In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee develops Atticus as a complicated character who refuses to abide to his society's norms. On one hand, portrayed as the valiant protector of Tom Robinson, his outstanding moral qualities set him far apart from others of his time. In contrast, he also distinguishes himself from others by his wishes of a gradual social change in Maycomb, though he desires minimal conflict whenever possible. What possible motivations could ever produce such striking behavior in one from the highest social class? I believe that Atticus’ incentive for both of these behaviors neither originates solely from his inherent virtuous qualities, nor his wishes for Maycomb’s progression–but from his distaste for the prejudice of innocents.
Atticus, undoubtedly a hero, exhibits numerous cases of righteousness and bravery throughout the novel, through both his venerable advice to his children and his valiant effort at protecting Tom Robinson. In spite of the criticism he recieves after taking up Tom’s case, he tells his children that he felt compelled to do it: “This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience–Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man”(120). Although he knows that “we were licked a hundred years ago before we started”, he still takes on the case, fitting his own definition of “true courage”. Atticus’ rectitude is apparent throughout the duration of the trial too. As he defends Tom to the best of his abilities, he makes moving speeches about justice and morality. Remarkably, he sympathizes with Mayella, even though her lies ultimately result in Tom’s death: “I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the state”(231).
Atticus’ willingness to fight until the very end of the case also displays his heroic qualities. He tells Mr. Deas that he will never give up until the citizens of Maycomb recognize the Ewells’ deceit: “Link, that boy might go to the chair, but he’s not going till the truth’s told… And you know what the truth is”(166). Mr. Deas warns Atticus that it was a mistake to take the case in the first place, but Atticus persists and refuses to turn down the case. Not only does Atticus realize the futility of his efforts, but he is also clearly aware of the enormous criticism he and his children would receive upon his taking up the case–yet he does it anyway.
Conversely, Atticus can be viewed as a patriarchal character who seeks to adjust the social structure of Maycomb with minimal conflict. As opposed to defending Tom purely out of the goodness of his heart, he instead defends Tom in hopes of preserving the reputation of Maycomb. Atticus knows that allowing a lower-class white to get away with dishonest accusations of a black will only make matters worse, encouraging the escalation of
Atticus indicates his disinclination for unseemly events when he stands up against the mob, wanting as little social unrest as possible: “You can turn around and go home again, Walter… Heck Tate’s around somewhere”(172). Atticus shows that he has the audacity to stand between the mob and Tom in order to keep the social hierarchy in line, knowing perfectly well that he gambles his own life in the process. Concurrently, Atticus understands that in preventing the lynching, he sets apart Maycomb from other southern cities at the time, where racial prejudice and civil unrest were prevalent. Clearly opposing the mob’s intentions, Atticus moves Walter Cunningham and the mob to reevaluate the situation: “Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders. ‘I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady… Let’s clear out… Let’s get going, boys’”(175). In establishing a clear demarcation between rational actions and foolish actions, and allowing the mob to realize it, Atticus reinforces both Maycomb’s civility and stability.
Though Atticus possesses his own predilections regarding race and justice, he values the steadiness of his own community to a greater extent: “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home”(87). Atticus advocates for social change in the courthouse, but would never want to damage the mutually beneficial relationships with the others in his community with his solicitation of racial equality. Having said that, Atticus continues to promote impartiality, within the court: “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal–there is one human institution that makes a pauper equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court”(233). Notably, Atticus makes this statement in front of an all-white jury who
In saying so, Atticus brings Maycomb a step further in its social transformation, saying the things that no one had ever said before. In addition, when Bob Ewell spits on Atticus, a stoic Atticus does not retaliate, not wishing to create any unnecessary conflict: “Atticus was leaving the post office when Mr. Ewell approached him, cursed him, spat on him, and threatened to kill him… Atticus didn’t bat an eye, just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and let Mr. Ewell call him names wild horses could not bring her to repeat”(248). Atticus, with the intention of avoiding any pointless trouble, endures the verbal abuse, and in turn progresses “Maycomb’s ways” through his unforgettable mark on the community through his defense of Tom.
While I concur with the previous two interpretations, I believe that Atticus took the case due to the fact that he could not tolerate prejudice of a defenseless human being–not solely because of his exceptional quality of character or his disposition towards preserving Maycomb’s reputation. Atticus’ aversion for such behavior shows when his children pester Boo with pranks: “Son, I’m going to tell you something and tell you one time: stop tormenting that man. That goes for the other two of you”(54). Atticus does not want his children growing up with “Maycomb’s usual disease”, part of his motivation to take Tom Robinson’s case. Furthermore, another instance of Atticus’ sympathy for vulnerable people arises when he makes Jem read to Mrs. Dubose, much to Jem’s dismay: “‘Atticus, do I have to?’ ‘Certainly.’ ‘But she wants me to do it for a month.’ ‘Then you’ll do it for a month.’”(121). Atticus hopes for his children to follow his previously given advice to “climb into their skin and walk around in it”, even with Mrs. Dubose’s disparaging comments toward his children. Moreover, Atticus teaches his children that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, because it deals no harm to anyone: “‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something”(103). Scout includes the small detail that it was the only time that Atticus ever called something a sin, alluding to his distaste of such behavior. Likewise, following the trial, Atticus expresses his aversion once again towards prejudice of individuals: “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it–whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash”(252). Atticus grants no special advantages to those of his on race: Atticus believes that no one has the right to harm defenseless individuals.