You know all those stereotypes about lawyers being nasty, money-grubbing people? Well, meet Atticus, giving lawyers (and dads) a good name since 1960. If you read this and thought that he was too good to be true—you're right. He's fictional. But we sure wish he weren't.
Atticus as Father
Neither of the Finch kids ever calls their father "Dad"; he's always Atticus. Weird, right? Especially for kids in the rural South. But we get the feeling that it's their way of showing him respect, just like he shows them respect. For one thing, he doesn't dumb down his language to what he thinks is their level, but he also is willing to explain patiently whenever they have questions.
"I'm afraid our activities would be received with considerable disapprobation by the more learned authorities."
Jem and I were accustomed to our father's last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding.
"I never went to school," he said, "but I have a feeling that if you tell Miss Caroline we read every night she'll get after me, and I wouldn't want her after me." (3.108-113)
When Scout doesn't want to go back to school, Atticus doesn't just tell her that she has to go and that's that; instead, he listens to Scout's explanation of why she's upset, and tries to make her see her teacher's side of things before coming up with a compromise that makes Scout happier.
The passage above also suggests that Atticus's courtroom language creeps into the way that he talks to his kids, and so does his judicial concern with fairness. As Scout tells Uncle Jack, "When Jem an' I fuss Atticus doesn't ever just listen to Jem's side of it, he hears mine too" (9.46). Scout also tells Miss Maudie, "Atticus don't ever do anything to Jem and me in the house that he don't do in the yard" (5.53). Atticus runs his family like a judge: he's the one in charge, and has a clear set of rules that he expects his kids to follow, but he makes sure that both sides have their say.
Atticus doesn't expect his kids to respect him just because he's their father, but because he acts in a way that deserves respect. His honesty with his children means that they trust him, and look to him for guidance.
"Don't worry, Scout, it ain't time to worry yet," said Jem. He pointed. "Looka yonder."
In a group of neighbors, Atticus was standing with his hands in his overcoat pockets. He might have been watching a football game. Miss Maudie was beside him.
"See there, he's not worried yet," said Jem. (8.105-107)
Atticus is the opposite of a hypocrite: he says what he means, and lives how he thinks. In raising his children, he tries to get them to understand not only how they should behave, but why they should behave that way. This parenting attitude works most of the time, but causes problems when the kids apply Atticus's principles in ways he doesn't expect.
We were accustomed to prompt, if not always cheerful acquiescence to Atticus's instructions, but from the way he stood Jem was not thinking of budging.
"Go home, I said."
Jem shook his head. As Atticus's fists went to his hips, so did Jem's, and as they faced each other I could see little resemblance between them: Jem's soft brown hair and eyes, his oval face and snug-fitting ears were our mother's, contrasting oddly with Atticus's graying black hair and square-cut features, but they were somehow alike. Mutual defiance made them alike. (15.97-99)
Just as Atticus is standing by Tom to protect him, Jem wants to do the same for Atticus. While Atticus isn't scared of the mob for his own sake, he is afraid that they'll hurt his kids. In the end, however, it's Scout's following her father's advice (talking to people about what they care about) that gets them out of their fix. While Atticus tries through his parenting to save his kids from Maycomb's intolerance, he's also giving them the same ideas that lead to him facing off with a mob and receiving death threats.
So, is he protecting his kids, or putting them in danger?
Well… yes. To both questions. Atticus believes that shielding his kids in the short term doesn't do them any favors in the long run. This becomes especially clear when he thinks Jem is the one who stabbed Bob Ewell.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart, but I don't want my boy starting out with something like this over his head. Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open. Let the county come and bring sandwiches. I don't want him growing up with a whisper about him, I don't want anybody saying, 'Jem Finch... his daddy paid a mint to get him out of that.' Sooner we get this over with the better." (30.34)
Atticus would rather his son underwent the momentary discomfort and risk of being open about his "crime" than face a lifetime of second-guessing. This is, after all, the way he himself lives, doing right by Tom Robinson and getting called a few names (and, uh, having his kids attacked) rather than suffer the shame of having supported injustice.
While Atticus holds his kids to the same high standards as he holds himself, he's there for them when they need him. Check out the very last sentence of the book: "He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning" (31.56).
Even when Jem's unconscious and has no way of knowing what's going on, Atticus is there for him—because it's the right thing to do, even if no one's watching? That would fit with what we know about Atticus, but perhaps there's a simpler reason: love.
Now that's a #1 Dad.
In the Courtroom
Of course Scout's dad has the be the one honest lawyer in, well, maybe the whole South. And it sure causes his family a lot of grief. Atticus tries to explain to Scout why he's doing what he's doing in this case.
"If you shouldn't be defendin' him, then why are you doin' it?"
"For a number of reasons," said Atticus. "The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again. […] Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one's mine, I guess." (9.16-21)
For Atticus, being a lawyer isn't just a job, it's a personal commitment to justice, and to solving problems through the law rather than through violence. (Hint, hint, Scout.) Oh, also, he had no choice: Judge Taylor assigned him to the case.
"Lemme tell you somethin' now, Billy," a third said, "you know the court appointed him to defend this nigger." "Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That's what I don't like about it."
This was news, news that put a different light on things: Atticus had to, whether he wanted to or not. I thought it odd that he hadn't said anything to us about it—we could have used it many times in defending him and ourselves. He had to, that's why he was doing it, equaled fewer fights and less fussing. But did that explain the town's attitude? The court appointed Atticus to defend him. Atticus aimed to defend him. That's what they didn't like about it. It was confusing. (16.92)
Why doesn't Atticus tell Scout this, when it could have given her a good excuse to get out of fights? Well, for one, it's not really an excuse. The problem isn't that he's defending Tom, but that he's planning on doing it to the best of his ability. (Most people in the town think fair trials are only for white people.) But we think Atticus doesn't mention it because he doesn't want Scout to defend him with a cop-out. Maybe Atticus was appointed, but he also thinks it's the right thing to do.
And Atticus chooses not only to really defend Tom, rather than kinda-sorta defending him, but also to treat even the horrible Ewells with respect in court. Dill notices that Mr. Gilmer doesn't return the compliment for Tom:
"Well, Mr. Finch didn't act that way to Mayella and old man Ewell when he cross-examined them. The way that man called him 'boy' all the time an' sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered-" (19.163)
Mr. Gilmer is willing to use any tools at his disposal to win his case, including taking advantage of the jury's racism. Atticus, on the other hand, appeals to the jury's sense of justice and equality. If the roles were reversed, if Atticus had been assigned the prosecution instead of the defense, would he have acted any differently? Would he have even taken the case? What part of Atticus's character does Mr. Gilmer lack, to make him able to act so differently from his legal opponent?
Proud to Be an American?
In the end, Atticus stands for truth, fairness, and—he hopes—the American legal system. He says as much in his closing remarks:
"I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty." (20.52)
For Atticus, Tom's trial means more than the fate of a single man. It even means more than a referendum on racism in Maycomb. The case is about the fairness of the American legal system, which means it's about the fairness of American people. In his closing remarks, Atticus argues for big principles like equality and duty, but he doesn't for a moment lose sight of the fact that in the end it's human beings and their choices that make equality stand or fall—and in this case, fall.Atticus's Timeline
One of the most important lessons Atticus teaches his children is that empathy should not be limited to people who seem nice on the outside. Atticus tells his children to use their imaginations, and feel what others feel before making a judgement. He instills this in their brains so they can fight off Maycomb’s usual disease. Maycomb’s “disease” is racism and having a judgemental mentality. “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,” (lines 9-13, pg 33.) Atticus is telling Scout that you never really know where a person is coming from until you’ve been there yourself. Another example of his empathy teachings is the understanding and respect he has towards Mrs.Dubose even though she says cruel things about him. Atticus is always positive towards Mrs.Dubose. “She’s an old lady and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad,” (lines 23-25, pg 115.) These lines are being spoken by Atticus to his son Jem. Atticus knows Mrs. Dubose has been raised differently than they have. Atticus gives them things to consider before judging Mrs. Dubose negatively. The last example I’d like to point out is that Atticus was being a good example to his kids by showing empathy towards a mean and unruly man like Bob Ewell. When Bob Ewell spit in his face, Atticus simply walked away and took it. He tells Jem: “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,” (lines 23-29, pg 249.) Atticus showed empathy towards Bob Ewell, and his kids. Atticus showed a lot of strength and dignity by resisting any sort of retaliation he could have made. He taught his son to care for others, no matter how filthy their sins are.
Atticus teaches his children the mockingbird lesson: “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The mockingbird lesson is that you should never show aggression towards someone that has never done any little thing to harm you. A mockingbird is someone innocent and pure of heart like Atticus, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Atticus himself is a mockingbird because sees the best in everyone. Atticus has a lot of innocence to him, he is a good man. Although Bob Ewell spat in his face, he thought Bob was all talk. Atticus did not think Bob Ewell would go as low as hurting his very own kin but in the end, Mr. Ewell went after the little Finches to get back at Atticus. Boo Radley is a mockingbird because even though the entire town spreads nasty rumours and lies about him, he is a true gentleman at heart. When Bob Ewell went to attack Scout and Jem, Boo came to the rescue and killed Mr. Ewell. Atticus wanted to get down to the real reason why Bob Ewell died and the sheriff knew it would be a sin to give attention to Boo Radley. Scout says: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”(Line 25, pg 317.)Scout knows that Boo is innocent in the act that he has done. He is simply a mockingbird. The children feel a sense of belonging to Mr. Radley, although he is not their “real” father, Boo has become a person much like their very own father Atticus in their eyes. Boo does many kind things for the children such as leaving them little presents in the tree house. In their time of need Boo Radley was always there for his children, Scout and Jem. Finally, the last mockingbird Scout has discovered in the story is Tom Robinson. Mockingbirds contribute to society the way real mockingbirds sing and entertain us with beautiful music to our ears. Tom Robinson helps Mayella Ewell with things she needs done around the house. Although Mr. Robinson knew that just by being there he could get into so much trouble, he felt sorry for her and helped her anyway. Tom felt empathy towards Mayella the way Atticus would for anyone, and Scout saw that in him. Atticus taught the mockingbird lesson so well that Scout can understand the difference between mockingbirds and bluejays.
Atticus knows that a person cannot be imaginative or understand simple metaphors likening people to mockingbirds, if his thinking is rigid. Atticus teaches the children to allow for flexibility in decision making. Scout’s first lesson about being flexible with decision making is when she is taught that sometimes it’s necessary to bend the rules. “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases,” (lines 25-26, pg 33.) One example of this is that Scout bends the rules Miss Caroline has given her. Scout agreed with her father to read every night if she goes to school and never mentions a word about it to her teacher. In my opinion, another example of “bending the law,” is that Atticus Finch and the little Finches (Jem and Scout) bend society’s laws. They do not take the word of a white man over a black man, but they think for themselves. That in itself is rebellious and flexible. It is flexible because just like Scout has to go to school, the Finches have to live in Maycomb which is divided by race and class. The Finches don’t judge that way, even though everyone else does. The last example of Atticus teaching his children about being flexible is in the end, Scout agrees with the Sheriff and lets him bend the rules to keep Bob Ewell’s case low profile in order to keep Boo from being given a lot of attention.