To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
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To Kill a Mockingbird Book Review
Published in July 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s only novel, was an immediate success. It won the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has never been out of print since its original publication. The novel, which has become a classic of modern American literature, is loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was ten years old.
As a Southern Gothic novel and a feminist Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Scholars have noted that Lee also addresses issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South. The novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with the issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers. One critic explains the novel’s impact by writing,
“In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.”
Reception to the novel varied widely upon publication. Literary analysis of it is sparse, considering the fact that it has been translated in over 40 languages and the book is widely taught in English-speaking countries with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice. Author Mary McDonough Murphy, who collected individual impressions of the book by several authors and public figures, calls To Kill a Mockingbird “an astonishing phenomenon”. In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one “every adult should read before they die.”
Surprisingly, since its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird has never been the focus of a dissertation; it has been the subject of only six literary studies, several of them no more than a couple of pages long. To date, it is Lee’s only published novel, and although she continues to respond to the book’s impact, she has refused any personal publicity for herself or the novel since 1964.
Despite the novel’s immense popularity upon publication, it has not received the close critical attention paid to other American classics. Don Noble estimates that the ratio of sales to analytical essays may be a million to one. Christopher Metress writes that the book is “an icon whose emotive sway remains strangely powerful because it also remains unexamined”. Noble suggests that it does not receive academic attention because of its consistent status as a best-seller (“If that many people like it, it can’t be any good.”) and that general readers seem to feel they do not require analytical interpretation.
Harper Lee has remained famously detached from interpreting the novel since the mid-1960s. However, she gave some insights into her themes when, in a rare letter to the editor, she wrote in response to the passionate reaction her book caused:
“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”
The book was made into the 1962 well-received film with the same title, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. It won three Oscars including the one Best Actor for Gregory Peck and was nominated in five other categories. In 1990, it was adapted as a play by Christopher Sergel. The play runs every year on the country courthouse grounds in Monroeville, a town that labels itself “The Literary Capital of Alabama”, with townspeople making up the cast; it has become part of the town ritual. According to a National Geographic article, the novel is so revered in Monroeville that people quote lines from it like Scripture: yet Harper Lee herself has refused to attend any performances because “she abhors anything that trades on the book’s fame”
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