(Original review, 2004-08-27)
There was a programme on the radio a few years ago which took a harsher view of the book. To summarise, Atticus Finch tried to win his case by substituting one prejudice (racism) with another (low-class women are loose and predatory). Beneath the charm, nostalgia and so on, there is a moral conflict if you like or confusion if you don't like. It's interesting that a female writer should elevate a male father-figure and denigrate a female alleged victim of rape. These are things to ponder, as a good play or novel should give us, and it isn't a children's book unless "Animal Farm" is also a children's book.
I regarded this book as a tiresome wander down a garden path of implausibility until I read it again once I had become a father. Atticus Finch is both cynical and high-minded at the time, his defense of Tom Robinson essentially consisting entirely of letting the prosecution's key witness destroy her whole family's credibility in open court then letting his client (probably in a well-rehearsed manner) so that the Ewells' dirty laundry gets further airing, while on cross-examination Tom's greatest mistake is to say he "felt right sorry for her". The trial and its outcome being pretty much predestined, Atticus then puts a brave face on it (even while his face gets spit upon by Bob Ewell).
I re-read the book from the perspective that Atticus conducts himself, at all times, as though his children are watching him. He really seems to act like a man on constant public parade, and sure enough, in Maycomb he probably IS just that. But he turns a legal defeat into a moral victory and inspires by example. That's why Scout can write about him as this towering example of moral rectitude. To her, he is. To himself, he's probably a fraud, but in the best of causes a fraud. He can't abide what's out there, but he doesn't give in to bitterness or nastiness the way Bob Ewell does. His quiet example is something we could all aspire towards. I think the book is about human broken-ness & frailty. It is about the choices we all make, be we black or white, male or female, young or old. Some of those choices are wise and good, some are bad; some are made willingly and some perhaps forced upon us for a myriad of reasons. Above all, it is about the need to show mercy and compassion in our dealings with ourselves and with others. (Something many of us could pay heed to today in a very broken 20th century). It is a phenomenally powerful, moving and insightful book and Ms. Lee did an astonishing job as a first time novelist.
[2018 EDIT: There's also the ending; I just hope someday my children hold me in the kind of respect the Finch children hold for Atticus. A miscarriage of justice is mitigated by a sidestepping of the law in a case it is not in the public interest to prosecute. That's what would be killing a mockingbird.]