To Kill a Mockingbird, Part I – Crash Course Literature 210


In which John Green teaches you about Harper Lee’s famous (and only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. John will cover a bit about Harper Lee’s personal life, (seeing as this novel has some autobiographical elements) and her long association with Truman Capote, who figures as a character in the book. You’ll get an overview of the plot, and we’ll talk a bit about Mockingbird as an example of bildungsroman (again(man, this description is heavy on parentheses)) and Southern Gothic, and look into the novel as a commentary on the racism and patriarchy of the Alabama in which Harper Lee grew up.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

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Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we’re going to talk
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about To Kill a Mockingbird. So Mockingbird is the rare class of American
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literature that is both one, relatively easy to read and two, pretty fun to read.
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I mean, it’s got a cool and somewhat creepy plot that draws you in. There is a young girl,
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Scout; her brother, Jem; and their weird neighbor, Dill, who become obsessed with their even
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weirder neighbor, “Boo” Radley. The kids spend a lot of time reenacting Boo’s backstory
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— the highlight of which involves him allegedly stabbing his father in the leg with scissors
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— and the children become schooled in gender, race, and class relations in Depression-Era Alabama.
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MFTP: Mr. Green, Mr. Green, I’m from Alabama!
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I know, Me From the Past, because I am also you. Anyway, the kids, and also, of course,
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we as readers, are schooled in all things ethical by the Gregory Peckian Atticus Finch:
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public defender, sharpshooter, and one of the most beloved father figures in American fiction
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[Theme Music]
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So, To Kill a Mockingbird was an absolute literary sensation when it was published in 1960.
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The Chicago Sunday Tribune called it “a novel of strong contemporary national
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significance.” Time Magazine said that it “teaches the reader an astonishing number
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of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life.”
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Now some disparaged Lee’s treatment of poor Southern whites and African Americans as one-dimensional,
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but Mockingbird so far, at least, has a kind of timeless appeal to it.
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And to be fair to those critics, there is something simple about Mockingbird and the
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way that it imagines justice, but it’s also very compelling.
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And there are times when it feels dated, but again, it was written in 1960.
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Anyway, it won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it’s been printed over 30 million
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times, translated into over 40 languages. That’s a lot of dead mockingbirds. So who
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would write a story with such a depressing title? Well, Harper Lee.
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So Harper Lee was born in 1926 in the bustling metropolis of Monroeville, Alabama.
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MFTP: Alabama! Roll Tide! Ooooh, yes, Me From the Past, we are aware.
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So critics often point out that there are many parallels between Lee’s childhood and
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that of her main character, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Lee’s father was an attorney who
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unsuccessfully defended two African American men accused of murder. Lee’s brother, Edwin,
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was four years her senior. The family employed an African-American housekeeper
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who was central in Lee’s upbringing. Lee’s mother, was not dead, but she was quite distant.
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And Lee’s childhood playmate, Truman Persons, was a weird kid who spent extended periods
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visiting relatives next door. Now in literature, this boy Truman provided the model for Dill
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Harris. In real life, this Truman reinvented himself as Truman Capote — icon of American
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letters, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. That’s right – he spent
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his summers in Monroeville. In fact, there’s a longstanding literary
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conspiracy theory that since Harper Lee never wrote another book, maybe Truman Capote is
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the real author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Which, if you read Mockingbird alongside anything
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Truman Capote ever wrote, you will immediately realize that it’s just ridiculous. Harper
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Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee has not written another novel.
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She didn’t enjoy the spotlight and has declined most requests for interviews and speeches.
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But she did write a brief, and piercing foreword to a later edition of Mockingbird:
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“The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose
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to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years
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without preamble.” Her publishers were like, “We need a new
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foreword so we can sell more copies of the book.” And she was like, “All right, but
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my introduction is gonna be about how useless introductions are.”
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All right, before we discuss how Mockingbird manages to “[say] what it has to say,”
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let’s look at the plot in the Thought Bubble: So, Scout, Jem, and Dill spend two summers
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sipping lemonade and cultivating fantasies about their mysterious homebound neighbor,
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“Boo” Radley and daring one another to touch his door. The children act out events
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from Boo’s life. And although Boo remains hidden, his chewing gum does not. This gum,
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along with other gifts, appears in a tree outside the Radley house.
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Meanwhile, Scout learns that her father, Atticus, has been appointed to defend Tom Robinson,
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a black man with a deformed left arm, wrongly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a friendless
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white nineteen-year old who lives behind a garbage dump. Mayella lives with a gaggle
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of filthy and uneducated siblings and an often-drunk father, who beats and possibly molests her.
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Despite Tom’s obvious innocence, I mean, Mayella was hit on the right side of her face
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by a man without a left arm, the white population of Maycomb resents Atticus for being his court
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appointed public defender. With the help of Jem and Scout, Atticus dissuades a mob from
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lynching Tom. Atticus is less successful, however, at swaying the jury. Tom is declared
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guilty; He escapes from prison and then is shot and killed.
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Bob Ewell, the father of Mayella, is miffed at being ridiculed by Atticus in court. After
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spitting at Atticus, Ewell attacks his children. Boo Radley comes to the rescues and makes
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good on his history of stabbing people, and the children are saved.
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Thanks, Thought Bubble. So there we see, like, two of the biggest problems with To Kill a
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Mockingbird. First, that the Ewell family is kind of like one-dimensionally villainous.
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And secondly, that the great hero of the story is this, like, rich white dude.
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But having acknowledged that, I don’t wanna miss all the stuff that’s still really resonant
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and important to contemporary readers. So throughout the book, Scout is encouraged
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to look at things from other peoples’ perspectives. Which of course was, like, the great fundamental
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failure of the Jim Crow South. Like at the end of the novel, Scout no longer
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sees Boo as this, like, terrifying other, she’s able to imagine how events appear
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from his perspective. And in doing so, she’s following Atticus’s famous advice:
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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view —
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until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.“
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I just want to clarifying that we’re not talking about, like, Silence of the Lambs-style
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walking around in someone else’s skin, I’m talking about empathy.
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That said, it occurs to me that bringing up Silence of the Lambs allows us to talk about
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the macabre and Mockingbird as, like, a Southern Gothic novel.
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So you all remember the Gothic novel from Frankenstein, with its blend of horror and
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its interest in the sublime. So Gothic literature relies on archetypes,
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like grotesque monsters, innocent victims, heroic knights, etc.—to create dramatic
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tension and it uses dark settings, like medieval castles, to heighten the emotional impact of a story.
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Now in the Southern Gothic movement that emerged in the American South, “real,” although still fictional,
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people replace those Gothic archetypes. Like at the start of Mockingbird, Boo is a reclusive monster;
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Jem, Scout and Dill are his potential victims; and Atticus is an heroic knight.
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Now later, ignorance, racism, and violence prove to be the novel’s real “monsters.”
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And Tom and Mayella are their victims. Atticus, of course, gets to remain the hero.
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And in Southern Gothic fiction, decaying buildings or bodies replace the medieval castle as the
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dark settings that heighten a story’s emotional impact.
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I mean, we’re told that Maycomb is a town in which,
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“In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the
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courthouse sagged in the square.” And many of Maycomb’s inhabitants also have
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bodies that are broken, infected, or off-balance, right? Like Atticus is too old to play tackle
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football and, to his daughter’s inexplicable horror, he wears glasses.
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He’s a monster! Now he’s a regular person. Now I’m a monster again.
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Mrs. Dubose, the cantankerous morphine addict, has a particularly heinous mouth. Tom’s
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left arm has been torn apart in a cotton gin. Jem’s left arm is eventually deformed by
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Ewell. And ultimately, these broken, off-balance,
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horrifying attributes of Maycomb and its inhabitants expose the corruption and decay of Southern
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culture itself. So Mockingbird is one of the great Southern
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Gothic novels, but it’s also one of the great American bildungsromans.
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Like Jane Eyre, it’s a novel about a young person’s education and coming of age. So
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at the beginning, I’m like – Ooohhhh, it must be time for the open letter.
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Oh hey there, Darth Vader. An open letter to the German language:
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Dear German, you’ve given us so much. “Vader” for instance, the German word for “father.”
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“Schadenfreude”, the pleasure we experience when others suffer. “Kummerspeck”, which
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literally translates to “grief bacon,” the way we eat when we’re sad.
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And, of course, terms like “sitzpinkler,” a man who sits to pee.
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But perhaps your greatest gift is “bildungsroman,” because not only did you give us the word,
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you also kind of gave us the idea. So this sitzpinkler would like to thank you
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for that and all of your many linguistic gifts. Best wishes, John Green.
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So at the beginning of Mockingbird, a six-year-old Scout can already read the newspaper, in spite
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of a lack of formal education, and when Scout demonstrates that she can read at school,
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Miss Caroline — a teacher with a loose grasp of John Dewey’s philosophy — commands:
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“Now tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a
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fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage—“
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But of course both academically and morally, Scout doesn’t get her education in school,
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she gets it precisely from her father. Scout’s also called a tomboy, and most women
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in her community critique how she speaks and dresses and plays. Yet who can blame her for
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wanting to be a tomboy? Jem often tells her that girls are hateful and embarrassing and
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frivolous and worse, when Dill begins “following Jem about,” he starts to treat Scout as
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an object: “He had asked me earlier in the summer to
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marry him, then he promptly forgot about it. He staked me out, marked as his property,
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said I was the only girl he would ever love, then he neglected me.”
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Scout consistently resists the notion that women are a form of property. In fact, throughout
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the novel, Lee uses Scout’s reflections to expose the performative aspects of gender
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— or the ways in which gender, like, results from what feminist critic Judith Butler describes
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as the “repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid
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regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a
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natural sort of being.” That’s a bit complicated, but basically,
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Scout stands in opposition to the idea that you have to do or be a, b, or c in order to,
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like, be a real woman. But of course, there are limits to how much
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Scout can act like a boy. Like when Jem and Dill spend afternoons “going in naked”
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swimming in a creek, Scout is left to divide the “lonely hours” between Calpurnia,
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the housekeeper, and Miss Maudie. And these two women prove to be Scout’s
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strongest female allies. Calpurnia supports Scout’s independence by teaching her to
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write in the kitchen. And Miss Maudie bolsters Scout’s confidence. Like when a neighbor
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ridicules Scout for wearing pants, Scout recalls, “Miss Maudie’s hand closed tightly on
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mine, and I said nothing. Its warmth was enough.” Vitally, neither of these women is able to
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serve on a jury in the town of Maycomb — Maudie, “because she’s a woman,” and Calpurnia,
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because she is both a woman and black. This not-so-subtle social commentary provides the
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backbone for Harper Lee’s argument about the dangers of limiting women’s political
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rights, like had those women sat on that jury, Lee implies, the trial might have gone very
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differently. But of course, the jury ends up taking the
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side of Mayella Ewell. And although it’s difficult to forgive her for wrongly accusing
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Tom, it’s clear that she is also a victim of this perverse form of patriarchy.
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Rather than being permitted to, like, attend school and have a normal life, Mayella has
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been forced to care for seven siblings and keep house for a violent, drunk father. She’s
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isolated and friendless, and she tries to kiss Tom and when her father catches her,
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he beats her, and possibly rapes her. And only then does she allow herself to try to
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escape that violence by blaming someone else. Mayella’s world is circumscribed and terrifying,
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which is strongly contrasted with Scout’s pre-adolescent freedom and wonder.
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So in the end, I would argue that what some critics read as a one-dimensional treatment
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of the Ewell family, turns out to be a pretty sophisticated commentary on gender relations
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in the time and place of the novel. This reminds us again that when we read, we
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as readers are empowered to make choices. A novel really is a collaboration between
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the author and the reader. And Harper Lee’s great novel may be straightforward
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in its prose and in its plot, but when it comes to opportunities for that collaboration,
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it is extremely rich. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
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Crash Course possible; thanks for watching, and as we say in my hometown, “Don’t forget to be awesome.”


This post was previously published on YouTube.