Harper Lee uses the character of Atticus Finch as a mouthpiece for many of her moral ethics in her novel. He plays many roles within the novel; primarily as a father, then as a highly principled man, a respected citizen of a small town community, and finally as a lawyer trying to do his job as well as he can.
As a father, Atticus is meticulous in the way he raises his children. He ensures that all the things that he wishes them to learn, in terms of morality, are always practised by himself and those around his children.
For example, he gives Calpurnia the same amount of authority over the children as Atticus himself. This is portrayed when Scout grumbles about the “epic and one-sided” battles with Calpurnia, which “Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side”. Through this, we see that he has no feelings of inferiority toward the black community, and he treats them just the same as all other humans.
As Scout and Jem have always grown up in her company, they grow up understanding that race and colour do not make any difference to the nature of any human being.
He is also very concerned about the messages his children receive from everyone around and also from himself. This is shown when he is very reluctant to show the children his expertise with the shotgun, as he does not want them to think that “courage is a man with a gun”. He sends his own son to Mrs.
Dubose, who is constantly critical of him, as he wants Jem to experience “real courage” as he has such a great respect for her courageous fight against her morphine addiction. He still goes in to see her, treats her courteously and always “sweep[s] off his hat [and] wave[s] gallantly” as he goes past.
He brings up his children in a very liberal way, allowing them to openly question him about almost anything. He also allows them to form their own opinions, never forcing them to believe the same as him, but carefully coaxing and directing them towards the right thoughts and ideas. His theories on the way children should be raised are very different from others in his time, even to his own sister’s, as they are known to have conflicting views. At one point, Scout finds him telling Aunt Alexandra “I do the best I can”.
Atticus treats his children as more mature than other parents with children of the same age might. He is very open with them about the reasons for his fighting Tom Robinson’s case, when many other adults would tell their children that they are not old enough to understand. Atticus thinks that it is better to simplify the situations a little and try to let them understand. He explains to Scout “…if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town…I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” This shows that he is willing to trust Scout although she is still young.
He is exceptionally good at handling his children, because he seems to know how they think, and understands them. For example, during his conversation with “Uncle Jack” Atticus is fully aware that Scout is listening to every word that he is saying, and he seizes the opportunity to let Scout know some things that he would not otherwise be able to convey to her. He lets her know that he wants her to trust him and “to come to [him] for [her] answers instead of listening to the town”.
Atticus also understands the importance of an education for his children, and he ensures that his children are well educated by assuring that they both go to school even when they do not want to. He has always made reading and books accessible to the children as Jem says “Scout yonder’s been readin’ since she was born” and Scout backs this up by saying “I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Both quotations indicate that reading is a very natural thing, and something that they are very accustomed to doing.
The importance Scout places on her ability to read is made apparent on her first day at school, when the idea that she may no longer read leaves her feeling distraught. Again, Atticus intervenes, allaying her fears by reaching a compromise “If you’ll concede the necessity to go to school, we’ll go on reading every night just as we have.” This is also an example of Atticus treating his children as equals as opposed to inferiors as he is willing to compromise with Scout, he does not dictate what will happen, he allows her to be a part of the decision making process.
Atticus Finch is devoted to his children, and is determined to protect them all the way through the novel. The welfare of his children seems to be his only worry in taking on Tom Robinson’s case. We realise his worries when he confides in his brother Jack, saying “I hope and pray I can get Jem and Scout through this without bitterness…” He also tries to impress this fact upon Scout by imploring her to remember that “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.”
Scout and Jem both hold Atticus in great respect, and his words had so great an impact on Scout that “dropped [her] fists and walked away” from a fight for the first time as she could not bear to disappoint her father.
He is very obviously respected by his children, but not always fully appreciated. Scout and Jem find it very hard to believe that their father can have any skills due to his age as Scout says that “Atticus was feeble; he was nearly fifty”. This lack of knowledge about his skills is shown in another of Scout’s comments to Miss Maudie, “Atticus can’t do anything…”. This shows that although the children love and respect him greatly, they still find him lacking in at least one way.
This opinion of hers is quickly dispelled by Miss Maudie, who is quick to spring to Atticus’s defence trying to show that although Atticus is older than the parents of many of their peers, he is still a versatile man with many talents. As she is so persistent with her defence, it shows that Atticus is not only respected by his children but also by those around him and within his community.
Miss Maudie has a great respect for Atticus, as do many people in the town. Atticus is respected all through Maycomb, by people from all the social statuses, for example at the end of the trial, when Atticus leaves, the entire black balcony show their respect for him by “getting to their feet” as their “father’s passing”. When the Finches return home they found “the kitchen table was loaded with food enough to bury the whole family” as tokens of appreciations from the black community.
Many others within the community show Atticus a great deal of respect. For example, Judge John Taylor thinks so much of him that he “pointed at him and said “You’re it””.
Even within his community, although he is highly respected, he seems to represent a minority. He seems to be known for his controversial views as his “[being] chosen to defend that buy was no accident”. This comment suggests that Judge Taylor knew that the greatest chance he could give Tom Robinson was to give him a lawyer like Atticus Finch, who would truly believe in his case and try to fight the case so thoroughly that Tom Robinson might have a chance for acquittal.
Through the novel, although Atticus portrays many of Harper Lee’s main ethical points, he does not reveal his real skills at his profession until almost the end of the book. We are given a miniscule glimpse of his “lawyer” side, when Jem realises “he had been done by the oldest lawyer’s trick on records”.
But his talent for his job is truly revealed in the court scene where he delivers a compelling case, with an even more compelling speech to conclude. And from these, it is plain to see that this case “affects him personally”. Also in his closing speech, Atticus “unbuttoned his vest, unbuttoned his collar, loosened his tie, and took off his coat”; all things that Scout “never saw him do, before or since”. This shows that he seemed to make an exception for this case, as it is important to him.
Through the court case, we see Atticus’s skilful cross-examination of each witness. As he asks each question, he already seems to know the answer even before it is said. This allows him to set out his case in a logical and methodical manner, thereby leaving no “reasonable doubt” in anyone’s mind about the case. One can tell that Atticus is devoted to his job, as he seems to have an answer to every possible reason for Tom Robinson’s conviction.
Also, one can see a great deal about Atticus’s nature in the way he treats his witnesses. For example, he treats Mayella Ewell with a great deal of respect. He does not try to intimidate any of his witnesses. He knows that he can make his case purely with the power of truth. This is shown in many ways, for example, he is normally sitting down when he questions his witness. This implies that he does not feel the need to overpower his witnesses and pressure them in any way.
Atticus does not seem to think that any of the witnesses are inferior to the others; he gives them all the same amount of respect and courtesy. Whereas Mr Gilmer refers to Bob and Mayella as Mister and Miss Ewell, but he refers to Tom as “boy” showing that he feels that Tom is inferior to him. Atticus treats all of his witnesses as equal, he does not give Tom Robinson more respect just because he is fighting the case for him.
Although Atticus plays a very important role in the development of the plot in To Kill a Mockingbird, he also embodies many of Harper Lee’s philosophies and moral views about life. Throughout the novel, Atticus remains steadfast in holding on to the things he believes to be correct while still respecting other people’s views. For example, he is always extremely courteous to Mrs. Dubose although she is constantly criticising him for his beliefs and actions.
Atticus also tries to teach Scout the simple yet profound lesson that “you never really understand a person… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Through the novel, he himself seems to adhere to this philosophy, and because he lives through his philosophies, he never becomes too judgemental or moralistic.
All through the novel, Atticus maintains that although every other person may not believe in his cause, he must still persevere in working towards it. He feel that “Simply because [they were] licked a hundred years before [they] started is no reason for [them] not to try to win”. He feels that as he fights Tom Robinson’s case, he is moving his community towards justice. This tiny movement is explained to Jem and Scout by Miss Maudie who said, “We’re making a step- it’s just a baby step, but it’s a step.”
Atticus is very self-assured and he never doubts himself, and is confident enough to tread his own path even if it is directly contradictory to those who he admires or respects. Also, although his opinions may conflict with other peoples, Atticus can still see the better side in them, and respect them for their qualities, while allowing them their own viewpoint without trying to make them change their minds.
Throughout the novel, one important facet of Atticus’s character is revealed to us, another of his philosophies through which he lives his life. He is a man who always sticks to what he believes, no matter what the company, situation or consequences. He has a very strong conscience, which does not allow him to be two faced in any way. He says that he could not “live one way in town and another way in my home”. Through this, he shows that although his work and personal life is separate, he himself will not change, as he cannot be two faced.
One of the important ideas of the novel is first proposed by the title, then expanded, and clarified by Atticus is the idea that it is a “sin to kill a mockingbird”. Atticus only mentions this in the passing, but it contains a very important message, which Atticus wishes to convey to his children. He uses it as both a metaphor and as a literal statement as it is brought up when the children are learning to shoot. He tries to open their eyes to all those such as Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, who “don’t eat up people’s gardens…don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee reminds us that one of the main themes of this book is prejudice, in any of its forms. Atticus himself comes across as a man with little or no preconceptions and prejudices of his own. His views on the prejudice so prominent in his society were very contrary to most peoples at the time of the novel’s publication (only two years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the year the Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated).
Through the development of the novel, we are never told anything about Atticus’s religious belief, except that he is a churchgoer. This is very interesting, as religion seems to be quite a controversial topic in Maycomb, with its many different churches. This shows that Atticus, although a religious man, is not blinkered or drawn into prejudice because of it.
Although Atticus Finch is a good human being, he too, like all the others has his weaknesses; he cannot comprehend just how evil human beings can be. This is shown when he shrugs of Bob Ewell’s threat that, “he’d get him if it took him the rest of his life.” He refused to believe that Bob Ewell could pose him or his family danger and this ultimately turns out to be the cause of Jem’s broken arm.
Through the novel, I feel that Atticus Finch provides the solid base upon which Harper Lee builds her story and her develops her ideas. She expresses some intense emotions through him, both in what he says and does. He is a teacher, in many senses, he teaches his children about life, and how to live, his community about their own prejudices and injustices, and most importantly, he teaches us about our world by allowing us an insight into a microcosm in which the injustices are highly emphasised in his fight to eradicate them.