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Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Help vrs. To Kill a Mockingbird

I did not read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. Not only is the book often listed as the greatest work of legal fiction ever produced in any medium, many of my lawyer friends were disgusted that I had not read the book. So, I read it.

I related to one of my friends who was a great fan of the book that I found it to be a pleasant read, an appropriate novel for high school students, but not particularly interesting, largely due to how much it hits you over the head with its anti-racism message. A message I agree with, but did not find especially enlightening. She felt my assessment was off and pointed to The Help as an example of a pleasant read with a hit-you-over-the-head anti-racism message. As it happened, someone had just loaned me The Help, so I gave it a read. My lawyer friend was right, I had sold To Kill a Mockingbird short. Although it is not a particularly literary novel, it is great in a way that The Help is not.

Given my skepticism going into reading both of these novels, I want to be clear that I in fact liked them both quite a bit. I cared about the characters; I was interested in the plot. I read both while riding the bus to and from work, and missed my stop twice, once while being caught up in each novel. It is just that I generally like fiction that makes you think, and I didn't see that in these books--in To Kill a Mockingbird at least in part due to the over hype from my friends, and in The Help because I don't think it was there.

Both novels share the theme that the segregated South was evil, but not everyone within the segregated South was evil. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, tells a much more complex and organic story. Consider the villains in each story. The primary villain in The Help is a privileged bitch who you are happy to see get hers at various times in the book. Although the author takes a shot at the very end to show that the villain is pitiful, you never feel any pity for her. By contrast, the worst of the worst in To Kill a Mockingbird are the ultra poor white trash, one an abusive father and the other an abused daughter who allows her lover to be charged with rape. Are they evil? Hell, yes. But your feelings toward them are more complex. Like the real villains we meet in the world, you recognize that they are a product of their environment.

Similarly, both novels have heroes who are themselves a product of the South. But, the hero in The Help seems to not belong there. Here hair is abused by the atmosphere; she's too independent; she doesn't fit in. To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, by contrast, is a good shot with a rifle and a good father. He raises his children to respect others in accordance with Southern mores, even the bigots. He simply does his job with quiet integrity. Likewise, the revelation toward the end of To Kill a Mockingbird of other sympathetic Southerners is more organic than the counterpart in The Help.

In the end, the story in To Kill a Mockingbird is nuanced enough that I can understand the desire to read it a second time. On the other hand, while I enjoyed reading The Help, to reread it, I suspect, would be akin to watching a rerun.

NOTE: I think that it is fair to compare the two books given their similar themes and the multiple references to To Kill a Mockingbird in The Help.


Lin said...

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and maybe my favorite movie ever. I enjoyed both reading and watching The Help. It may be helpful-even necessary-in a review that compares the two to consider the cultural context for them.

Mockingbird was published in 1961 and the movie was released in 1962. Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for this, the only novel she ever published (though she collaborated with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood). I remember well what an impact Mockingbird had on readers and movie-goers during the swelling Civil Rights movement, and part of its brilliance was that the story was set in an earlier time, during the Depression. It was safer, therefore, to watch the movie than if it were set in the early 60s. The timing of its release made it powerful.

The Help was published by a first-time novelist and the movie released about a year later. She lacks a movement to endorse the value of her book. However I talked with friends who used to live in Georgia, who say that the white plantation dominant culture is alive and well today in the south. This novel and movie may be received differently in the context of culture and subculture.

The evening that the movie The Help opened, Melissa Harris Perry (Tulane University/political science) with great composure, eloquence and restraint, dismissed the movie as ahistorical (her tweets & some interesting discussion here: http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2011/8/14/melissa-harris-perry-and-the-help.html). Perry is brilliant - I'm inclined to investigate some recommended books & movies. Perspective matters. Cultural setting matters. Society's attitudes matter.

I think it's hard to compare these two literary works. The only thing they have in common is a thread of anti-racism, & it's articulated so differently that it hardly looks the same at all.

JimII said...


I agree that the context of the two novels is important. TKM is perhaps a part of the movement on which The Help is commenting. But the fact that TKM was written in the heart of the civil rights movement makes it all the more praiseworthy for addressing the subject with such complexity.

The Help is written in an era with less overt racism. So, I think it is fair to criticize the book for being more flat that TKM.

I don't know about the historical accuracy of The Help. I would certainly respect the scholar's opinion on that.

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