Report on the Second Session of Book Talk held by the English Association
23 March 2017
The Second Session of BookTalk 2017 chose to discuss To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a novel that holds the sole distinction of being popular yet holding classical status too. The novel was published in 1960 and became immediately popular, and went on to symbolize the genre of American Literature. The character of Atticus Finch is one that has given rise to numerous discussions (both in the academic and the informal circles), especially after the wake of the novel’s much hyped sequel, Go Set a Watchman.
The speakers of this session’s BookTalk covered a number of problematic, misunderstood and appreciated aspects of the novel from defining who exactly the mockingbird is to unraveling the character of Atticus Finch.
Dr Priya began her discussion with personal anecdote of how the book seemed to seep into her every-day life after she had read it. She uncovered a number of contradictions within the text that supposedly was an anti-racist commentary on the state of affairs on Alabama. She also paid due attention to Go Set a Watchman and wondered at how it seemed to undermine everything that its prequel stood for. The discussion spanned on to a variety of topics, especially to the tricky question of who exactly Atticus Finch is and what he believes in. A few readings from the text also supplemented her arguments.
Akankshya from 2ENGH talked about the classical status that the book enjoys. She pointed out how To Kill a Mockingbird defies ordinary standards of what a classic should read like, with its page-turning qualities. In fact, this was one of the books that had changed her life, she said. Although she couldn’t stand reinterpretations or criticisms leveled against the novel, her subsequent higher education taught her that all texts must in fact undergo a critical analysis, but this does not change what the text personally meant to her. This is where her reluctance to read Go Set a Watchman also stems from, she feels. However, she concurs that it is indeed dangerous to put a text on a pedestal, however revolutionary or brilliant it is, and To Kill a Mockingbird, like any other text, yields the same number of contradictions within its pages- the kind of contradictions you wish you had never spotted in the first place.
Sheelalipi from 4ENGH spoke of the “Mockingbird” in the title: who exactly is the Mockingbird in the novel? She rephrased her question with an even more interesting quip saying “Who isn’t a Mockingbird?” She explored the characters of Tom Robinson, Scout Finch, Jem Finch, Dill and Boo Radley- all characters whose innocence have been shattered in the course of the book. To her personally, Jem is the real mockingbird which is also evident from his torn and erratic demeanor that we see in the novel. Indeed,as Atticus Finch says, “Shoot all the blue jays you want—but remember it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Vishakha Sen from 4ENGH concentrated on the story of Scout. The speaker could relate well to the character because she lived in an almost similar society. She points out how uncolored Scout is in her observation, probably because of how young she is. Her knowledge of the world is limited, and so she doesn’t have the sword of political correctness hanging over her. To her, right and wrong are polarized and clear-cut and she finds the whole business and the whole hypocrisy surrounding the business a very sordid and confusing one.
Jagriti Jain from 2ENGH took over the discussion by pointing out various interesting scenes in the novel- such as the one where Scout and Jem accompany Calpurnia to the black church. She looks at how language itself becomes a political statement with Calpurnia switching accents and even dialect seamlessly in the presence of the two sides- black and white. She explored gender through the characters of Aunt Alexandra, MsMaudie and even Atticus Finch’s quote to Scout wherein he explains how women aren’t allowed in the jury.
Sre Ratha from 2JOUH supplanted the previous discussion by pointing how it isn’t just race alone that becomes a focal point in the novel. The issue of class is also rather jarring wherein Raymond isn’t ostracized for intermingling with the blacks purely because he is wealthy. The character of Raymond itself is a statement on how it seems that you need to be “drunk” to interact with the black community. Boo Radley’s rather tragic turn of events was also discussed in great detail, with special attention to how the children treated him, and us wondering how he would have perceived it.
The discussions spanned informal debates on various other issues that pertain to the book, such as the context in which the book was written and Harper Lee’s own experience of witnessing a similar trial in her childhood.
The session was quite a fruitful one with all the speakers engaging with very different and very relevant aspects that need to be discussed with regard to the novel. To Kill a Mockingbird was adulated and critiqued at the same time, and we all came out rather wise and knowledgeable about the novel.