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Art and the Politics of Censorship in Literature Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 24th, 2021

Plot summary of the novel “To kill a mocking bird” by Lee Harper

The novel, “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is a 1960 publication of a story in Maycomb, Alabama during the great depression period. It is a narration of Finch Scout, six years old, living with her father and brother. The two children meet Bill, who comes visiting the neighborhood during the summer. Radley Boo a neighbor, who the adults hesitate to talk about, becomes the focus of the children. Though Radley does not give personal appearance to the kids, he extends a hand of affection through gifts to them. Atticus, Scout’s father receives a court appointment for the defense of Robinson Tom, a black man faced with accusations of rape on Ewell Mayella, a youthful white woman. The agreement of Atticus to engage in the defense raises criticisms especially on his children from their age mates and other people. The innocence of Tom is displayed by Atticus from the sexual advances on him by Ewell Mayella and the fact that her father was aware of this and other significant evidence establishing Mayella and her father Ewell who were the accusers to be telling a lie. Contrary to expectations, Robinson is convicted by the jury and later killed during an attempted prison escape. Trial frustrations lead Ewell to revenge through; spitting on Atticus’s face, disturbing Robinson’s widow, attempts of breaking into the house of the presiding judge and attacks on Scout and his brother Jem on their way from school. Radley saves Jem who is injured in the attack while in the process the sheriff of Maycomb discovers the killing of Ewell in the attack. Following prudent consultations with Atticus, the story of Ewell falling on her own knife is accepted. The story ends with the disappearance of Radley and the children are not able to express their gratitude for the gifts (Pakula & Mulligan, 1962).

Plot summary of the film “The Exorcist”

“The Exorcist” was released in 1973 and was produced by Marshall Noel and Blatty Peter who was also the writer, with Friedkin William as the director. The film has an opening where the sickness of Father Karras’s mother causes him to doubt his faith while Father Merrin is in Nineveh Iraq. An actress Macneil (acted by Burstyn Ellen) notices behavior changes in her daughter Regan who is 12 years old. Medical tests reveal nothing while queer occurrences remain in the household of Macneil with the death of the director of Chris’s film in the process of babysitting Regan. Exorcism turns out to be the doctor’s recommendation due to psychosomatic symptoms linked to demonic possession. Fathers Karras and Merrin attempt exorcism on Regan the climax of which the priests are ridiculed and terrorized by the demons with the eventual death of Father Merrin. The attempt of Father Karras to save Merrin causes Regan to giggle. Father Karras eventually dies while Regan is restored in health although the memory of the incident is lost. The film ends with Regan and her mother leaving their trauma behind in George Town (The Exorcist, 1973).

Censorship of the Novel “To Kill a Mocking Bird”

The inclusion of the novel in classroom studies in the early 1960s especially 1963, spurred criticisms due to the issues of contention addressed by the novel. Critics argued that the novel posed threats on the social norms and traditional values. This was due to the use of violence, sex references, profane language, witchcraft and super natural references, statements lacking respect to authority, characters’ ungrammatical speech and conflicts portrayed between children and elders (May 1988). It is argued that the use of fiction in the novel creates native prejudices through the presentation of the poverty of majority of white characters (Flynt, 1985). Further, the issue of racism has been contentious from the novel. This has been characterized by the association of blacks with poverty, racial injustices of the judicial system, bad treatment of Hadley and the black housekeeper and racial segregation (Nadeker, 2000). The various stakeholders in education have been against the novel especially as part of literature study in schools terming it as immoral due to the manner in which rape is addressed. The main proponents of this novel have been the Hanover county school board and Georgia school board while the Charles County censured the novel alongside others on the basis of inappropriateness to children (Partlow, 2004).

The novel, “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is deemed to have had some positive impacts despite the magnitude of the negative influences. The portraying of the racial situation in the South in the 1930s does not elicit much criticism from the southern areas because the novel had not been strictly adopted for classroom learning in the south (Beach & Marshall, 1991). The novel is said to have impacted the readers and ranked second to the Bible in terms of influence (Atchity, 1996). The manner in which racism is portrayed caused genuine introspection on the readers. Majority of whites especially those of Deep South dropped the racial prejudices they had inherited after confrontation and questioning in reference to the novel (Partler, 2009).

Despite the fact that the novel by Harper had positive impacts, its censorship was based on the interests of the affected parties. The greatest and most persistent criticisms and opposition of the novel has been from organizations, leaders, school board members, students, parents and teachers most of who were African Americans and African Canadians with increased opposition over the decades until the eventual censor (Partler, 2009). The protests to the novel were based on negative psychological effects to the process of integration in a positive manner. This was highly heated by the use of the term “nigger” over 45 times in the novel, offensive references and racial language focused on demeaning (Finn, 2003). Although Partler (2009) believed that such protests were out of fear, superstition and ignorance, the need to have an outlook that is open cannot be undermined. Many students especially in the African Heritage had trouble in studying the novel (Ryan, 1999).

The use of the novel as class literature requires it to be read aloud and discussed. The language used thus elicits embarrassment from the negative racial connotations used and since the students are normally in their teens, it causes deep psychological damages (Partler, 2009). The novel has been found to elicit discomfort especially when read aloud and discussed in class with attention being directed to racial terms used thus victimizing the students of that race. Students especially blacks have revealed how their peers stare at them during such lessons with the teachers becoming coy and peering at them at the mention of racial terms. Consequently, negative and racial references in the novel have been known to cause emotional imbalance to the black students to the extent of them openly opposing it or emotionally breaking down to crying (Ryan, 1999). Barvey, a 13 year old student of 8th grade, openly protested to the novel especially the term “nigger” referring to blacks. He embarked on non-violence demonstration through the shirt he wore that had phrases from the novel such as; “nigger lover, nigger rape and nigger snowman” as a way to draw the attention of the nature of the book (Herald, 2004).

The censorship of the novel took into consideration the interests of the children that were subjected to study it. The move was to protect children from psychological damage and the need to fulfill the requirements for positive integration of races especially in education (Partler, 2009). Emphasis has been on protecting the interests of the white children from adopting racial attitudes and for black children to experience freedom in learning (Ryan, 1999). Though the positive impacts of the novel cannot be undermined, censorship is based on the fact that the benefits can be derived from other art works but the damages cannot be erased by other art works easily (Finn, 2003).

Censorship of the film “The Exorcist”

The film was first censored in 1973 in Mississippi but was later reversed by a Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and later reversed by the Supreme Court of Mississippi (Couvares, 2006). The film, characterized as the most terrifying, brought out rumors of the strange happenings surrounding it as though haunted by evil forces. Its filming was surrounded by strange events that could not be explained. The characters experienced strange things during filming or after the release of the film that included: the death of MacGowran (who acted as Dennings Burke), Blair’s grandfather and Sydow’s brother; the injury of Jason, Miller’s son and Ellen. Other strange bizarre included; the burning down of the Mac Neil house and the mysterious illness of Noni who was Patty’s secretary (Newman, 1974).

The film elicited misinformation as to its special effects out of strange happenings in the same. The director claimed that the strange visions and images on the film were not anticipated for. There was heated debate as to the double effect of the movie which the director had denied but subsequently acknowledged the work of the parties used to create the effect such as McCambridge. The uncertainty was evident due to the psychological testing the characters were subjected to that was intensive (Kermode, 1990). The viewing of the film had strange effects on the audience causing the cinema managers to prepare ambulances for the support of the audience. The effects ranged from heart attacks, fainting, vomiting and few instances of miscarriage. The film had great potential to cause harm ranging from criminal and suicidal cases. The death of Power John, a 16 year old, and the murder of Simpson Sandra, a 9 year old, by Bell Nicholas are among many other deaths associated with the film (Newman, 1974).

The film did not have ratings since they claimed it did not have incidences of excessive violence or overt sex. This increased the negative effects since children could watch it (Bernstein 2000). Pressure caused the rating bodies to introduce an ‘R’ rating and increased the age restrictions to 17years. The film had been blamed for the social ills especially sexual assaults (Kermode 1990).

The film has further been blamed for the usage of aural stimulants which were visually subliminal causing traumatizing effects on the audience. The main subliminal effects include Blair’s deathly appearance during the tossing and Miller’s appearance of a death mask. The film has been charged of subconscious foul play especially due to the facial hide from the audience, the appearance of skull-shaped shadows in the church and the flashing of the death mask of Karras severally during the film (Keys, 1976). Although the film had been banned unofficially for many years, it was banned in 1999 in the United Kingdom despite regular views in the cinemas (McCabe, 1999). The Video Recordings Act of 1984 introduced warners which delayed the film release. The film had been constantly accused of child abuse and its effects could only be avoided through the censor of the same (The Exorcist, 1973).

The film’s censor was mainly for the protection of children since though the film had ratings introduced later, the video version could be retrieved and watched by children. The censor also sought to protect the public due to the adverse effects of the subliminal images (Keys, 1976). Although the director claimed to draw inspiration from the subliminal images, it had to be denied due to the negative impact on the majority (Kermode, 1990). The strange happenings and associations of the film was suspicion enough to pressure for its censor. The cinema managers also were affected by the traumatizing effects on the audience. This led to the increase in costs incurred due to incident preparedness. In addition, the controversies as to the lack of acknowledgement of some of the characters and the false explanations to this claim lowered the credibility of the film and hence the public had to be protected (Keys, 1976). The ban on the film of 1975 by the Censorship Board of Tunis was based on the grounds of presenting propaganda unjustifiable for the Christian religion. This censor was to protect the other religions while ensuring harmony through religious equality. This was also motivated by the dominance of Islamic religion in Tunisia which contravened with the film (Kermode, 1990).

Reference List

  1. Atchity, K. (1996) The Renaissance Reader. New York, Harper Perennial.
  2. Beach, R., & Marshall, J. (1991) Teaching Literature in Secondary Schools. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  3. Bernstein, M. (2000) Controlling Hollywood: censorship and regulation in the studio era. London, The Athlone Press.
  4. Couvares, F. (2006) Movie censorship and American culture. Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press.
  5. Flynt, W. (1985) Poor but Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press.
  6. Herald, D. (2007) Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, Censorship Debate & Schools. [Online]
  7. Kermode, M. (1990) Devilish deceptions: The exorcist tribute zone. [Online] Web.
  8. Keys, W. (1976) Media sexploitation. New York, Prentice-Hall.
  9. May, J. (1988) Censors as Critics: To Kill a Mockingbird as Case Study, in Cross Culturalism in Children’s Literature. New York, Pace University Press.
  10. McCabe, B. (1999) The Exorcist. New York, Omnibus Press.
  11. Nadeker, D. (2000) Essay on “To kill a mocking bird.” [Online]
  12. Newman, H. (1974) The Exorcist: The Strange Story behind the Film. New York, Pinnacle.
  13. Pakula, A., & Mulligan, R. (1962) To Kill a Mockingbird. Hollywood, Universal Pictures.
  14. Partler, N. (2009) Killing the mocking bird: Historical and contemporary efforts to ban Harper Lee’s “To kill a mocking bird.” [Online]
  15. Partlow, J. (2004) School Board Goals Draw Impassioned Opposition. New York, American Library Association.
  16. Ryan, J. (1999) Race and Ethnicity in Multi-Ethnic Schools. Ontario, Multilingual Ltd.
  17. The Exorcist (1973) The Exorcist. [Online]
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