‘A Time to Kill A Mockingbird’ : A Critical View

By: Matt McCarter

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Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is the most well-known Southern novel of the 20th Century.  An entire generation of people were raised on the 1962 film of the same name starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. In addition, at least two subsequent generations read the novel in their AP English Class. Literary critic, Joseph Crespino describes the social impact of Lee’s novel when he writes “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” (9).

Atticus Finch, the novel’s protagonist, is charged with representing a black man, Tom Robinson, in court.  Robinson has been falsely accused of raping a white girl.  While Finch may be the “most enduring fictional image of racial heroism” according to Crespino, other scholars have focused on the character of Tom Robinson.  Roslyn Seigel, for example, discusses Robinson’s character and his role in the novel as being an example of a recurring motif among white Southern writers.  According to Seigel these writers often portray black men as being “stupid, pathetic, defenseless, and dependent upon the fair dealings of whites, rather than his own intelligence to save him.”

In many ways, characters like Tom Robinson are like the trope of the magical negro.  This trope was created by white people and, according to Heather Hicks, the character is often “in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint” and is often a janitor or a prisoner (27).  Critics have claimed that this stock character in fiction and film is not really an active participant in the story but is instead merely an instrument used to help white people feel better about themselves and the role that they play in the perpetuation of systemic racism.  It is not difficult to see how the heroic Atticus Finch could make whites from both the South and the professional class feel better about themselves and help them to white wash the role that they play in the perpetuation of systemic racism.

However, it is not just the attorney, Atticus Finch, or the magical negro, Tom Robinson, that should concern us.  A more contemporary retelling of a courtroom drama that centers on racial discrimination should have us far more concerned than Atticus Finch.  One does not have to be a scholar of the literary critic Mikhail Bahktin to understand that the novel is best representation of lived experience and that societies often get their values and reflect the values that they already have in their art.  While To Kill A Mockingbird may have been a snap shot of lived experience in 1960, John Grisham’s A Time To Kill could be seen as a snap shot of lived experience when it was published nearly thirty years later in 1989.

According to Grisham, the inspiration for his novel A Time To Kill came from Grisham’s attending a trial where a young girl testified against the man who brutally raped her.  Grisham was impressed by her courage and moved by her story.  He claimed that for a brief moment, he wanted “personally to shoot the rapist.”  He wanted “justice.” It is out of this moment that the fundamental story of A Time to Kill was conceived. The essential elements of the narrative and standard and yet, significant.  The victim in the story, the little girl, was clearly innocent and her character was sacrificed early on to drive the plot and create action.  Often, again, in standard narratives like this, the bad guys are typically stereotypes or drawn from groups that society views with hostility. For example, in the Charles Bronson series Death Wish, the bad guys are members of an urban street gang.  However, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, the bad guys are rednecks.

Grisham even calls them rednecks.  In fact, the first sentence in the novel reads “Billy Ray Cobb was the smaller of the two rednecks” With this opening sentence, Grisham introduces the audience to a stereotype and according to this stereotyped profile, we learn that Billy Ray drives a pickup truck with a Confederate flag displayed in the window.  Grisham goes even further and adds that Bill Ray is brighter than most and that his “smalltime narcotics business” makes him “one of the more affluent rednecks.” So… Grisham begins his novel talking about a redneck that drives a pickup truck with a Confederate flag in the window who has a narcotics business and is one of the more affluent rednecks because of it. This character even has two first names.

The only way that it could be more stereotypical would be if he were called Bobby Lee – short for Robert E Lee, the Confederate general that his parents sought to honor when they named him. Later on in the novel, Grisham drives this point home even more when a character reads from the list of potential jurors and someone says “sounds like a redneck” because the person has a “double first name.” The person goes on to add that most rednecks have double first names and then lists a category of names and even includes women’s names like Bobbie Sue and Thelma Lou.  Grisham goes to great pains to go into detail about Billy Ray and his companion, Willard.  The only thing that concerns Grisham more than describing these two characters in the most stereotypical way possible is describing the gruesome acts of violence perpetrated by Billy Ray and Willard as well as the violence perpetrated against them.

Grisham carefully describes the rape of a young girl in the opening chapter of the book.  The brutal descriptions of these heinous acts, no doubt, make the reader angry and make them want justice for the girl.  The men are arrested for their crimes and taken to jail.  However, before they can stand trial, they are killed by Carl Lee, the little girls’ father (Carl Lee is a black man but has a double first name just like the rednecks).  Carl Lee avenges the death of his daughter and then is, subsequently, put on trial himself.  Jake Brigance, a young lawyer in the story, agrees to defend Carl Lee in court.  The rape and the subsequent revenge killing gets national media attention and Jake Brigance finds himself targeted by the Klan.  However, like Atticus Finch, Jake Brigance continues to fight for his client and ignore the social pressures that come with being an attorney for a case like this.

There are many parallels between A Time to Kill and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Both stories have a rape trial at the center of the narrative.  In To Kill A Mockingbird, it is the black defendant, Tom Robinson, who is accused of a rape that he did not commit.  It is Atticus Finch’s job to convince the all-white jury that he is not guilty and to prevent any vigilante violence that might lead to a lynching. In A Time to Kill, the vigilante justice had already taken place – both Billy Ray and Willard had been killed by Carl Lee, the girl’s father.  In addition, “rednecks” play a role in both stories.  It is a redneck – Bob Ewell – who brought the charges against Tom Robinson and his daughter, Mayella, who also perjured herself on the stand in To Kill a Mockingbird.  In contrast, the rednecks in A Time to Kill committed a rape.  However, they did not get their day in court. There was vigilante justice in A Time to Kill as well but Grisham, through his use of stereotypes and language, makes this vigilante justice seem to be an appropriate response.  Then, the focus shifts from the rednecks not having their day in court to the difficulties experienced by Jack Brigance as he works to ensure that Carl Lee gets his day in court.

The differences between the two novels are important. As we watch these narratives unfold and move toward their resolution, we must understand that the impulses and the biases that the characters have tell us a lot about ourselves, both yesterday and today. In 1963, Atticus Finch took the case and did his best for the defense because we, as Americans, thought that everyone deserved their day in court – even the least among us like the poor black man, Tom Robinson.  In 1992, John Grisham shows us that this is no longer true.  If you do something heinous enough (like raping a little girl), vigilante justice is an appropriate response.  Tom Robinson deserved a trial (even though he was black and, at the time, considered inferior) but Billy Ray and Willard don’t because of their heinous act.  One could also argue that the reader likely believes that they don’t deserve a trial because they are rednecks and have been dehumanized from the opening sentence in Grisham’s novel.

However, the story isn’t really about Tom Robinson or Carl Lee Hailey.  They are ancillary characters that function in the background so that the white upper middle-class attorney in the stories can exhibit his noblesse oblige and rescue the black man from the state.  Like the African-American characters in the story, the rednecks are also background characters.  However, unlike the African-American characters, the rednecks are not the magical negros that characters like Tom Robinson and Carl Lee Hailey are.  Instead, they are the perpetrators of deeds that brought the conflict into being.  For example, if it weren’t for the Ewell family, then Tom Robinson would never have been tried for rape and if it weren’t for Billy Ray and Willard, then Carl Lee Hailey wouldn’t have to kill them for their despicable deeds.  The rednecks enable the middle class white characters in the story (as well as the middle-class whites who like to read these stories) to point their fingers at the rednecks and blame institutional racism on them.  It is a way for them to deny their complicity in the racist and classist system that perpetuates the social order.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his children that they can shoot all the bluebirds that they want with their BB guns but they must remember that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. There are no such warnings in Grisham’s A Time to Kill.  While there may never be A Time To Kill a Mockingbird in either of these novels, there is certainly A Time to Kill a redneck in John Grisham’s novel.  In fact, the title explains that, at least in this instance, because of the heinous crimes that these rednecks committed, it was, in fact, A Time to Kill.  After more than fifty years of Jim Crow and segregation in the South, we read of the difficulty that Atticus Finch went through to ensure that Tom Robinson got a fair trial. There is no commitment to a fair trial in A Time to Kill.  In the more than fifty years since the beginning of Jim Crow and segregation, To Kill a Mockingbird presents the reader with a moral lesson: No matter what a person’s station is in life, they deserve a fair trial.  There is no such moral in A Time to Kill.  In fact, the message in A Time to Kill is a simple one: vigilante justice and blood vengeance is OK so long as it is perpetrated on rednecks.

 

 

Crespino, Josrph. “The Strange Career of Atticus Finch.” Southern Cultures, vol. 6, no. 2, 2000, pp. 9-30.

Hicks, Heather. “”Hoodoo Economics: White Men’s Work and Black Men’s Magic in Contemporary American Film.” Camera Obscura, vol. 18, no. 2, 1 Sept. 2003, pp. 27-55.

Seigel, Roslyn. “The Black Man and the Macabre in American Literature.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 10, no. 4, 1976, p. 133.

 

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