While Atticus Finch’s portrayal as a racist in the recently released Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s second novel and supposedly a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, raises doubts about Atticus’s character, I still believe this anomalous change occurred sometime later in Atticus’s life and that in To Kill a Mockingbird, he is the morally strong and just character we’ve always known him to be. In this essay, I will discuss how societal, external reasons, rather than flaws in his character (by giving an insight in his almost flawless character), lead to Atticus’s defeat and what he manages to salvage in his non-total loss.
Atticus Finch is one of the rare white characters in the almost fully racist town of Maycomb, Alabama who does not only possess strong moral values but is also not a racist, in that he treats everybody equally and with dignity. This is obvious in this instance:
Alexandra, Calpurnia’s not leaving this house until she wants to. You may think otherwise, but I couldn’t have got along without her all these years. She’s a faithful member of this family and you’ll simply have to accept things the way they are.
This quote is Atticus’s response to Scout’s Aunt Alexandra’s, Atticus’s own sister, objection to Calpurnia, their black cook and children’s caretaker. Regardless of color, Atticus makes it clear that he considers Calpurnia family. Atticus also imparts these values to his children, Scout and Jem. He understands that they look up to him and so he has to act as a role model. In a conversation with Scout, he tells her: “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.”
What is remarkable about Atticus’s persona is that he is not putting up a façade; as Miss Maudie points out, “Atticus is the same in his house as he is on the public streets”, showing how he is not a hypocrite but a genuine person.
Atticus portrays the same, almost flawless persona in the courtroom as well. This is what leads him to agree to take Robinson’s case on. He knows he’s going to fight for a lost cause, however, he cannot bring himself to just sit idle. About the case being a lost cause, he says:
There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.
It’s the circumstances of that historical setting themselves that lead to Robinson’s, an African American, unfair indictment. The ‘toxic’ environment of the Great Depression and the Post Reconstruction era, in which the “Jim Crow laws were enacted to separate and discriminate against black people” (gmuss25) have already decided the fate of the case. Atticus, however, takes up the case because of his integrity, which clearly reflects in the court. He strongly believes that “the one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow…” but of course that courtroom is of no use when an all male, white group of people forms the jury and these people “have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.”
However, in what seems a total loss at first, Atticus manages to salvage something even in defeat. In giving reasons to Scout about why he still took on the case when he knew he was going to lose, he puts it succinctly:
…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.
Interestingly, one thing this quote suggests is that, among a few things, Atticus also manages to salvage his own character. A possible interpretation could be that he cares about his reputation just as any other normal person would, and that if he’d refused the case, he would not be able to face something even bigger than any other factor: his ideal of himself. Notwithstanding, and more importantly, it’s the love for and the values, principally integrity and character, that he wants to impart in his children that lead him to take up the case. He values equality and his other principles so much that if he were to go against them, he would not even be able to tell his children not to do something ever again (carol-davis).
There is also a certain hope that he salvages. Atticus puts up a fight against a whole unfair, prejudiced system, and he ignites this hope of a better future, starting from his kids, especially Scout, and hoping that it will spread into the community, or at least in the generations to come.
Lee, Harper. Full Text of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, archive.org/stream/ToKillAMockingbird_201604/To%20Kill%20A%20Mockingbird_djvu.txt.
gmuss25. “Why does Atticus think he can’t win Tom Robinson’s case?” eNotes, 5 June 2016, https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-does-atticus-think-he-can-t-win-tom-robinson-s-17793. Accessed 3 Jan. 2018
carol-davis. “Why does Atticus accept the job to defend Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?” eNotes, 29 June 2013, https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-has-atticus-accepted-job-defend-tom-robinson-441542. Accessed 4 Jan. 2018.