Whether or not the new Harper Lee novel disappoints, it is impossible to forget what her first novel meant to millions of readers. Author Parvati Sharma turns its pages again to find old friends, new meanings and questions for a more troubled time.
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To me, this was a sure and ominous sign: Scout was going the way of all my favourite heroines. O Elizabeth Bennet, planted into that silly country estate, why couldn’t you go found a literary salon in some bohemian quarter of London? Darcy would visit, he’d be foremost amongst your admirers, but you’d be too busy slaying them with your wit to even notice, until you were old and he was left, and then, maybe, you’d let him move in. Jo March, Jo March, why couldn’t you learn how to smoke, write the great American novel, then die of drink in your thirties? But they couldn’t. There was obviously some law, and Scout would soon like dresses and boys, and… sigh.
I read things a little differently, this time. Notice how the book’s full of single women going bossily about their business? Miss Stephanie, Miss Maudie, Miss Rachel — that’s three out of the Finch’s five closest neighbours. If you count the widowed Mrs Dubose, that’s four. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s stiff-backed sister, she’s married, sure, but Scout soon realises that her Uncle Jimmy, whether present or absent, “made not much difference”.
What does it all mean? I’m betting at least this: Scout’s not married in the sequel.
So what irritated me? That very trial I wept through at 14. Admittedly, I was teary-eyed this time, too, but I was also bugged. I was bugged by Tom Robinson, I was bugged by the black audience standing when Atticus passes by, and I was bugged by Atticus himself.
But you cannot fault him. Atticus’s speech to the jury is among the most truthful, moving appeals for justice ever written. So it’s not him, it’s Lee. Because, come on: why must every single black person in this book be a saint? Why must their houses be “neat and snug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys”? You almost expect Snow White to come chirruping out. Why must Tom Robinson be kind and handsome, beloved husband, responsible father and crippled before he’s considered worthy of innocence?
Of course, Lee doesn’t say this explicitly, but read with the slightest tilt of perspective, and you know she baulked at the idea of having a tippling, gambling black man, even a faintly unpleasant black man, be falsely accused by white people. And this refusal, such framing, is almost as harmful as the inequality it seeks to expose.
Back in Charleston, the white man who killed nine black men and women told his victims, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” His name is Dylann Roof, and you could use the very words Scout uses for Bob Ewell to describe him: “All… that made him better than his nearest neighbours was that… his skin was white”.
Little has changed since those lines were written. Ewell and Roof — both terrified by the idea of black blood co-mingling with white, of the one thing that makes them feel superior, their pasty complexions, getting pigmented away — strut about viciously. And their targets? Lee’s black characters and Charleston’s black citizens are noble, not angry. After the killings, Charleston’s black community publicly forgave Roof. A dissenting black voice calls this “a reflection of our need to be accepted, to prove that we are better than y’all think…” After all, you don’t see white people going around forgiving Osama, do you?
You don’t see us forgiving Ajmal Kasab; though wouldn’t it be nice if Muslims just forgot about Gujarat? Here, as much as anywhere else in the world, it is the weak who must prove themselves unsullied to their oppressors. Anyone not upper-caste Hindu must vaunt credentials (secular, liberal, nationalist, vegetarian) before citing discrimination; a woman must be virginal before alleging rape.
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As Atticus says, tired and briefly bitter after Tom’s conviction, “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep”. In a more hopeful moment he might have added, it’s the tears we cry as children that transform us; only as children do we feel the profound frustration against injustice that Lee evokes so viscerally well. And perhaps, these tears will save us, as adults, from washing away our sins.
Parvati Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love and Close to Home