For many readers, personally identifying with a novel’s character is a familiar concept; it involves them as the story progresses. In the Changing Lives Through Literature program, character identification does much more. Not only does it engage the reader, but it helps them gain insight regarding their own life, history, and future.
In the following piece, author Andrew Howe discusses his personal recognition for the character Atticus Finch.
Andrew Howe is an Assistant Professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. His teaching and research interests include the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the history of Hollywood, and World War II.
When I think of the books I was fortunate enough to read during my youth, there exists not so much a single work that stands out in my mind but, instead, a character. To me, Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) contains many of the qualities to which I continually aspire, but rarely master.
Lee’s work is set in Maycomb, Alabama, during the 1930s, and the story is told through the eyes of Atticus’ daughter, Scout Finch. Atticus is a well-respected public defender, and near the beginning of the tale takes on the case of Tom Robinson, a black sharecropper who has been falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Unlike just about all of the other white characters, Atticus does not allow the color of Tom’s skin to influence the manner in which he views Tom as a person. In one of the most memorable scenes in the book, Scout and her brother Jem watch as Atticus stands up to a mob of angry townspeople who have come to lynch Tom Robinson.
In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as lights revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view.
“He in there, Mr. Finch?” a man said.
“He is,” we heard Atticus answer, “and he’s asleep. Don’t wake him up.”
In obedience to my father, there followed what I later realized was a sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation: the men talked in near-whispers. (Lee 151)
This passage signals the regard in which Atticus is held by the entirety of Maycomb. The black townspeople and whites sympathetic to Tom’s situation respect Atticus for his social conscience, and even the white southerners who disagree with Atticus appreciate his fairness and ability to take a stand. In this scene, the naked courage Atticus displays is nearly enough to back down this drunk, emotional mob, although in the end it takes an intervention by Scout and Jem to diffuse the threat of violence. Regardless of the outcome, the mere fact that a white man would risk his life for a black man in the Jim Crow south – and that a white-collar lawyer would go out on a limb for a poverty-stricken sharecropper – is powerful indeed.
Ultimately, the deck is stacked against Tom Robinson, and despite the number of ways in which Atticus demonstrates in court that the case has no merit, Tom is found guilty. Along with another plot development, this unfair judgment represents a loss of innocence for Scout. Fortunately for her, she has a wise and understanding father to guide her through this process; in addition to being a man of tremendous social justice, he is also a model parent. Atticus always seems to know what to say to his children during times of difficulty, and also what to do in any given situation. In many ways, he is the idealized version of a father that, sadly, many today are not accorded. In contemporary times, having two children raised by a single male parent seems strange indeed.
Atticus Finch is courageous, tolerant, generous, kind, and fair. The 1962 film version, starring Gregory Peck, was so successful in achieving Lee’s vision of the character that, in 2003, the American Film Institute ranked Atticus Finch as the #1 cinematic hero of the twentieth century in their “AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Heroes and Villains,” narrowly edging out both Indiana Jones and James Bond. As I move through life, I try to be an Atticus Finch in all that I do. It doesn’t always work, but I find that this character has helped me when it comes to interacting with other people: I try to be tolerant, I try to be fair, and I try to see in them the value that they themselves possess, not the value that society places upon them.