Wednesday, May 20, 2015

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Three Major Elements Of Higher Consciousness

Harper Lee. Image Courtesy:
In 1960, a thirty-four year old woman got a chance to publish her second novel. She was still in very much good relationship with her hope to be a published author. Oh yes, she had another volume, her first work, sitting in a closet in her house. Someone had suggested her after reading that first piece of her creative journey that she must pen down another story, perhaps she should even trace the back-story of the original that she had just submitted. Harper Lee, the young woman in her early thirties, decided should certainly take a chance with her creative powers. She did. She wrote a new book with the same characters in her first book, with just one crucial difference. In this book, she told the story of her protagonist when she was a young girl of twelve. The novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, just a year after the first edition published.     

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Another legend about To Kill a Mockingbird is related to Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, another bestselling author. The story goes that the young boy who appears as the friend of Jean Louise, the protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird carries similarities with Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s childhood friend. Another story might convince one that there may be a certain truth about these autobiographical elements in To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is about Truman Capote’s work. When Truman was working on his book, the first non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, Harper Lee accompanied him to interview the people related to the 1959 murder of the family from Holcomb, Kansas.  

The reason I included To Kill a Mockingbird in my summer 2015 reading list was a friend of mine who recommended it and said one does not want to be over with reading his book. To Kill a Mockingbird commands an intimately personal experience from the reader. This personal connection, I believe, is in no way derogatory to the spirit the book carries. The gestalt To Kill a Mockingbird forms with the reader is deeply connected with our higher consciousness. This is the reason why we immediately see injustice and feel the pain of hurting a fellow being, and observe ourselves doing so, as if hovering from a higher space all the while.

Interestingly, I discovered three major elements in To Kill a Mockingbird that are harmonious with higher consciousness. They are; 1. Innocence 2. Love and respect for everyone 3. Following one’s conscience.          

1.       Innocence: Innocence of To Kill a Mockingbird is tangible as the pages of a book are. Under the skin, something invokes our sensitivities and we realize the innocence of the speaker, experiencing it and walking with it until the end of the book. From the opening scene in the book, innocence cannot be separated from narration. In other words, language and narrative strategy is the cause of what we experience as innocence of the protagonist. However, the innocent observations of Jean Louise, the protagonist reaches into the realm of our soul. The voice of Jean Louise takes the story into a level of perfection that would be near to impossible otherwise, in terms of storytelling strategies. To Kill a Mockingbird opens with a scene describing a young boy’s broken arm. The voice that describes the incident and the boy is that of Jean Louise. Minimum space is devoted to introduce characters. They appear from nowhere but the reader learns that they had always been there in the vicinity of Jean Louise. Her neighbors and aunt just appear one by one to populate and inhabit this Alabama small town named Maycomb. Such narrative strategy would have brought a lot of frowns had the narrative voice been a bit more mature. Sometimes, the innocent realizations of Jean Louise are lifesaving miracles for some. Harper Lee’s narrative style builds the innocence of the story, and in return, the innocence of the story weaves its own thread of language, a language that communicates beyond words.   

2.       Love and respect for everyone: “Most people are, [nice] Scout, when you finally see them.” Atticus Finch is a symbolic Samaritan. His observations on human nature and his acts on accord of his professional integrity reveal his respect for everyone. This excluded no one. The colored and the white, the good ones and the bad, all fall within his vision of respect. For a generation of people in America who grew up with reading To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch represents an ideal lawyer hero. I heard many writers and readers remark on his personality; how much it influenced them. This is the story of a good lawyer tested by time and destiny alike. There is a story that circles around the publishing world that Harper Lee titled this second book Atticus, first. However, the book isn’t an exclusive character portrait, like for example, Tess of D’Urbervilles. Atticus Finch has had his influence upon me too. The other day, I saw a John Grisham legal thriller in a bookshop’s used books section at New Bus Stand Kannur. I immediately purchased it. The book was The Last Juror. When I checked for the book’s reviews, I observed that this one is classified number 4 of Grisham’s all-time bests! My feeling after seeing a legal thriller was unique. It was something I never felt before. I had a new light under which I saw this book.

3.       Following one’s conscience: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (116). This attitude is the impetus behind all Atticus’s actions. Harper Lee exhibits an immense understanding of human psyche. This point draws my attention towards another dot in my awareness. Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, analyses the concept of conscience in his body of psychoanalytical works. His researches that appear in Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning carry enlightening revelations on human conscience. These enlightening revelations assert that conscience is not just a cliché one resorts when old age knocks on the door rendering one helpless to take rough choices in life. Conscience has a greater meaning. Viktor E. Frankl argues that conscience has strong connections with the unconscious territory of human mind. In his terms, human unconsciousness is a spiritual territory, the stuff that makes humans different from animals. “Love also parallels conscience with respect to the uniqueness of its target,” (42) he writes. Harper Lee contrasts Atticus’s active conscience with the passive conscience of the Ewells and the like.                      
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To Kill a Mockingbird is a book on childhood. It’s a book about a man who could not stand being a different person at home from what he is on the street or at work place. It’s also a book about standing by your values. The way Harper Lee wrote about relationships in this book brings upon it a significant psychological achievement. Another work of fiction written in our century or even in the history of literatures written in English language hasn’t reached the standards set by Ms. Lee in her novel. Never has a novel such a success in using a child’s perspectives to express life and the way of the world.

Tom Robinson becomes a painful memory, as if he is a real human being and not just a character in a nicely told story. The truth may be a bit unsettling. Tom Robinson is not just a character at all. He is a symbol of discrimination that happens even today. My students often ask me what the significance of fiction is. Here is my answer. What one can learn about the history of discrimination reading To Kill a Mockingbird cannot match any factual retelling of those events in history books. And this is perhaps one more reason to read fiction, the good ones, especially.            

The book Harper Lee wrote first, the one that she silently kept in her closet—someone discovered it. The title of this book is Go Set a Watchman.

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