Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Critical Overview

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Although To Kill a Mockingbird was a resounding popular success when it first appeared in 1960, initial critical response to Lee's novel was mixed. Some reviewers faulted the novel's climax as melodramatic, while others found the narrative point of view unbelievable. For instance, Atlantic Monthly contributor Phoebe Adams found Scout's narration "frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult." Granville Hicks likewise observed in Saturday Review that "Miss Lee's problem has been to tell the story she wants to tell and yet stay within the consciousness of a child, and she hasn't consistently solved it." In contrast, Nick Aaron Ford asserted in PHYLON that Scout's narration "gives the most vivid, realistic, and delightful experiences of child's world ever presented by an American novelist, with the possible exception of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn."

Other early reviews of the novel focused on Lee's treatment of racial themes. Several observers remarked that while the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird was not particularly original, it was well executed; New Statesman contributor Keith Waterhouse, for instance, noted that Lee "gives freshness to a stock situation." In contrast, Harding LeMay asserted in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review that the author's "valiant attempt" to combine Scout's amusing recollections of her eccentric neighborhood with the serious events surrounding Tom Robinson's trial "fails to produce a novel of stature, or even of original insight," although "it does provide an exercise in easy, graceful writing." Richard Sullivan, on the other hand, claimed in the Chicago Sunday Tribune that To Kill a Mockingbird "is a novel of strong contemporary national significance. And it deserves serious consideration. But first of all it is a story so admirably done that it must be called both honorable and engrossing." The Pulitzer Prize committee agreed with this last opinion, awarding the novel its 1961 prize for fiction.

Later appraisals of the novel have also supported these favorable assessments, emphasizing the technical excellence of Lee's narration and characterizations. In a 1975 article, William T. Going called Scout's point of view "the structural forte" of the novel, adding that it was "misunderstood or misinterpreted" by most early critics. "Maycomb and the South, then," the critic explained, "are all seen through the eyes of Jean Louise, who speaks from the mature and witty vantage of an older woman recalling her father as well as her brother and their childhood days." Critic Fred Erisman interpreted the novel as presenting a vision for a "New South" that can retain its regional outlook and yet treat all its citizens fairly. He praised Atticus Finch as a Southern representation of the ideal man envisioned by nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: "the individual who vibrates to his own iron string, the one man in the town that the community trusts 'to do right,' even as they deplore his peculiarities." R. A. Dave similarly found the novel a success in its exploration of Southern history and justice. He claimed that in To Kill a Mockingbird "there is a complete cohesion of art and morality. And therein lies the novelist's success. She is a remarkable storyteller. The reader just glides through the novel abounding in humor and pathos, hopes and fears, love and hatred, humanity and brutality—all affording him a memorable human experience of journeying through sunshine and rain at once. . . . The tale of heroic struggle lingers in our memory as an unforgettable experience."

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism