Relating to the Finches: Examining Harper Lee’s most famous work in the wake of her death

By J. Christian Tatu

When I ask Lafayette students to talk about what makes writing good, they often use the word relatable.As a teacher, I find this word a bit troublingnot because I disagree that its good to relate to a text, but because I find it difficult to help students translate that word into some characteristic they can emulate in their own writing. What, after all, does it mean to say that a text is relatable?

If were talking about “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the word needs no further explanation.

A study by the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature identified “To Kill a Mockingbird” as among the ten titles most frequently taught in U.S. schools. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. Harper Lees 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel offers teachers a platform for helping students learn about race and class. Perhaps more than any other book I read in school, I can vividly recall reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Mrs. Franckowiaks tenth grade English class. I remember talking and writing about the novels themes of justice and injustice, racial inequality, class divide and coming of age. I remember pinpointing the rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement and resolution of the novels plot. And I remember analyzing the characters of Jem, Scout and Atticus Finch, Bob and Mayella Ewell, Aunt Alexandra and Miss Maudie Atkinson. I remember the mystery of Boo Radley and the gifts he and Scout left for one another in the hollow spot of the tree, and how excited I was when we learned that it was Boo who saved Jem and Scout from Bob Ewells knife.

When the novels author, Harper Lee, died one week ago at the age of 89, virtually every TV news obituary I saw included a clip of Gregory Peck portraying the venerable Atticus Finch, the stoic small town lawyer who defends wrongly accused sharecropper Tom Robinson. But it is the novels narrator, ten year old Scout, who I think makes the novel so relatable, particularly when we read it in school.

Like most of us when we read “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Scout hates school. She is also engaged in the process of self-discovery. Shes a tomboy struggling with what it means to be a lady,and a daughter striving to understand what roles she and her single-parent father are supposed to play in their family. Shes trying very hard to learn Atticuss lesson about the importance of seeing things from another persons perspective. She is struggling to understand the injustice and inequality that she sees around her, and the at-times reprehensible behavior of grown-ups.

Its difficult to see the grown-ups in your life for the flawed human beings that they are. As an adult, I recognize and acceptmaybe too readilythat the world is a deeply unfair place. But at ten, those things are much harder to accept, and making sense of them seems nearly impossible. Perhaps thats what makes Scout, and “To Kill a Mockingbird”, so relatable for me.