I was named after Harper Lee, the great American author of, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” So you can imagine that I grew up knowing all about the book (and the 1962 movie with Gregory Peck). Atticus Finch, the father in the book, is widely regarded as one of the most influential “father” characters in literature. In celebration of Father’s Day next Sunday, I thought I’d pass on some of Atticus Finch’s fatherly wisdom.
Atticus Finch is a widower with two children; Jem and Scout. He’s an attorney in the small Southern town of Maycomb during the late 1930s. The main plot of the book deals with the fact that Atticus is defending a black man (Tom) who has wrongly been accused of rape by a white woman. Throughout the book, readers see the many strengths of Atticus as he struggles to raise his children, work a very difficult, racially-charged case and deal with other community issues. Here’s why he’s not only a great man, but a great dad as well:
Atticus isn’t afraid to do what’s right.
In the Southern town of Maycomb in the 1930s, racism was a common theme. Defending a black man was an extremely unpopular activity. But Atticus believes in the legal system of the country and he takes on the case even though he knows that his neighbors might shun him and his children. He has a conversation with Scout, his daughter:
Atticus: There are some things that you’re not old enough to understand just yet. There’s some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man.
Scout: If you shouldn’t be defending him, then why are you doing it?
Atticus: For a number of reasons. The main one is that if I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town. I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do somethin’ again.
Though Atticus and his children do go through a rough year during the trial, the neighbors and citizens of Maycombe do see Atticus’ strength. They re-elect him to the state legislature unanimously, even though his defense of Tom was unpopular.
Atticus is the same man in public and private.
Atticus has developed his own set of morals and standards and those don’t change depending on where he is or whose company he’s in. He isn’t concerned what others think of him – he just does what he thinks is right. Atticus tells Scout: “Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Atticus uses his brain, not his brawn.
In several scenes of the book, Atticus might not seem very manly. He is quiet, not loud. He is always polite. He doesn’t smoke or gamble and he’s big on reading books. But when he confronts a gang of people outside the jail where Tom is being held, he doesn’t back down. Instead, he calmly sits, waiting to see what they’ll do. He uses words to get them to leave, not a gun or his fists.
Though he typically backs down in a confrontation, readers can see that this actually shows strength. He is simply not willing to stoop to the level of those men who can only communicate with physical violence. After he loses Tom’s case, the man who brought the complaint confronts Atticus outside the courthouse. He spits in Atticus’ face. Atticus takes out his handkerchief and calmly wipes it off. The man says, “Too proud to fight, you . . . bastard?” “No, too old,” Atticus replied before putting his hands in his pockets and walking away.
Atticus is tough, though. He shoots a rabid dog in the street from a distance, with only one bullet. Jem and Scout learn that their father is known as the “Deadest Shot in Maycomb County.” Jem, who has struggled with the fact that his father won’t fight in the streets like other dads, is finally impressed. He says, “Atticus is real old, but I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t do anything – I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t do a blessed thing . . . Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!”
Atticus teaches his children empathy.
He understands that seeing the world in the position of others creates a harmonious society. Atticus gives Scout some advice:
“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.”
When Scout tells her father about the new teacher teasing one of the poor students in class, Atticus points out that the teacher is still figuring out the background of her students. Atticus refuses to hurt the men who come to lynch Tom at the jail, pointing out that they are really basically good men who have allowed their emotions to overcome them. Even when Bob Ewell spits in his face after the trial, Atticus shows his children that it’s important to see how others are feeling:
“Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. 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. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?”
Atticus supports and encourages his children.
When a rare snowstorm hits Maycomb, Jem and Scout want to build a snowman. But they quickly run out of snow. Instead, they dig up a bunch of mud and make a “mudman.” Instead of getting angry at the kids, Atticus tells Jem, “I didn’t know how you were going to do it, but from now on I’ll never worry about what’ll become of you, son, you’ll always have an idea.”
Scout is a tomboy who refuses to wear dresses. Her aunt, who comes to stay with the family, is determined to make a lady out of Scout, but Atticus defends her. Scout says, “He said there were already enough sunbeams in the family and to go about my business, he didn’t mind me much the way I was.”
Atticus recognizes the importance of letting his children explore both the world and who they want to be. He gives them the latitude to do so while providing a strong example and sticking to his convictions. If only all men could be fathers like the fictional Atticus Finch!