may believe Eichmann will face his rightful punishment from a higher power than any on earth, to let him go free of any attempted justice would not be right, either. This is where I believe Arendt loses her faith in the court, and part of why she refuses to not be critical of Ben-Gurion, the lawyer, the jury and the judges. Obviously she agreed with their eventual verdict, but I think she thought it was based on the wrong evidence. His feelings on Jewish people, his rank within the government, his insanity or lack thereof, none of those things matter. What he did was wrong because it was wrong, and I think finding a way to implement that legally is a lot easier said than done, but that was the challenge that Arendt, and I, would have liked to see them succeed in. 

Zong!: the irrepressible and the neverending

Prior to this reading, I had never heard of the Zong case. As I read the poems, I had no idea the context of what I was reading. I did not understand the full story until I read Philip’s essay, after I had already absorbed the poems. One thing I was struck by in her commentary on her work was the idea of telling a story through not telling it. In my case, she succeeded in this mission handily. I knew nothing of the story, but by the time I read the details, I was not surprised. The horror had already been whispered to me slowly through the poems. They translated to me the essentials of the situation, which, stripped of meaning, conveyed more through silence than noise. Water-frenzy-negroes-overboard-justice-escaped. My brain painted the rest of the picture, which had already been formed but was simply fleshed out through the revelations in Philip’s essay. In this there can be seen an element of subjectivity; the story can become anything the reader finds in it.


This is in part what I believe Philip means when she claims that in writing Zong! she implicates herself–simply by allowing the story any flexibility, she allows the atrocities to be overlooked. She exposes the dead for what they were–humans who deserved respect and dignity and life–by opening the history up for inspection, but in doing so she allows them to be abused once again. In turning them from property into people, she reveals the solemn truth: they were people the whole time, no matter what any law or judge said. So she is not only savior but warden. Putting a story like this into the world; one that reveals so much of the evil humanity has the potential for, yet also allows murder victims a space for remembrance, is a powerful statement but a dangerous one.


The other thing I believe Philip could mean when she talks about guilt in authoring this work is somewhat reminiscent of Derrida’s ideas. It could be debated that just by writing about an act so singularly and irrevocably violent, Philip furthers the worlds that allowed it to happen at all. In putting the words on paper, she claims some type of ownership over such a horrific event, giving herself the power to condemn or acquit, save or abandon. From this view, the poems of Zong! become performative acclamations, words that bring long dead atrocious acts and innocent souls back into the landscape of present-day, breathing life into them and encasing them in the written word, where they will rest forever. The struggle becomes that it is impossible to separate the two; the killer and the victim, the captain and the slave, the perpetrator and the victim. They must all await judgement together. This requires the most delicate sort of artistry from an author, and this is where I commend Philip in her performance more than anywhere else; she refuses to let the dead remain unheard, yet she neglects to give them her own voice, which would, in the end, only be yet another form of subjugation for them to endure.

Is justice even possible in the world of The Furies?

The word “justice” is thrown out numerous times in The Furies, by nearly every character, but what it truly means never seems to be agreed upon. There are a lot of legal ideas to unpack in the play, and a seemingly never ending slew of moral dilemmas, but while a verdict is eventually reached, I would argue that the “resolution” of the story is still unclear and unsatisfying.

For one thing, I find it highly circumspect and not impartial that Athena votes on his side simply because of her own lack of experience with having a mother. I also find it hypocritical of the Furies to try to “end the bloodshed,” only by spilling more blood. Apollo is also hypocritical in his derision of the Furies for being involved in this matter where he claims they have no place–what right does he have to mortal affairs that they don’t? Especially when, according to Orestes, he led him to killing Clytemnestra in the first place. Honestly, I see nothing in this play that I would want a true legal system to replicate, but I think that is also because of the fact that it is almost impossible to translate “law” as we understand it to gods and goddesses and mythical creatures. By their very definitions, they are outside of human law, as we clearly see in the text, in how they do whatever they want at any time they want to anyone they want.

The only character I can somewhat sympathize with is Clytemnestra. From my admittedly limited understanding of the events which led up to the start of the play, the sole point where “justice” had been reached was right after she murdered Agamemnon, but before Orestes murdered her. I say “justice” because I don’t know if I fully believe that true justice means more killing, but in her circumstance, I understand why she felt that her husband deserved to die. Some broken version of justice had been reached: her daughter was dead, killed in cold blood, but Iphigenia’s killer was also dead. I don’t argue that Clytemnestra was a murderer, but of the three murderers, she was the only one who wasn’t a parent killing a child or a child killing a parent. In that sense, I agree with the Furies that Orestes’ crime was of a higher caliber than his mother’s. What obligation does someone have to a spouse who literally killed their child? Any marital bond between them was broken the second Agamemnon even considered killing Iphigenia, and demolished when he did.