Atticus, Innocence, and Imperfections

Good literature will stand the test of time, yet great literature both evolves and stays relevant as times change. I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird twenty years ago following a suggestion by my father to pick it up for the summer. This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of the classic and as previously mentioned I delved into this story for the fourth time. I turned the back cover a few weeks ago, and have since been letting some thoughts steep. Yesterday being the anniversary of King’s I Have a Dream speech spurred writing into action.

Even though it was composed two generations ago, Lee’s tale remains relevant in the year 2010. During my recent reading I discovered nuances, secondary plot lines, and a fresh take on the central theme that reveal the story to be truly timeless. Each of the following features I found striking during my recent reading could be developed into fully written pieces:

  • Family is one of the key secondary themes in To Kill A Mockingbird. When we are stripped of nearly everything we are left with our name, our path, and our values. In most cases these are passed to us from family, and we will pass them along – to family. It must even be acknowledged that Aunt Alexandra’s misguided worries about family reputation are founded in principles of caring and loving for family above all else. Atticus’ devotion to his profession, to the county and to the state will always be trumped by his devotion to family. It was also fascinating to follow the growth of Jem and Scout’s sibling relationship from a new age in my own life. Finally, the importance of friends and the community in ensuring families are healthy, stable and supported is given credence with numerous examples.
  • The struggles of early adolescence are timeless. Jem does not have a cell phone, a facebook account, video games, or an internet connection. However, the major questions that challenge him are still those that young adolescents face today. What is respect? What is courage? What is social responsibility, what is individual responsibility, and where do the two meet? How can the world say one thing is right, yet openly do the opposite? How does one find one’s place in this world? How does one relate to family and friends as personal independence grows? Why are people the way they are? Will innocence be lost as adulthood approaches? The lessons for these questions come from conversations and experiences – not technology. The importance of strong positive role models, both male and female – Atticus and Calpurnia in this case – cannot be underestimated during this phase.
  • The struggle of right versus wrong may sometimes go deeper, and enter into the struggle of good versus evil. Atticus is a firm believer that getting to know someone will reveal how to best interact with them: that both the ills and fortunes of life should not be used to pass judgment. He is a man armed with incredible principles set in stone, yet ready to live and interact in a fluid world of differing opinions, backgrounds, and beliefs. These principles go almost unshaken throughout the story, until Heck Tate throws back the curtain on good versus evil, and that if Atticus is to truly live by his principles then he must be willing to extend them into dark places.

I am aware that the above is written rather ambiguously, but I do not want to steal away exact points and events in the story just in case there are those who have not read the book. (If you do happen to be one of those, you should go and read it right now)!

Finally, the central theme and lesson in this tale will always be important as there will always be differences. Lee calls upon us to take up the eternal struggle against prejudgement. While Atticus may seem to be the crusader and role model that we are expected to follow, Lee is aware of our own imperfections. A lesser write may have created an Atticus too perfect, and thereby off-putting. Even Atticus is revealed to be flawed. For all his brains, skills, and near omnipotence, we are also witness to his struggles and even weaknesses. It is through the eyes of a child, Scout, that this all revealed, as we are reminded of childhood, and our own innocence in her character. It is easier to follow the guiding moral of the story when we are innocent. However, just because we age, and we see the world, and we see the evil that is in it, does not excuse us from putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and walking around in them, before passing judgement. We can be quick to nod and say, “yes I tried to put myself in that person’s position,” yet how often do we truly take the time to not only put ourselves in that position but walk around in it, and even look back and see the path that led to that position. How different would things be then?

Atticus remains my favourite literary character of all time.

Some quotes from the story to take us out, as Lee is the better writer here:

Scout on the town’s opinion about Tom Robinson: “Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…” “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect of their opinions,” said Atticus, “but 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.”

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win but sometimes you do.”

One time [Atticus] said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.

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2 thoughts on “Atticus, Innocence, and Imperfections

  1. I ordered my 50th anniversary copy back in June and reread it after coming home from New York. I’ve had conversations with a few people about this novel since then and can’t get over how much better it is now than when I first read it over 10 years ago.

    I remember really disliking Aunt Alexandra the first time around, despite the fact that she redeemed herself toward the end. This time I felt more empathetic toward her. Funny, how things change.

    The first 2 quotes you wrote down are favourites of mine, the first being one of my favourite quotes of all time. Harper Lee is a genius: there is so much good stuff in this novel.

    I love Atticus’ character but also Scout’s. And one of the things she said when talking to Jem really struck me this time: “There’s only one kind of folks. Folks.” It’s a good reminder, especially when we let other things get in the way of this simple but important thing.

    I was waiting for you to blog about this!

    • I think it has gotten better each time I’ve read it. Yes, it took me a while to post on it. I couldn’t nail down a specific thesis though (just too many good possibilities) and in the end one can see that I didn’t. Thus, decided to throw a few points up there and let the thoughts and discussions continue to roll.

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