'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee - A Short Narrative Essay

By Mono Ghose, Narrative Writer & Director

It's one of the best books I've ever read - as it is for so many people around the world. It has a rawness of truth that cuts close to the bone throughout the story, and the atmospherics of the world make you feel like you are there, and not merely a participant observing from afar.

That's a testament to a writer of supreme confidence and undoubtedly a genius craftswoman. I think one of the hallmarks of the truly great novelist is their innate prescience, because the best writers are also seers. They understand the fragility of innocence as an important strand within the human condition, they've broken down human nature's flaws and vanities, and they know both may never change – and they aren't afraid to tell us in their stories.

A quick note to my readers that my book articles are not reviews or literary critiques, there are plenty of those out there, they are instead merely a film director and writer's visual and emotional reaction to one moment or scene in a novel that I believe is an instructive piece of visual storytelling. Directors typically create visual motifs in film stories, like the the sequoia trees in Hitchcock's Vertigo, or pivotal symbolic images like General Maximus caressing the wheat fields in Elysium, in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, that etch an image as clear in your head as if you were looking at a Rembrandt chiaroscuro. Visual storytelling is when that one image or moment tells you a story and might even change your life.

This novel is full of iconic visual storytelling moments but one that stood out for me, that I'm sure has been written about in length, but was deeply impactful from a personal standpoint as well as from a visual standpoint. It is the scene where Atticus must shoot Tim Johnson, a suspected rabid dog, that might hurt his children and the townsfolk. Scout thinks her dad is old and unremarkable, but what a remarkable man he is and how he will change her outlook on life. It's the moment when you realise your parents are not just protectors, or over protectors, but heroes for their often silent sacrifices they have made and will continue to make for the rest of your lives.

After he kills the dog with a near perfect shot, his children are shocked by his newly awakened heroism, but the moment also reveals a hidden past that he desperately wanted to keep hidden. It has been said that the rabid dog is a metaphor for the pernicious disease of racism spreading in the town, which with his violent act, Atticus attempts to expurgate from the town's narrative.

What is more instructive for me, is that I think Atticus sees killing a dog with a gun as unfair and a metaphor of his white privilege – which he discusses later in the book. Part of me also thought it felt like he didn't even do it to save his kids or the town, because he probably thinks we should leave our evolution to Darwin, and if we can't beat the beast then don't fight it. He sees black and white as equal, both have survived mankind's fractious evolution – so why should they be any different from each other?

The moment is also about fairness and equity. It's wrong to murder a weak animal with a gun. He wants a fair fight. He wants his kids to learn this lesson. But now in the 'Court of the Street' - he suddenly becomes the judge - there's no trial or defence team - so it goes against every fibre of his body, but he must do it. He must bend to social will and the pressure of paternal responsibility.

It raises deeper questions: why was he the best shot when he was younger? Did he fight in a war? How many people has he killed? Someone in his own family?

In his reluctance and regret we see before the act, it is clear he wants to shun the firearm; the most powerful weapon readily available to people. Really he is rejecting corruption because he knows power corrupts like the unfair dominance over other species. In the world of this book, blacks were seen as dogs for the white racists. Atticus wants no part of that – because ultimately he thinks to kill or not to kill is a judgement that should be left to law or God – not for flawed men to arrogate an unfair advantage using either a weapon or a prejudiced jury.

A final point on this moment and the book in general. As he waves away the adulation and resumes on his stoic path, he is possibly the best example of good ever written. Bold statement I know, but here's why I think that:

Atticus is not without his faults. Is he the best father? Could he have chaperoned his young kids to Scout's evening show? Can't he just put down the paper once for a fatherly chat? No. Because good is uncompromising. Good is a molten steel spear to which nothing impure can attach itself to. And when it moves it cuts deep without you even knowing. It is free from extraneous artifice and therefore shines so bright that it sparkles when it speaks – and you listen because you know it's a rare specimen. You know because you are constantly surrounded by what is not good. And if good is not good, even for a second, it would break forever – I correct myself - it would shatter like a stained glass window smashed by a rock - but children may walk over those shards and hurt themselves. So good doesn't break.

In conclusion, I think this scene is a wonderful moment with manifold significance: it's the moment Atticus wins his children's respect which is in itself a rite of passage for them, the moment his son sees him as a role model, and the moment we readers are enraptured by his quiet heroism and mystified by his secret past.

Moreover, it shows us in one scene both the core values of this man and a principal theme of the book: that is an unshakeable belief that the arbiters of life and death on earth, whether that be man or God, must be fair to everyone.

By Mono Ghose, Narrative Writer & Director, Mavericks Storm Entertainment


You can buy the book here

Then once you've read it watch the 1962 movie and Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning and rightly immortalised performance as Atticus Finch here or keep it forever and buy the DVD here