Turner Classic Movies recently put on theatrical screenings of To Kill a Mockingbird in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary. As a Southerner and a law student, I felt I had something approaching a moral obligation to attend. Atticus Finch, Mockingbird’s protagonist, is a small-town lawyer in fictional Maycomb, Alabama. Culturally, he is a kind of patron saint for the legal profession and an archetype of the noble, well-bred Southern gentleman.
In the introductory commentary to the screening, the host mentioned that the American Film Institute had named Atticus, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, the greatest hero in American film. On first thought, the selection makes perfect sense. When I read the novel in high school, my English teacher described Atticus’s character that way. He was a defender of universal truths, chiefly the equal dignity of all people. His great personal integrity was matched by a commitment to lofty principles and exalted rhetoric that anticipated the Civil Rights Movement. In every way, he was someone to be admired and imitated. And certainly Peck’s performance in Mockingbird was a highlight of his career, even among his many other classic roles.
But having recently reread the novel with a more critical eye, I was struck by Atticus’s implausibility as a universal hero. A closer look at his character reveals that he is not the timeless, placeless defender of justice and equality that he is often perceived to be. Atticus is no crusader: he does not swoop in to defend Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white woman, on behalf of the NAACP or the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is just a small-town general practitioner who gets appointed to the case. Not only does he not make a habit of seeking out such difficult cases, but in a private conversation with his brother, Atticus reveals that he did not even want Tom’s case. He says, “You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but [Judge] John Taylor pointed at me and said, ‘You’re It.’”
Some might reasonably condemn Atticus’s attitude as complacent. He seems to be one of those who in “times of great moral crisis” would “maintain their neutrality.” At best, he might be a “good man” who allows “evil to triumph” by “doing nothing.” In short, he is in violation of a variety of maxims supposed to govern the conduct of our proactive, hyperaware, ethical leaders.
Atticus is a constant compromiser. When the new schoolteacher, Miss Caroline, forbids Scout to read at home, she and her father have this exchange on the subject: “‘Do you know what a compromise is?’ he asked. [To which Scout replies] ‘Bending the law?’” [Atticus replies] “No, an agreement reached by mutual concessions.” Of course, this is just good lawyering. Their agreement is that Scout can continue to read with Atticus as long as she will consent to continue to attend school, and Scout has it right: the law is being bent. Atticus has just illustrated how such a compromise applies in the case of the Ewells, Mockingbird’s chief antagonists: “In certain circumstances, the common folk judiciously allowed them certain privileges by the simple method of becoming blind to some of the Ewells’ activities. They didn’t have to go to school, for one thing. Another thing, Mr. Bob Ewell, Burris’s father, was permitted to hunt and trap out of season.” Of course, Atticus’s willingness to compromise, to “bend the law,” culminates in his agreeing to cover up the manner of Bob Ewell’s death in order to spare Boo Radley the public eye.
In addition to his complacency and willingness to make concessions, Atticus in another sense is deeply compromised by being a loyal citizen of Maycomb. He is at home in a society that most of us today would find unimaginable, in which racism is implicit in every social interaction. Confronted with “Maycomb’s usual disease” as Atticus calls it—wherein “reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up”—we might expect our moral paragon to disown the whole town. By participating in its patently corrupt justice system, Atticus is complicit in Maycomb’s injustice. When Tom is wrongly convicted, he doesn’t resign his law license in protest, and he doesn’t publicly denounce the jury for their prejudice; he accepts the verdict, though promising to appeal. In the novel’s very first chapter, author Harper Lee writes of Atticus, “He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him.” Keeping in mind that Maycomb is the kind of town where a black man cannot get a fair trial, what does it say about Atticus that he “likes” it?
In sum, Atticus is not an agitator. He is not a radical. He believes that the racism embedded in Maycomb’s society is wrong, he desires reform, and put in the right position, he gives his utmost to achieve it. But Atticus is ultimately accepting of Maycomb with all of its flaws. He loves the town and its people more than he hates their sin. Seen this way, his character is not as universally great as the symbolic hero status he has attained would suggest. The question is whether in the loss of his universal greatness, he can retain his goodness. In fact, I believe that the limited nature of Atticus’s goodness reveals something about goodness itself.
Though Americans may have developed a taste for heroes considerably more pure in their affections and devoted to their ideals—especially with respect to social justice and civil rights—Atticus retains an enduring attraction. In spite of our legalistic, almost puritanical expectations, Atticus continues to be admired for his personal integrity, his empathy, and his practical wisdom. I would argue that his character represents not a universal form of heroism, but rather a local—and more realistic—form. It is his love and knowledge of Maycomb, which almost seems a fault from the perspective I have just described, that actually empowers him as an agent of change.
The good that Atticus achieves in the novel always comes through his knowledge of the people of Maycomb. Atticus explains this technique to Scout: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. 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.” This practiced empathy allows him to make peace between Scout and her teacher, Miss Caroline, by discerning that what Scout really fears is being unable to read as she likes. It gives him insight into his neighbor, Mrs. Dubois, allowing him to see past her hostility to her struggle with morphine addiction, which he then helps her to overcome. But Mockingbird’s most profound example of the power of personal, relational knowledge comes when the Old Sarum gang arrive at the jail intending to lynch Tom. Scout finds herself at Atticus’s side, confronted by a crowd of strangers. She finds the one familiar face in the crowd and begins making conversation with Walter Cunningham. The turn of the whole scene comes when Cunningham finally acknowledges her: “Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.” Having been forced to acknowledge that he knows and is known by the Finches, Cunningham calls off the mob.
Harper Lee also makes the effectiveness of personal knowledge evident through the character of Miss Caroline, who is often overlooked as a foil for Atticus. He enjoys success because “he knew his people, they knew him,” but everywhere he succeeds—in gaining the trust and respect of Maycomb, in effecting social change, however small, in facing the challenge posed by the antisocial Ewells—she fails. This is through no fault of her character, but because she has yet “to learn all of Maycomb’s ways.” Like Atticus, Miss Caroline is a professional. She had an advanced education, acquired outside of Maycomb. She has a reform agenda of her own, though it is merely pedagogical. But as an outsider, unable to speak from within her audience’s experience, her efforts to impose her vision of education are dismissed as foolish on the one hand and resented as imperialistic on the other.
Although he may not be a universal hero in the mold of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., Atticus represents an alternative heroism that is local in nature. His goodness stands for three propositions: first, that complacency is not the only alternative to activism; second, that compromise is an acceptable means to social change; and finally, that while the Law is universal, grace is local.
Glenn Tinder, Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has articulated a Christian politics based on what he calls the “prophetic stance.” This political orientation is focused on waiting for and discerning the movement of God in history. Rather than militating for any particular social program, the responsibility of the Christian is to steward the opportunities for action that naturally arise in life together with other people. It arises from an acknowledgement of the sinfulness of humankind and from a conviction of the Christ-given dignity of every person. It is expressed by an attitude of awareness and availability.
In many ways, everywhere that Atticus fails to live up to the secular standard for a prophet, he embodies what Tinder looks for in the prophetic Christian. As we have seen, Atticus is not an activist—but neither is he truly complacent. Rather, he is faithful in the small things. He never wastes an opportunity to teach his children, to care for his neighbors, or to seek justice for the oppressed. This is possible only because of his acute awareness of the people around him and his seemingly bottomless availability for self-giving. The spirit of faithful selflessness, described in Christologial terms, is what motivates him in his defense of Tom Robinson: “Let this cup pass from you, eh?” asks his brother. “Right,” says Atticus.
Atticus’s powers of empathy and compromise, which make him both effective and ethically suspect, come from his practice of stability. This need for stability, “for the generations to succeed one another in place” is the subject of Wendell Berry’s essay “The Work of Local Culture.” In the essay, he mourns the loss of native country people who are eroded away, as it were, by cultural failings. Berry’s wisdom is that no matter what our place is “diminished” by, be it racism, ignorance, consumerism, or just general poor taste, it will not be redeemed by a lack of love. Only by people remaining in place—the best and brightest as well as those without “better” options—can the places themselves grow culturally. In literature, this theme of succession in place is universal. Atticus himself embodies the theme of return, whereby the son matures on a journey in order to better serve his hometown. After going off to Montgomery for his education, he returns to Maycomb. His brother, on the other hand, stays in Boston and so can only talk with Atticus about the problems of his hometown, with little chance for action.
Atticus understands that the world is inevitably marred by sin. He does not believe in the perfectibility of Maycomb, and so neither does he reject it when confronted by its imperfections. Though this makes him complicit in its evils, such complicity may be inevitable for any mere human who would live loyally toward his place. And ultimately, this sin may be—if not justified—at least redeemed by its role in correcting and edifying the culture. Certainly the alternative, to disown and abandon Maycomb, would be both uncharitable and unlikely to improve it. Maycomb without Atticus would be a darker place. Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous early-20th-century theologian, once wrote to a pacifist who objected to the Allies going to war against Hitler: “Your difficulty is that you want to try to live in history without sinning… our effort to set up the Kingdom of God on earth ends in a perverse preference for tyranny.” By this same token, personal puritanism may only foster injustice.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Zozima reflects, “The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular.” In the effort to make a universal hero of Atticus, to hold him to a high standard of abstract principles, his interpreters inevitably orient him towards mankind in general. The character on the page resists this interpretation at every turn. In fact, Atticus represents the work of grace in history, through his devotion to particular people in particular situations. While pronouncements of the Law may require only a general knowledge, enactments of grace require the intimacy and understanding that Atticus achieves through stability and compromise. He is effective only by living in charity towards the place where he lives.
Despite his failure to live up to the model of a universal hero, there is much we can learn from the character of Atticus Finch. Rather than aspiring to an ever greater purity and perfection in our ideals, we can strive to be present in broken communities. We can learn, if not to endorse, then to accept the imperfections and injustices that we cannot change, at least not overnight. We must be willing to accept brokenness, because distancing ourselves from it completely makes us powerless to engage it.