To Kill a Mockingbird: the courage of Atticus Finch

It’s the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’ve got the film paused, just after the scene in which the verdict is handed down. Guilty. Both the film and the book resonate very deeply with me, in all the themes they touch upon. Family, community, love, goodness, social responsibility, justice, right and wrong…right and wrong particularly regarding the conditions of racial and class inequality as they existed in the United States in the years before the Civil Rights Movement, but also right and wrong in the spiritual sense of a human dignity that trumps the rational system of justice. Underlying all these is a greater theme that ties them together in the person of Atticus Finch.

Jem, I don’t know if it’ll help, but, I want to say this to you. There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them.

~ Maudie Atkinson
To Kill a Mockingbird

I began the day with the subject of courage and, it seems, I’ll end the day with it again. Not the courage of super heroes, or of those who feel compelled to lead, but the courage of those who live out their convictions, who do not flinch from the unpleasant jobs no one else will take on. The heroes who step up when no one else will. It’s these people, the unlikely heroes, like Harry Potter and Atticus Finch, Rosa Parks and others who take on the mantle of leadership without the desire to lead, all those stand their ground rather than back down. Those who risk. Even those, like Joannie Rochette and Petra Majdic, who simply find the courage to do their best when others might wilt and whither. Also, if you are looking for leadership qualities, here are a couple of suggestions to get you started!

We, as a society, need these unlikely and largely unsung heroes. They move us, inspire us, give us faith in our fellow beings, even ourselves. They lead without leading, guide without without offering guidance.

When Maudie tells Jem his father’s among those men born to take on the ugliness in the world, he simply replies, “I know.” Moments later, Atticus informs them all of Tom Robinson’s death and leaves to inform Tom’s family, Jem insists on going with him. Unflinching. Later, when he and Scout are attacked by Ewell, he disregards his own safety to try and save his sister. Jem knows because, like his father, and already at this young age, he sees that unpleasantness in the world, won’t shy from it, challenges it. Jem is already among such men.

My question…is it a birthright that makes such heroes? Or is it simply a choice of the moment, one that must be made time and again? I think that, perhaps, some are born with the resources readily available to them, so they risk when others shy away. But I think also that those resources are available to all of us, that we can find them in ourselves at any time. That when a defining moment comes in our lives, we can choose who we are, what we’re about, and make the choice that is right, the choice that protects the mockingbird.

20 Responses to “To Kill a Mockingbird: the courage of Atticus Finch”

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  1. karen says:

    Well done Patrick….so movingly written. I have good memories of this book, having studied it in English class Yr 10 (and also getting 30/30!) Even at 15, the novel held my attention to the very end addressing the themes you mentioned, tolerance, predjudice, courage, racial injustice to name a few.

    I remember being quietly in awe of Jems protective instincts with Scout, and thinking to myself (Hmphh, my brother wouldn’t do THAT!)

    It’s a book/movie that I can go back to time and again and the lesson for all of us never fades.

  2. Patrick says:

    Thanks Karen.

    Jem is a gem, such a good man … right out of the box one suspects. [smile]

    The presentation of the film was accompanied by the commentary of Maya Angelou at every commercial break. She provided insights into both the book and film I’d never considered. One of these is that love is the central theme.

    There’s a lot of talk about tolerance these days. Tolerance of people with different coloured skin, of people who speak different languages, of people who believe in different cosmology, who eat different foods. I suppose tolerance is better than anger, beter than being disrespectful. I suppose tolerating people is better than harassing them. It goes along with that age-old motherly wisdom, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.

    But I have a real problem with tolerance. [smile] I can’t tolerate it.

    Jesus, for example, didn’t say, “tolerate thy neighbour.” We tolerate what we dislike. Tolerance is thinly vieled hate.

    Atticus is not a hateful man. Even regarding Mayella, who wrongly fingers Tom Robinson for her beating and a rape that never happened, Atticus hates the sin, not the sinner. He pities the conditions of her life, while holding her to account for the choices she makes. He hates what she does, not who she is.

    Moreover, he loves and respects those we are taught, even now, to tolerate. Even in moments of duress…he asks his maid/nanny, a negroe, if she can stay the night while he holds vigil at the town jail against the lynch mob. In that time, in that place, most would have simply ordered her to.

    Which brings me back to Jem. It’s at that vigil that Jem and Scout display the characteristics that define them. While it’s Scout who races in to be with her father, Jem and Dill following her lead, it’s Jem who understands the true nature of the situation, the latent threat and very real danger of it, and refuses to stand down from it, going so far as to disobey his father’s orders to leave. He does this as much for the love and protection of his father as to stand by Atticus’ side, and to stand for what is right and good.

    Still, it’s Scout’s innocent sense of love and connection to all present that diffuses the tension, even shaming the men of the lynch mob into reconsidering the nature of their intentions. In that scene, she’s the mockingbird.

  3. karen says:

    thanks Patrick

    I enjoyed reading your answer. I’ve just rummaged through the bookcase and retrieved “To Kill a Mockingbird” and put it on my bedside (along with the other 5 or so books I want to rediscover)
    I will take particular note of the points you mentioned again – each time you read a book like this one, you learn and take away a little more :)

  4. Patrick says:

    [grin] Seems I’ve just been redirected to The Tao of Physics, myself. Onto the bedside table it goes…

  5. Gary says:

    I’m not sure whether people are born with courage, but I’m pretty sure having sound morals, knowing right from wrong and having the courage of one’s conviction is part of one’s upbringing. I think almost on a daily basis we are confronted with choices, doing the ‘right’ thing or the ‘wrong’. Sadly our system of government doesn’t always reward those that do the right thing. Our systems are too adversarial.

  6. Patrick says:

    Our society, on the whole, doesn’t always reward those who do the right thing. There are a myriad of reasons why. Sometimes it’s as simple as being shown up. When we don’t step up when called upon, it’s embarrassing to see someone else do so. Sometimes it’s the repercussions that follow — even if the cart is full of rotten apples, cleaning the mess after upsetting one is an unpleasant task.

    Whatever system of government exists, it is always a reflection of human tendencies. No, that’s not quite it. Every government institutionalises aspects of the human condition.

  7. Gary says:

    Hey one and all, as a fun thing, if they were to do a remake of Mockingbird, who would make a good fist of the Gregory Peck/Atticus Finch role? I reckon one of the first names to come to mind would be George Clooney. But my left-field pick would be Bill Paxton (from the TV series, Big Love).

  8. karen says:

    Hmm….my first thought was maybe Kevin Klein or maybe Edward Norton (though I have only seen him in a couple of movies….The Painted Veil for one)

  9. Patrick says:

    Klein’s too old, now. Norton…doesn’t have the stature.

    Clooney…maybe, but he’s no Gregory Peck.

    Hugh Jackman? (Did you ever see him in Kate & Leopold?)

  10. karen says:

    No, I didn’t….not sure why, didn’t appeal at the time…is it worth seeing?
    Klein too old? How old do you think Atticus Finch was in the movie?

  11. Patrick says:

    Peck? Maybe in his 40s. According to IMDB, Kevin Kline was born 24 October, 1947…he’s 62.

    Ahhh, when To Kill a Mockingbird was released late in 1962, Peck was 46.

  12. Patrick says:

    Kate & Leopold is fluffy romantic comedy, but pleasntly fluffy, with a fine performance by Jackman at complete odds with his X-Men character, Wolverine.

  13. Gary says:

    Klein is a quality actor, but at 62, agree, probably too old. Jackman I just can’t see unless you want Atticus to break into song and dance or take off his shirt. Edward Norton, nope..too ‘edgy’. How about Sam Neil (altho also in his 60s)? How about Daniel Day Lewis? But for me, it’d be Clooney.

  14. Gary says:

    Bingo! Just thought of a great actor for Atticus, although very different to Greg Peck in looks and style but I reckon he would lend plenty of weight to the role. Come on down Phillip Seymour Hoffman…

  15. Patrick says:

    I think, based on Kate & Leopold, where he avoids any thought of showtunes, or ripping off his shirt, Jackman could do it.

    Hoffman is an interesting choice…but I think there would be necessary script changes…Atticus’ beauty and physical grace is a significant aspect of his character, and Hoffman’s charisma alone won’t explain his relationship to some of the characters and the public.

    Ohhhh…I’m gonna take some flames on that one.

    My friend David suggests Alfred Molina.

    I think Vigo Mortensen.

  16. Gary says:

    Jackman is an over-rated actor. Has he done anything of substance? He’s either in rom-coms, action flicks or musical. If PSH isn’t handsome enough, how about Colin Firth? Or Ralph Fiennes? Both English but that’s ok…

  17. Gary says:

    Vigo would be good, too

  18. Patrick says:


    Ummm…The Prestige (2006)

    May I remind you, he plays opposite Sir Ian McKellen in those action flicks, and his presence is commanding. ;)

    Personally, I find the Wolverine character to be the most intriguing of the lot, and Jackman’s portrayal of him depicts the rage, anguish and subtly nuanced gentle humanity that are the contradictions of the role with poise and clarity. The introduction of him in the fight cage, just his stance alone, is compelling, while the chemistry he develops with McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and even the very stiff Famke Janssen is quite remarkable.

    I don’t think anyone has tested his range yet.

    On the other hand, there was that unfortunate Oscar hosting gig last year… [sigh]. lol

    Sometimes an actor defines a role. Anyone but Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch would be like trying to have someone other than Clint Eastwood play Dirty Harry.

  19. Gary says:

    I wonder though how come Jackman doesn’t do better films, films that would ‘test his range’ as you say. Surely he gets the scripts given his status. The last flick he was in was the risible ‘Australia’ and the less said about that film the better. He’s fast following in the footsteps of John Travolta, good to look at it, can dance and blithely sailing through easy-to-do roles in mediocre films. As for who could do Dirty Harry, my God, that would be an interesting conundrum to wrestle over.

  20. Patrick says:

    That’s a good question. Of course, only one person can answer it. ;)

    Jack Bauer, of the tv series 24, is probably the closest character to Dirty Harry. Maybe Keifer Sutherland could pull it off. Though Harry is downright mean with a major chip on his shoulder while Jack is conflicted and only goes the extra mile out of necessity. Where Harry takes pleasure, Jack sees only a means to an end.

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