Lie For a Mockingbird

So I have this essay I wrote yesterday. It’s an example for two of my classes: my AP Literature students and my Honors Freshman English — the latter we enjoy calling HELA 9, while the former insists on “It’s Liiiiiiiiiitt.” I was going to write two essays, one for each class; but both are writing literary analysis, just on different works and using different prompts: HELA 9 is writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, using simple essay questions I came up with; the AP class  is writing about Macbeth, using old AP test prompts. I wrote this one about TKAM, using an AP prompt; I figured that way I could use it for both classes, without stealing anyone’s topic idea.

I don’t know if people want to read these essays I write for school; but right now, this is pretty much all I’m writing. And, as my wife pointed out when I talked to her about posting this, this is part of me, my life and who I am. And God, I love this book. Just reading the last scene to find the quotes I wanted actually made me choke up a little.

So, here you go. Enjoy. I’ll post another essay in a couple of days, and a book review as soon as I can get to it. You can always pop over and read my time-traveling pirate serial, Damnation Kane.


(2016) Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended either to help or to hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime.

Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

There’s a lot to argue about in literature: was it the Lady or the Tiger, was Shakespeare one man or many (or a woman?), is it Gatsby’s fault or Daisy’s? But one thing we cannot argue about – for it is true beyond contestation – is that Atticus Finch is the best human being ever to exist. Best father, best lawyer, best person. Bar none. No question.

It says something, then, that at the end of Harper Lee’s classic, Atticus, the pillar of moral rectitude, the antithesis of all hypocrites and liars, the man who is the same on the public street as he is in his home – that man chooses to lie. And not only to lie, but to convince his young daughter, Scout – the second best person in all of literature – to lie, as well. It says that sometimes, in certain extraordinary cases, it is not only acceptable, but even good, to lie. Because sometimes, telling the truth would be like killing a mockingbird: harming someone who never did anything bad to anybody. And that, of course, is a sin.

Not all liars are good liars. Two other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bob and Mayella Ewell, lie extensively, and perniciously. The court case the Ewells precipitate serves as the major conflict for the novel’s larger scope; the story is both about the children growing up, and also about this case, and how the Ewells attempt to take advantage of the prejudice of the time even as Atticus tries – unsuccessfully – to fight against it. The case is built entirely on lies, and Atticus shows the jury the truth – against their will, at least in part, because so many things would be so much easier if they could just believe that the Ewells are telling the truth. But they can’t believe that, because the Ewells are not telling the truth. Atticus shows the jury the truth, both about the specific case and also about the Ewells; and because he does, he becomes a target of Bob Ewell’s violent tendencies, his savage and furtive need for revenge; this then creates the need for Atticus’s own lie, and Scout’s as well.

Mayella, the victim of a series of family secrets, including her father’s alcoholism, his physical and mental abuse, and even his sexual abuse of his eldest daughter, tells a number of lies in the name of finding some small token of real affection – because what her daddy do to her don’t count, as we hear from her own victim. When Mayella, a 19-year-old white woman in the town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930’s, decides she wants to kiss a man who is not her father, she seeks out a man she can manipulate and control: a black man. We can understand this, as Mayella has no control over her own life, which is spent taking care of her drunk father and her seven younger siblings; but Mayella wants something more than a life of filth and degradation, as we can see from the geraniums she grows and tends in the junkyard where her family lives in squalor. We appreciate this. Mayella is harmed, repeatedly, by those who are stronger and more violent than she; so when she looks for romance, she tries to protect herself from harm in this vulnerable moment – perfectly understandable. And, as far as it goes, this gives us a reason to at least forgive her various lies: she sends her siblings to town for ice cream, so that she can be alone with her would-be lover; she tells the man as he passes by that she needs help with a repair job inside the house,  so that he will come inside with her, which he would normally never do, knowing how impolite it would be considered for a black man to be alone with a white woman – and also, how dangerous. Then, when Tom Robinson, this kind-hearted man – chosen also because he is, as Scout sees, a fine figure of a man (or would be, if he were whole and not lacking the use of his left arm – and there can be little doubt of the symbolic value of that handicap for Mayella, who is frequently and savagely beaten by a left-handed man: Tom must be a man she does not need to fear), and chosen despite the fact that he is married with three young children – comes into the house, Mayella lies again to get him into her actual grasp, telling him to get her down something from on top of a tall bureau, and then grabbing him around the legs in an awkward and almost precious embrace.

All those lies for Mayella would be forgivable (Though the fact that she attempts to ensnare, through deception, a married man, makes all this much less sweet – a mood that is portrayed perfectly when Mayella tells Tom, “Kiss me back, nigger!” Ah, l’amour.) except for the most important lie, the lie that Mayella tells herself: that she can get away with this. It’s really quite absurd: we don’t know how long it would take the Ewell children to go to town and get ice cream, but neither does Mayella, and since Tom doesn’t see the children at all, they’re already on their way when Tom walks by after work. How much time does Mayella have, in the best case, for her tryst? Not even that long, of course, because her drunken abusive father returns home even sooner than the children – another circumstance she should have been able to foresee, but must have told herself was safely impossible – and catches her kissing Tom. In that moment, we see the truth of Bob’s twisted psyche: he does not rage against Tom, despite the obvious “sin” he has committed, the unforgivable sin of embracing a white woman; no, Bob yells, “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya!” at his daughter. Bob knows who is behind this, and we know a truth then about Bob. This truth, of his hatred of his daughter and his attraction to her, as well, leads him to beat her black and blue, even while Tom runs away.

But Tom doesn’t escape, as Mayella must have known he wouldn’t; she then turns him into her scapegoat, aided and abetted – perhaps provoked – by her father. It is not immediately clear to the reader why the Ewells do this, or even who is really behind it. Does Mayella insist that Bob help her create this fiction, in order to protect her virtue? Does Mayella see this as one small show of love she can actually garner from her father? Or does Bob run for the sheriff in order to teach Mayella a lesson? Maybe he does it to show Tom that he can’t get away with trying to put the moves on a white girl? Does Bob lie to himself about that? Do they seek only to gain the temporary approval of the white people of Maycomb, who are glad for a chance to put the blacks in their place, and might be a little grateful to the Ewells for creating that opportunity? That may be: Bob gets away with several small offenses against the elites of the town, including Atticus; he even, for a little while, gets a job, before turning back into the welfare-cheating drunkard he’s  always  been. But we don’t see any reward for Mayella. All she gets is a beating. Presumably more than one.

When Atticus argues this case in the Maycomb County Court, he describes Mayella’s act as something like what a child does when she breaks something: she puts the evidence of her crime as far away from herself as possible. Mayella, Atticus says, is putting Tom Robinson as far away from her as possible, in order to cover up her crime of lusting after a black man. Perhaps the childishness of that metaphor gives us our clue about Mayella’s role in this: perhaps she seeks only self-preservation. But I don’t think so: because it is Mayella, far more than the foolish and untrustworthy Bob, who seals Tom’s fate. After Atticus shows how much of her story is a fabrication, Mayella makes one last statement. She talks about another fiction of the time and place, Alabama in the 1930’s; a commonly accepted one. By calling up this fiction, she forces the men of the jury into a role that at least one of them (who argues for acquittal) does not want, but cannot escape. Mayella says,

“I got somethin‘ to say an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more. That nigger yonder took advantage of me an‘ if you fine fancy gentlemen don’t wanta do nothin’ about it then you’re all yellow stinkin‘ cowards, stinkin’ cowards, the lot of you. Your fancy airs don’t come to nothin‘—your ma’amin’ and Miss Mayellerin‘ don’t come to nothin’, Mr. Finch –“

In the next line of the book, Scout observes that “she burst into real tears.” Real tears, because Mayella is indeed distraught, as who wouldn’t be; but real, also, in contrast to the falsehood she just spoke. The men in the courtroom – and mostly, she is speaking to the jury, as Atticus and Judge Taylor and Sheriff Tate are unlikely to come to her defense – are not cowards, or at least not in this instance. But by insisting that she is the victim of a sexual crime, committed on her white self by a black man, those fine fancy gentlemen have no alternative but to act as Southern gentlemen would have acted at the time: they must kill the black man who defiled the innocent white girl. They cannot take the word of a black man over the word of two white people, not even when that word is the truth. And indeed, in the face of that universally accepted lie, Atticus’s fancy airs don’t come to nothin’. The jury convicts; Tom goes to jail; he is there shot and killed, supposedly while trying to escape – but that is another lie, as he is shot seventeen times, a number of wounds impossible to credit were he actually in the process of climbing the fence of the football-field-sized exercise yard. Tom was, of course, executed by the white prison guards, probably as revenge for his “crime.”

That’s a sin.

Bob Ewell tries to commit another sin, equally heinous; unable to directly harm his perceived enemies, Judge Taylor and Atticus, Bob goes after two other people who did him no harm: Atticus’s two children, Jem and Scout. Bob tries to kill them both as they walk home in the dark on Halloween. But Bob unwittingly chooses the worst possible place to make his attempt on the children’s lives: he attacks them near the Radley house, where lives the most dangerous man in the entire town: the mad boogeyman, Boo Radley. Boo Radley’s reputation is another lie, because the genuinely kind-hearted shut-in hears the struggle, and at great risk to himself, charges out of his hermit’s cave and saves the children by killing Bob Ewell with a kitchen knife. Sheriff Heck Tate investigates the scene once the children are brought home safe – by Boo, who may actually get to compete with Scout and Atticus for the title of Best Person in Literature (He’s certainly the dark horse candidate) – and then the sheriff goes to talk to Atticus about what he found. Atticus is trying to think clearly through his haze of terror about the near-murder of his children (At least partly his fault, both for opposing Bob Ewell and then underestimating the brutal drunkard’s willingness to cause harm), and trying to figure out how much red tape Jem will have to go through for having killed Bob in defending his sister, which is the story that Scout told them both. Not a lie, that one; she wasn’t able to see what really happened, and she’s guessing; Atticus takes her at her word.

But Sheriff Tate knows better: Sheriff Tate knows that Boo Radley brought out a knife from his kitchen and stabbed Bob Ewell with that knife. Tate knows this because he found Bob Ewell’s knife, a switchblade, at the scene, possibly in Ewell’s hand – he says he took the knife off of a drunk man. Tate pockets that knife, and then tells the Finches a lie: he says that Bob fell on his own knife, the kitchen knife, which Tate says Bob must have found in the dump. “Honed it down and bided his time… just bided his time.” Atticus thinks that Tate is trying to save Jem from having to go through the legal system, but that isn’t it. Tate is trying to save Boo. Because Boo is a shut-in, a deep recluse who is nervous just being in a room with other people; and if the truth comes out, then Boo will suffer.

“I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin‘ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes. To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an‘ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin. It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head. If it was any other man, it’d be different. But not this man, Mr. Finch.”

Mr. Tate was trying to dig a hole in the floor with the toe of his boot. He pulled his nose, then he massaged his left arm. “I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.”

And Atticus, finally understanding Tate’s point, makes the decision. He turns to Scout and says, “Scout, Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”

Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. “Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. “Mr. Tate was right.”

Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”

Atticus Finch – and Heck Tate, who is also a genuinely good man – decide to tell a lie in order to save Boo Radley from attention, which to him is equivalent to harm. The decision is surely made easier for them by the fact that Boo has not, in truth, done anything wrong; by the laws of our society, his act was justified, and no murder. But these men do not lie easily or willingly; throughout the book, Atticus has refused to contemplate saying something or doing something other than what he believes to be right. He won’t even tell little white lies: when his brother Jack explains to the very young Scout what a whore-lady is simply by putting her off with a distraction, Atticus says, “Jack! When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.” And then when Scout asks Atticus what rape is, he responds by saying it is “carnal knowledge of a female by force and without consent.” Where most people would hem and haw, where even the otherwise bold and straightforward Calpurnia told Scout to ask her father what it meant, Atticus simply gives a clear and uncensored definition. He tells Scout the truth.

But in this case, in this one case, Atticus is willing to lie. He is willing to tell his daughter to lie, as well. Because Atticus knows that what makes an act a sin is not truth, or falsehood: it is harm. Because they do nothing bad to us, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. It is not a sin to lie for one.

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