As I comfortably reclined into my grand stall seats at the Gielgud Theatre in London, I wasn’t remotely expecting what was going to unfold in front of me.
The play starts with the three kids Scout Finch, Jem Finch and Dill Harris discussing how Mr. Bob Ewell died. While Jem is confident, Bob fell on his knife – Scout and Dill have their doubts about it.
In the next two hours, the actors play with your emotions with Atticus Finch going from not ready to take the case of Tom Robinson to standing up to a mob all by himself (a mob, which is baying for Tom’s blood even before the jury has decided his fate)
with Calpurnia going from being passive aggressive to verbalizing her anger and telling us who the real murderers are
with Jem going from a hot-head who thought his father was a coward to understanding it takes more courage to see good in people even when they are at their worst
and most importantly, with Boo Radley living the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”
When the theatre lights return, you realise you are not reclining in your seats anymore, but you have been at the edge of your seat the whole time. You have welled up multiple times, including when Tom Robinson is being called “boy” by the prosecution lawyer, and you simply couldn’t hold it back in when Calpurnia lets out that motherly screech saying “They are all murderers, they all are”.
I am not writing this to discuss the play. We all heard the story, watched the movie at some point. I am writing this because after a long ti me I watched a masterpiece, which made me think of the times we live in. I am not a critique or a person who can claim to understand the 'art or creative process' by any stretch of imagination, but it’s said that art is supposed to provoke you, it is supposed to hold a mirror to society, and to this ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ does complete justice.
As the play continued, I couldn’t help but zero in on Atticus Finch.
Who is Atticus Finch?
Is he the 'love thy neighbour' good old Christian who believes that good lies in all people?
Or is he just a part of the privileged majority who believes that the minorities owe him gratitude for fighting for their cause?
Remember, it is not just Tom’s case, but also for farmers' causes – farmers marginalised by rich corporate industrialists. There is a constant struggle between Atticus and his family to explain why he doesn’t react to Bob Ewell’s provocations or the old ladies’ racist remarks. While I strongly admire Atticus’s firm belief in the goodness of humanity, I do think in current times people like Atticus are naive and are enablers of rabid behaviour driven by the majority.
That old lady will not stop being racist, in fact she will be even more empowered to do that, because Jem was forced to apologise to her. In her mind, that’s a validation of her belief system. Same goes with Bob Ewell or many other Klan members.
I am not trying to be unconventional by harshly judging Atticus, but I strongly believe characters like Atticus enable bad behaviour by constantly arguing that everybody has a good side in them.
What good did Bob Ewell have? After accusing an innocent human being of a heinous crime of rape and ensuring his death, he came after Jem and Scout. By the end of the play, Bob’s evil nature changed Atticus too. Atticus attacked Bob when he came to mock him and questioned his manhood, and then helped cover up his murder by Jem.
One might even wonder if that meant Atticus stopped believing in the good of humanity? I am afraid not. Atticus attacked Bob because he questioned Atticus’s manhood, not because he was directly responsible for Tom’s death. Atticus helped cover up the death of Bob Ewell, because Jem would have gone to jail – his own son; not because he fabricated lies to ensure Tom Robinson’s death.
However, I have to admit that I also loved Atticus because we all manifest Atticus in some shape or form. We all like to think we are supporting minorities – fighting for their causes, but always give free passes to our relatives, friends, etc. on being vile racists. We refuse to believe that sometimes people we know very well are actually abominable while we keep focusing on the “Boo Radleys” of our worlds and devising futile ways to keep away from these Boo Radleys.
In today’s world, many mockingbirds are being slaughtered, because many Atticus refuse to accept that evil exists amongst us. They refuse to call out that evil and hence enable this behaviour.
History is repeating itself in front of our eyes, and we can’t afford that.
Calpurnia in the end says to Jem and Scout that she likes what she sees in them. I am afraid she wouldn’t like what she sees in us right now.
© 2022 AbhiSinha