Atticus Finch To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee is said to have modeled the character of Atticus Finch on her own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, an attorney, who, in 1919, defended two black men accused of murder. After they were convicted, hanged, and mutilated, he never tried another criminal case. Although more of a proponent of racial segregation than Atticus, he gradually became more liberal in his later years.
Initially, To Kill a Mockingbird was titled Atticus, but Lee renamed it to reflect a story that went beyond a character portrait. But Atticus Finch has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers.
Atticus Finch, father of the narrator, is a descendant of Simon Finch who had settled at Finch’s Landing, some twenty miles east of Maycomb County, after he escaped persecution at the hands of the Methodists in England. A lawyer by profession; he is about fifty when the novel opens. Having spent his youth and his earnings to educate his younger brother Jack for the medical profession and getting his prim and proper sister Alexandra married, he married late in life.
But his wife died from a congenital heart disease when Jem was six and Scout was two. He has therefore single-handedly brought up his children till Jem is ten and Scout is six, when Aunt Alexandra appears on the scene of discipline them as he gets busy with defending Tom Robinson, the Negro, of the rape charge leveled against him by Mayella Ewell and her father.
Though Atticus views Jem and Scout with “courteous detachment”, he wants them to grow up as responsible, mature citizens like him. He, for one, does not want them to lose their head under any circumstances; he wants them to be as calm and composed as he is while facing any crisis in life as they come to grips with the racist and unjust society of Maycomb County in their formative years.
Not rich by stretch of imagination, Atticus says that professional people in Maycomb are poor because the farmers are poor. In the years of the Great Depression, farmers have no money to pay professionals like Atticus and Dr. Reynolds in cash for the services rendered: they pay them in kind. Walter Cunningham pays Atticus for his entailment through agricultural produce.
Similarly, the no-gooders like the Ewells, “the poor white trash”, mean as they are, have never done a day’s honorable work in three generations but they enjoy “certain privileges” in society and people are blind to their activities because that is the way they are Law has to be bent in such cases as theirs.
When Atticus comes to know of the children’s curiosity about the reclusive Radleys, especially Boo Radley who has been confined to his house ever since he was fifteen and was said to be involved in “disorderly conduct”, he advises Jem, Scout and Dill to leave Boo alone. What Boo Radley does is his own business and they are not to play an “asinine game” and make fun of him because he is “not putting his life’s history on display for the edification of the neighborhood”.
Atticus advises Jem and Scout to “climb into” people’s “skin and walk around in it” to understand and empathize with them. He wants them to hold their head high and follow the dictates of their conscience in whatever they do. The children internalize Atticus’s admonition not to judge someone until they have walked around in that person’s skin, gaining a greater understanding of people’s motives and behavior. When he decides to defend the poor Negro Tom Robinson and is derided as a “nigger-lover” by all the whites in Maycomb, except Miss Maudie Atkinson, his contemporary and admirer, Atticus tells Scout that he is defending Tom for a number of reasons.
Atticus Finch is convinced that, though he will lose the case, he is paying a kind of debt to history for the way the blacks have been ill-treated, oppressed and exploited over the years by the whites. When there is “ugly talk about him in school and Maycomb, Jem and Scout are to just hold their “head high and keep those fists down, don’t let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”
For his part, Atticus faces a group of men intent on lynching Tom. This danger is averted when Scout, Jem, and Dill shame the mob into dispersing by forcing them to view the situation from Atticus’s and Tom’s point of view.
Even though he has been a crackshot during his youth, he doesn’t want Jem and Scout to shoot mocking birds who sing only for their pleasure without harming anybody, thus inculcating in them the values of compassion-the basic code of Christian conduct. In other words, to kill a mockingbird is to kill that which is innocent and harmless-like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. The last pages of the book illustrate this as Scout relates the moral of a story that Atticus has been reading to her, and in allusions to both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson states about a character who was misunderstood.
Atticus Finch’s long and logical defense of Tom Robinson in the rape case is clinical and well-reasoned. He wearies the jury down with his arguments, proving that Bob Ewell is left-handed and his daughter Mayella a liar. He addresses Mayella in the court as Miss Ewell or “ma’am” throughout and exasperates her. The poor lonely, repressed girl hasn’t been treated with such courtesy before. Judge Taylor explains to her that Atticus is generally polite and courteous to everyone and as Miss Maudie Atkinson tells Scout,
“Atticus Finch is the same in his house as he is on the public street.”
Atticus Finch loses the case and the poor, innocent Tom Robinson is convicted despite all the evidence being contrary. He is later shot dead by the prison guards while trying to escape from the prison. But Atticus wins the respect and gratitude of all the blacks- and a few right thinking whites-for the courage of his convictions. In this he emerges as the model of integrity for the legal profession. As Alice Petry says, “Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person.” He has acted as a major judicial influence on budding lawyers as well as those keen on joining the profession,
“No real-life lawyers has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession.”
Critics of Atticus maintain, he is morally ambiguous and does not use his legal skills to challenge the racist status quo in Maycomb. As Akin Ajayi says, justice “is often complicated, but must always be founded upon the notion of equality and fairness for all”. Atticus forces readers to question issues about race, class, and society but is not meant to resolve them. However, in 1997, the Alabama State Bar erected a monument to Atticus in Monroeville, Harper Lee’s home town, marking his existence as the “first commemorative milestone of the state’s judicial history”. In 2008, Lee herself received an honorary special membership to the Alabama State Bar for creating Atticus who “has become the personification of the exemplary lawyer in serving the legal needs of the poor.”