The Power of Fiction
I’ve just finished reading ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’. My son left it for me to read when he went back to university after the Christmas holidays. It took me a while to get round to it. I was reading ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ at the time. Not a master-piece but a humorous and revealing portray of Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands and the experiences of the inhabitants during the Second World War. Every time I looked at the pile of books on my bed-side table ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ looked back at me reproachfully.
Even though ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ is a famous book I knew nothing about it. Or rather I thought I knew nothing about it until I started to read. As the characters of Scout and Jem were revealed to me in the opening pages I realised that I had seen the film version of the book years and years earlier. I could visualise the Atticus Finch character and the court room scenes in my mind as clearly as if I had seen them yesterday. I couldn’t remember the actor who played Atticus. I went through all the likely leading men in my mind, Cary Grant (no too light weight), James Mason (no, not him), Rock Hudson (don’t be ridiculous). Finally my husband gave me a clue – his name is the same as an activity that the hens do in the garden – all day long. Ah ha – peck, Gregory Peck. Of course, big, silent, brooding, perfect for the role.
I disappeared into the world of Alabama and Maycomb County. A world of tradition and strict social customs. A social order that was considered acceptable, normal even, at the time. A social order that has now been over-thrown. I wanted to say here ‘completely over-thrown’ but realised this would not be totally accurate. As recently as five years ago I met some people ‘white folks’ from Montgomery, Alabama and was shocked by their casual racism, even their use of language which implied division and difference. Most worryingly I think it was entirely unconscious on their part. Back in Maycomb County I was enthralled by the characters and Harper Lee’s lightness of touch. The relationship of Scout and Jem with their father, who at first sight appears distant and pre-occupied, gently reveals itself as a profound bond with an individual who is loyal, consistent and a person of integrity and honour. The children’s adventures during the summer holidays reminds me of Huck Finn. Harper Lee’s ability to describe and convey the style of the neighbourhood that the Finches lived in, large detached houses surrounded by private gardens. The outdoor porch for use during the long hot summers. The characters that live in these large secluded homes, the gossip, gardens, tea parties and social events. The children’s relationship with Calpurnia, the house-keeper is one of great affection and respect. Harper Lee gently investigates the moral codes of Maycomb. What is right and what is wrong. The difference between good and evil. Even the wonderfully ambiguous ending of the booking. What exactly is truth?
The inspirational Persian writer Azar Nafisi is a passionate exponent of fiction and the importance of understanding and teaching fiction as a means to understanding our culture and society. She was born and brought up in Iran, studied in the USA and then returned to Tehran to teach English Literature. Nafisi taught at various universities in Tehran for almost 20 years. After the ‘Islamic Revolution’ of 1979 it became more and more difficult for her to teach her classes. One by one her chosen authors Henry Miller, Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabakov were deemed unsuitable by the new regime. Nafisi’s memoir ‘Teaching Lolita in Tehran’ (published in 2003) describes the secret study meetings that she held at her home for her female students. The girls would arrive for their weekly session to discuss European literature dressed in traditional garb. Once the door was safely closed they would strip off the hijab and manteau revealing jeans and tee shirts. Spirited discussion would then follow about the books and characters that the girls were studying.
Many Europeans do not appreciate that in the 60s and 70s Iran had a huge highly educated middle class. Many women were educated to degree level. Huge swathes of Iranian people lived a ‘western’ lifestyle of liberal ideas and intellectual freedom. When the ‘educated classes’ started to agitate for the removal of the shah they assumed that in his place they would get a democratically elected government. Instead they ended up with an extremist clerically-led government. Over the years the new regime set about imposing ‘extremist ideology’ on the population. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the years after the ‘Islamic Revolution’ the Iranian people were subjected to the most horrific violations of their human rights. Anyone, anyone who dared to disagree was shot, imprisoned or forced to flee overseas. Nafisi writes eloquently about the unexpected consequences of the overthrow of the Shah.
Against a background of increasing religious extremism Nafisi was finally prevented from teaching at her university. Her crime – to be a woman and to teach English Literature. And yet this fabulous woman realised that in education, literature and discussion she could teach her female students about life, people and the human condition. In her weekly meetings with her students, there were discussions about ‘Daisy Miller’ the Henry James novella published in 1878. Daisy, a vibrant young girl from America is discovering Europe when she meets a young gentleman in Vevey, Switzerland. Later in the book they meet up in Rome, where Daisy has met a young Italian man, who is deemed to be unsuitable. Shortly after this the young Daisy succumbs to ‘Rome Fever’ and dies tragically. It is the typical opera tragedy, where the young beautiful heroine falls in love but is struck down before she can enjoy true happiness. The 19th century values, social structures and morals described by James can be applied to any contemporary situation.
The Great Gatsby is another favourite of Azar Nafisi. Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of belonging, the shallow frivolous nature of upper class life and the ultimately meaningless pastimes of the wealthy is examined and considered with care. Nafisi argues compellingly that the study of these great works allows us to develop our understanding of human behaviour by examining both the writers and their characters. It also helps us to ask and consider certain difficult questions. For example – what motivates an individual to seek power? What is happiness? Can happiness be pursued and achieved? These questions concern us on an almost daily basis.
To go back to Harper Lee and her clear and thoughtful portrayal of the Deep South, I think of Atticus Finch as a man of values, principles and integrity. This is a man who can be relied upon, a character to respect and admire. Whereas Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby gives us a character to initially envy but later to pity. Literature and fiction enable us to explore the most important, most profound elements of the human condition. In reading widely we can hope to extend our experience, broaden our minds and consider the really important questions. It helps us to put our daily concerns into context. Reading allows us to discover new and interesting subjects and to appreciate our ability to read and consume freely whatever literature we choose.
Please feel free to comment and to share your thoughts.
-  ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ (1960) Harper Lee. Pulitzer prize-winning novel.
-  ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ (2003) Azar Nafisi. A Memoir about teaching in Iran before and after 1979
-  The Hijab is the scarf worn by Muslim women, it covers the head and hair. A Manteau is worn in Iran by Muslim women, it is a loose garment that covers the body down to the knee.
-  ‘Daisy Miller’ (1878) Henry James. First published in the Cornhill Magazine
-  ‘The Great Gatsby’ (1925) F Scott Fitzgerald