Atticus Finch, the main character of To Kill a Mockingbird, is without doubt one of the most likeable and remarkable literary heroes you will come across in 20th century fiction. Since the novel is very popular (I avoid the word bestseller with its slightly derogative connotation), and most of you will have read the book, I will be rather brief regarding the synopsis.
Scout, the narrator of the story and her older brother Jem grow up in a small town of the Deep South of the 1930s; it is the time of the Great Depression. Atticus, their father is a widowed lawyer with old family ties in town and the whole region.
While a big part of the book deals with a seemingly normal childhood with a good-natured, if somewhat unorthodox father – his children call him by his first name, and he is giving them a lot of freedom – and the small and big adventures that are typical for this age and social surrounding, a really dramatic event takes place that will have a lasting effect on the whole town, and particularly on the Finch family: Tom Robinson, a young man is arrested on rape charges – and Atticus is appointed to be his lawyer. Robinson is a black man, a fact that brings out the not-so-subtle racism of a big part of the local population. And the children of the “nigger-lover” Finch – he is indeed only doing his duty as a lawyer – have to suffer also under this situation. While Atticus teaches his children to never use violence to defend themselves, but their heads, justice is prevailing. No, not justice – the law…and even after the case is closed, the dramatic events triggered by it are not yet at their climax.
To Kill a Mockingbird has of course quite a lot of suspense elements; the court scenes are very dramatic and revealing. The fact that the arrested man is obviously not guilty and the “victim” and the main witness are liars doesn’t prevent the jury from exercising a case of “race justice” that will prove to be fatal for the accused. It is still breath-taking to read how racist the majority of people in the 1930s were (is it different today? – and I am not only talking of the Deep South); but it is also conveying a very humane message: sometimes you just have to do what is right, even when you know that you will lose.
Atticus Finch is standing up for his humanistic principles, even when life would be much more comfortable for him and his children if he would compromise and not defend this man. But in his own eyes, he would lose his dignity and his role as an example to his children if he would. That he accepts this and all the consequences without becoming bitter, makes him such an outstanding literary hero. One of the lessons Atticus is teaching to his children is to always try to “walk for a few minutes in the shoes of the others” – the gift of empathy is what makes Atticus different from some of the other folks in the novel. Although, to be fair, he is not completely alone in his fight for justice. And even those who antagonize him in this particular case have as it turns out such a respect for him as a person that they re-elect him to the local constituency after the court case.
One of the particular strengths of this book is that it succeeds in what Atticus calls “walking in the shoes of others”. In the framework of the novel, we get to know a wide range of characters, black and white, respected and despised, comparatively wealthy and very poor, people with racial prejudices and a few without – but Harper Lee has the gift to make us readers look at them with understanding, even sympathy. The woman who accuses Robinson of the crime is a terribly lonely person and even her father who is the only really bad person in the novel is more a victim of his low social status and it seems he is acting more out of frustration for being looked upon with contempt by practically everyone (except Atticus Finch) than out of a criminal character.
Lee’s story is so convincing because she introduces a wide range of characters that are in itself already very interesting: Dell, the friend of Jem and Scout who comes always for summer holidays – he is a good boy and loyal friend but also obviously a story teller (I avoid the word liar); Cal, the black cook who reigns the kitchen with sternness but also a big heart and who is the female presence in the house that is sometimes a counter-balance to the laissez-faire attitude of Atticus in many respects; the judge, the sheriff, and the newspaper editor – three principled men who in one way or the other support Atticus in a difficult situation; Aunt Alexandra who goes through a process of development while the story unfolds; Maude, a friendly neighbour who treats the children without the condescension that is so frequent among grown-ups; Mrs Dubose, a wicked old woman with whom the children form against all odds (and not completely voluntarily) a bond; the black people with whom the kids are mingling freely and not to everyone’s delight; the children itself that grow not only physically but also as individuals; and last not least Arthur “Boo” Radley, a man who has been confined to home by his family for decades and about whom the children have the strangest ideas – a kind of demon as they imagine him, but as it turns out just a poor soul with a surprisingly good heart, who makes his personal appearance rather late in the book, but in a moment when the children really need him.
All in all, this a very good book with a timeless, very humane message and likeable characters that makes you think about what is valuable in life, a book about how important empathy is – and that the only way for children to learn to stand up for themselves and others is not by teaching moral principles, but by living them in everyday life even when it is difficult for you. What else can you expect from a work of literature?
A book I can highly recommend, not only for young readers.
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird, Vintage Classics
A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook
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