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Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

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Atticus Finch is the father of Scout and Jem and is a lawyer in the Deep South of America in the nineteen thirties in a town called Maycomb. His family have lived in Maycomb for three generations and own a small cotton plantation called Finch’s landing.

Atticus is a respectable member of the community and as a single parent is bringing up Scout and Jem alone, having been widowed some years before. He has domestic help from a black woman called Calpurnia who cooks and also looks after the children. He came from a ‘middle class’ background where his brothers were well educated and he himself had studied in the more advanced Northern states: ‘Atticus went to Montgomery to read law, and his younger brother went to Boston to study medicine’. He had a strong commitment to family and the value of education. He had a strong commitment to family and the value of education. ‘During his first five years in Maycomb, Atticus practised economy more than anything; for several years thereafter he invested his earnings in his brother’s education’. This conveys the typical family values at the time. He treats Calpurnia with the utmost respect, and this shows that she is still treated as an equal. Within the historical context of a ‘self-sufficient’ cotton plantation, however small, this is a radical approach in a small, white-ruled town. He allows her to discipline the children and always sees her punishments are deemed fit. ‘Her hand was as wide as a bed slat and twice as hard.’

Atticus is particularly egalitarian and treats every person with respect no matter what age or colour they are. He shows this when Scout invites Walter Cunningham back for lunch and starts to talk about crops with Walter; ‘Atticus was expounding upon farm problems’ this shows that he is taking interest in Walter Cunningham’s home and work life. A further example is his conversation with Scout when she is upset about Miss Caroline Fisher telling her off for being capable to read. ‘If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This is Atticus’ philosophy on how to judge people and get along with them.

He also always tells Jem and Scout the truth; there is an example of this when Scout asks why she has to go to school and Burris Ewell doesn’t. Instead of procrastinating the question he goes straight to the point and is very honest with Scout. He tells Scout about the Ewells being the ‘trash of Maycomb’ and ‘none of them had done an honest days work’ going on to explain that there is no point them being there because they don’t want an education. Atticus is telling Scout that she is worth an education and that she is: ‘Normal folk. You must obey the law’. This also further underlines Atticus’ law abiding, traditional approach and commitment to education.

Atticus is also described as being very honest and is paid a complement by Miss Maudie; ‘Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public streets’

This gives the image that there’s only one Atticus Finch and he is not a different personality behind closed doors.

At the beginning of Chapter ten, Scout is describing Atticus as feeble as he was nearly fifty. He wore glasses and was nearly blind in his left eye, but by the end of this chapter, Scout’s opinion changes when a rabid dog is out on the loose. Atticus takes a gun and shoots the dog professionally and humanely. Tim Johnson, the local sheriff, describes Atticus as “one-shot Finch” and also says “Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time”. This illustrates to Scout and Jem the high regard in which other men hold their father for his skill in marksmanship, and extends the respect they have for their father from merely relating to his intellectual capabilities. Jem is feeling proud and asks his father why he does not go hunting anymore. Miss Maude answers for Atticus: “Marksmanship is a gift of God, a talent – Oh, you have to practice to make it perfect but shootin’s different from playing the piano or the like. I think maybe he put his gun down when he realised that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot until he had to, and he had to today.” This gives the impression that Atticus cares for all living things and if he used this talent, he would take his marksmanship for granted and use it as a plus against all other living things. “Shoot all the blue jays you want…if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”.

These next points show that Atticus’ thoughts for others; for example when Miss Maudie’s house is on fire he saves the one thing that she holds most dearly in her life her rocking chair: “I saw Atticus carrying miss Maudie’s heavy oak rocking chair, and thought it sensible of him to save what she valued most” this shows Atticus is very thoughtful by taking her most precious thing in the world to her.

In these points it shows that Atticus is not a racist This comes up because Scout is defending a Negro man called Tom Robinson when Cecil Jacobs says Scout Finch’s Daddy ‘defended niggers’. This is typical of attitudes towards black people at the time in America, particularly in the South. This is a hangover from the pre-Civil War days, when plantation owners in the South owned blacks as slaves, and his forward thinking approach towards black people illustrates Atticus’ egalitarianism. Scout asks Atticus “Do you defend niggers?” He replies, “Of course I do.” Atticus then explains the situation with Tom Robinson when Scout asks:”If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?” He replies: “For a number of reasons. If I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town. I couldn’t represent this county in legislature, I couldn’t even tell you and Jem not to do something again!” This just shows how non-racist Atticus is; if he did not defend Tom Robinson just because he was black he would be too ashamed to walk the streets of Maycomb. However, this action raised some resentment amongst some members of the white community, and is a further testimony to Atticus’ bravery in standing firm to his principles. Also,

Atticus describes racism when talking to Uncle Jack as ‘Maycomb’s usual disease’. As an educated man, he felt that the inherent racism in the county was not helped by the small-town mentality of Maycomb.

Also describing the case to Uncle Jack, he says about the Tom Robinson case: “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win”. This conveys how hard it is going to be for Atticus to win the case with all the history of the persecution of blacks, and the racial prejudice and mistrust that exists in the South of America between blacks and whites. However, still Atticus is not going to give up and is determined to give Tom Robinson the best chance of freedom he can have.

Atticus is very good at empathising with and understanding other people’s behaviour. An example of this is with Mrs Henry Layfette Dubose. When she dies, she had beaten her addiction to morphine, and Atticus pays tribute to her bravery and courage by saying: “She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine maybe…. son, I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go in to her. I wanted you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholding to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” This conveys Atticus as a true gentleman, and that he can pinpoint what to say at the right time, since Jem had a different impression of Mrs Dubose and thought of her as a nasty old senile woman.

In summary, Atticus Finch is an educated and well-respected man, caring, considerate and egalitarian. Despite inheriting the cotton plantation, in his attitudes towards the equality of blacks he had a fundamentally different approach than others of his generation and background, and was ahead of his time. He is honest, fair and brave, and values these qualities in others to be as equal as one with his fellow mankind. He is a good father, and tries to teach his children Christian values, with an intelligent approach to treating others as equals. His courage is underlined in this book because he is putting his reputation and social standing at stake for the defence of a black man whom he believes to be innocent, as a stand against racial injustice.

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