He’s a model attorney, an excellent father, and (at least as played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie version) dashingly handsome – is there anything Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird can’t do? If he were around today, he’d probably have solved global warming by now. Okay, maybe that’s going too far…
The fact is, Atticus Finch has become a bit larger than life. He seems to topple the toughest problems with a tap of his pinky finger. Let’s take a look at some of his tidbits of wisdom, to get a better sense of some To Kill a Mockingbird themes and how Atticus gives us insight.
Part of the reason Atticus Finch has so many opportunities to say so much is that he’s raising his children, Jem and Scout, as a single father, and is trying to raise them right in a town where racism is rampant. “As you grow older,” he explains to his kids, “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.” First he describes the situation, and then tells them what they should think about it, and why.
Race is probably the most prominent theme of the book, and it’s no secret that Atticus has some quarrels with the way things are. Of course, defending the black man Tom Robinson has made Atticus something of a target for whites who disagree with him, but he has an explanation for that, too. As he tells Scout, “it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, and it doesn’t hurt you.” We wish we’d known that back in middle school.
Is there any way we can cut Atticus down to size, and make him into a normal human being again? For all his wisdom, he’s a complicated character. Take the explanation that he gives Jem for why he’s OK with being threatened after the trial by Bob Ewell father of Mayella, whom Tom was accused of raping. “The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take.” Wait, “his kind”? It doesn’t sound like Atticus treating Bob Ewell as much of an individual here. Could it be that Atticus Finch’s moral compass is has more directions on it than “bad” and “good”?
Atticus seems to believe that people all have the potential for good, but he has a pragmatic view of how people’s circumstances shape the lives that they live. He doesn’t expect someone like Bob Ewell, or even Mayella, really, to be able to turn around their own situations, and, dare we say it, he does seem to think that he himself is superior to them. Morality is another big theme of To Kill a Mockingbird, and perhaps what we learn from Atticus is that you can’t do much accounting for the morals of others. The question that remains is whether the complexity of Atticus’s thinking that he sometimes reveals ruins his squeaky-clean image, or actually makes him a better character. We’ll argue for the latter: someone who is just all-around good is bound to be pretty empty, and hard to use as a realistic role model. Atticus Finch is a human being, too, and we can learn from his thought process as much as we can from his polished pieces of wisdom.