Every week I read a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird, that juggernaut of classic American literature, and then I come over here and write jokes about overalls and ham. But it’s worth remembering that To Kill a Mockingbird has become a literary classic not just because it’s good, but also because it’s relevant. I’m not going to dive too deeply into Charlottesville—there are people already doing that, better people. Just keep this in mind: To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the 1930s, but its themes of fear and bigotry are as relevant today as they ever were.
Now let’s talk about Scout, and how she’s embarrassed by her dad because he’s boring as sh%$.
It’s chapter 10, and Scout has decided that Atticus sucks. Not because he took the Tom Robinson case (which is why everyone else in Maycomb thinks he sucks), but because he’s old and can’t do anything. He doesn’t hunt, or drive a dump truck, or work in a drug-store, and yes, these are actual examples of things Scout considers to be the height of cool.
To convince Scout that Atticus isn’t a literal dinosaur, Miss Maudie tells her that Atticus may be older than most of her friends’ dads, but he’s really good at checkers and he can play the harp. Scout remains unconvinced. It’s mildly disturbing to me that Scout’s description of her 50-year-old father (likes books, hates sports, doesn’t smoke) is a virtual carbon copy of my Tinder profile, given that I’m a 24-year-old woman in the prime of her life.
Jem and Scout received air rifles for Christmas. Atticus tells them they can shoot bluejays, but it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. I mean, as sins go, it’s not as catchy as sloth or gluttony, but it’s up there.
Now let’s get to the good stuff. Suddenly, a mad dog appears!
Show of hands—who here has ever seen a dog with rabies? You know, just wandering about? I have, but that’s because I grew up in the nondescript junkyard also known as the rural Midwest, and we have things like festivals where people race lawnmowers. Still, I couldn’t tell you the correct protocol for encountering a “mad dog” in the wild, other than “don’t touch it. Also, run.” In Maycomb, however, everyone knows everything there is to know about mad dogs, including the fact that they only appear in August, which is random, but I trust them.
Actually, I looked this up. I couldn’t fathom why rabies would be less common in February than in August, so I set aside my book and spent precious minutes taking to Google.
Turns out it’s because animals that carry the rabies virus (so like raccoons and bats and stuff) hibernate in the winter, sequestering their gross rabies-riddled bodies in caves until spring. This seems so completely obvious in retrospect that I almost wanted to skip that whole story and pretend I already knew this so you guys wouldn’t think I’m dumb, but my research led me to this forum, which I spent several more precious minutes poring over, because obviously:
(The consensus was that flying squirrels rarely, if ever, contract rabies, so we can all rest easy knowing there are not winged, mouth-foaming sky-rodents flying about our backyards.)
Anyway, the whole neighborhood hunkers down as the dog lurches (madly) down the street. Heck Tate, the sheriff, shows up with Atticus. Mr. Tate pulls out a rifle to shoot the dog, but then he passes the gun to Atticus and is like TAKE THE SHOT. Scout and Jem just about have a conniption. Atticus is old and boring. He can’t even do something as awesome as driving a dump truck—you think he can shoot a gun?
But Atticus “Dead-Eye” Finch is just full of surprises. He raises the gun and puts the dog out of its misery with a single shot.
Scout and Jem are floored. Their boring old dad is an action hero. I don’t know why they’re so impressed. Look at Bruce Willis. He’s still jumping out of exploding cars and shooting people without even looking at them, and how old is he? A billion?
The neighbors all come outside to see, and Miss Maudie tells Scout that Atticus used to be the “deadest shot in Maycomb County.” She says Atticus realized long ago that God had given him an “unfair advantage over most living things,” so he decided to put away his gun. He didn’t want to shoot the dog, but he did it anyway because he was the only one who could.
If you listen closely, you can hear Harper Lee shouting, “SYMBOLISM! PARALLELS! UNDERLINE THIS PART FOR YOUR ESSAYS, IT MEANS SOMETHING!”
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
THIS AND THAT
The mad dog symbolizes injustice and racism. (Remember in chapter 9 when Atticus said people go “stark raving mad” whenever there’s a court case involving a black person?) Scout will refer back to this incident later when she watches Atticus stand up for what’s right in the courtroom.
It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Tom Robinson, as we’ll later see, is considered a mockingbird. Are there racial undertones to Miss Maudie’s characterization of mockingbirds and the symbol’s implicit parallel to people of color?