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It’s What’s in the Heart

One thing I noticed when reading this book is how gentle Atticus is portrayed. I specifically marked two places in my book where Miss Maudie reflects on this aspect. On page 60, Lee writes, “If Atticus Finch drank until he was drunk he still wouldn’t be as hard as some men are at their best.” Miss Maudie is telling Scout that following the Bible does not automatically make someone a decent person, making the comparison that a Bible in one man’s hand can be worse than whiskey in the hand of Atticus. This goes to show that it is not one’s beliefs that matter, but their heart. Miss Maudie also says, “If your father’s anything he’s civilized in his heart…I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot until he had to, and today he had to.” (130) Just because he can shoot, doesn’t mean that he particularly wants to, because Atticus is not malicious at heart and does not like that he possessed the power to kill. 

This trend I noticed was exemplified in the New Yorker Article, “The Courthouse Ring.” The author Malcom Gladwell draws a connection between Big Jim Folsom and Atticus. Big Jim Folsom believed in the rights of black men but was not an activist. He believed doing little things in his everyday life to encourage equality, like shaking the hands of two black men before greeting the judge that he was there for. Atticus does that too, in a sense. He tells Scout not to use the n word, and that it’s not okay to hate anybody, not even Hitler. When he is sitting outside of the jailhouse, he does not plan to use violence on the men that come for Tom. The most important fact of matter is what the article highlights, that when Tom Robinson is found guilty, Atticus did not throw a fit like an activist would, but rather walks out silently and solemnly. The article states, “He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.” His gentle nature is what encouraged him to fight for Tom Robinson because Tom’s color is not a factor to Atticus, his heart is. Atticus had every right after working so hard to be angry about the verdict, but he did not show the slightest rage.

2 thoughts on “It’s What’s in the Heart”

  1. I agree. I love Atticus as a character for the traits you just described. I’d be interested to hear what your take is on Atticus in the ending of the book. His nature seems to make him oblivious to the threat of Bob Ewell until it is too late. He and his family only escape disaster through the actions of another. He also in the end has to be stopped from acting as he sees best by Sheriff Tate because if he did what he desired, it would have destroyed Boo Radley. Lee sets Atticus up so wonderfully with the traits you described. But the story ends seemingly examining the limitations of such a man. I’d be curious to know what you thought about that.

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  2. I agree, I think this post and Nick’s comment are both very interesting. Atticus being a gentleman and treating everyone equally are obviously some of his best traits, but they also hold him back from actually making any change. Instead, he focuses on behaviors, not attitudes. Scout can’t say the N word, and she can go to Calpurnia’s church, but he never tries to break down those class barriers. He explains the different social groups, gently and kindly and respectful, but he doesn’t ever wonder if maybe they should be done away with altogether. I also think the Hitler comment he made is so random when it shows up in the book, but actually maybe really interesting. It made me wonder, if everyone is so “equal” would Atticus defend Hitler? If he defends an innocent black man because it was right for everyone to have an equal chance, not ever expecting to actually win, would he defend a guilty white man in the same way? And would that be a bad thing? I really don’t know the answer. If Scout can’t hate black people because that’s wrong, but also can’t hate a man who was literally gearing up for WWII and the Holocaust during the novel because that’s wrong, is there possibly a problem with such a kind of empty equality? Maybe it’s just right to judge everyone equally no matter what they look like and love or hate them accordingly.

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