Atticus Finch: Local and National Man of Virtue


     To Kill a Mockingbird presents us with a broken town in a broken county—Maycomb. The townspeople hold onto time-honored codes and conventions, some of which are laudable and some of which are reprehensible. The novel highlights the problem of appearances—as embodied in the town’s architecture. “The Maycomb jail [is] the most venerable and hideous of the county’s buildings” on the outside and to all appearances it “[gives] the town a good solid respectable look,” but the reality is that on the inside it is rotten and falling apart (To Kill a Mockingbird, 200-201). The justice system is broken and the courthouse sags in the middle because of its brokenness. The Maycombians want their town to seem wonderful, and so their buildings “[present] an unoffensive vista when seen from the north” but on the south-side the Greek columns (representing justice and order) clash with the nineteenth century clock tower, which is broken and represents their racial prejudices which are a relic of the past (217). The architecture presents itself as pleasing to the eye, but in reality their town is full of moral decay. Thus Harper Lee’s description of the town emphasizes Maycomb’s brokenness or rottenness on the inside covered by a glossy veneer. Yet a problem arises when the local population is educated in a morally corrupt system: the only possible solution is through proper education and a respect for both local and national perspective on justice. The national perspective to justice is top-down, authoritative, one-size-fits-all, impersonal approach to justice. The national imposes its way on everyone just the same. It is bureaucratic and will not make exceptions; in opposition to the national perspective to administering justice is the local perspective. The local perspective is personal, informal, neighborly, and it allows for individual circumstance to override strict adherance to code. It can, however, tend to be sometimes corrupt because the local perspective is biased. Lee shows a local population that is not receiving justice: the black community in Maycomb, the economically downtrodden (which in Maycomb is pretty much everyone), and of course Arthur or Boo Radley. Because the local population is too close to the situation with Tom Robinson, justice is not able to be administered fairly because of their bias. So there is a need for an outside perspective (let’s call this the national perspective). It seems like all that would be needed to bring justice is to bring in a national perspective to force compliance. Yet Lee’s novel highlights the fact that on some level, only someone who both has a national perspective and is familiar with the local population is capable of bringing about real change. This is why the attempts to fix the problems of Maycomb county on the national level ultimately fail. Time and time again throughout the novel the national perspective fails: two examples surface immediately—first, the attempts of Miss Caroline—the well-meaning teacher—to educate locals, and the second, the attempts of the national Government to fix the economy. This essay will show how the national perspective fails to secure justice for the local population, and how Atticus Finch is a man endowed with virtue who is able to bring some amount of justice to the local population while maintaining a national or principled approach, giving him disctance, and a good understanding of the local popultion’s true identity and desires.

     Miss Caroline has come into Maycomb county as an outsider: she is from North Alabama, from Winston county, which her students know is a part of Alabama which succeeded from the South when the South succeeded from the union in 1861. They see this part of the state as harboring “persons of no background” (21). It is important here to note that even the children in grammar school already know the importance of having a background, a heritage. There is a huge emphasis throughout the novel on the importance of ancestry and heritage—of tradition. Nevertheless, tradition is presented as a double edged sword: it is both one criteria necessary for being ‘fine folk’ and one of the main causes of Maycomb’s moral rottenness—that is, there is a tradition in Maycomb of racial prejudice. So tradition is shown as both good and bad, and Harper Lee clearly shows that to break wholly from tradition or to try to rebuild from the national perspective will ultimately fail to bring about justice. unhelpful-teacher-meme-collective-punishmentThus Miss Caroline’s attempts to educate the Maycombians fails because she fails to understand Maycombians. She reads them cute stories about cats who wear “cunning little clothes” and had long conversations about basically nothing (21). The narrator, Jean-Louise Finch, tells us that “Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cottom and feg hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature” (22). By the end of chapter 2, we see that the real teachers are Atticus and Calpurnia (both embodiments of a good mixture of the local and national) and not Miss Caroline (the embodiment of the national). The problem with the national is that it is too impersonal and fails to understand the particular needs of the people which it attempts to serve.

     The second example of the failure of the national to bring about justice is the national government’s social programs’ failure to revitalize Maycomb’s crumbling economy—the WPA and the NRA both fail to better the lives of Maycomb county citizens. They are sweeping reforms which Maycomb county citizens, such as the Cunninghams, decide not to participate in. The Cunninghams will not participate in the WPA because of pride. They would “never take anything they couldn’t pay back” as a matter of personal honor and integrity (26). This Southern pride allowed them to keep their freedom and ability to vote the way they want. So the WPA fails actually to help the Cunninghams better their economic situation because it fails to address their particular desire to uphold their tradition of self-sufficiency. Interestingly, Bob Ewell does participate in the WPA, but he takes advantage of it. He is the opposite of the Cunninghams: he takes without the intention of repayment. So the WPA fails to help him truly better himself because it allows Bob Ewell to get away with laziness. Atticus is a good example of someone who meets the Cunninghams at their level, giving them a way to receive services without the need to pay him in money. Instead they use what they have to pay him back. They use their labor and the things they produce: firewood, bags of nuts, and potatoes. Atticus helps them out economically by providing legal counsel, but he also allows them to keep their personal honor and integrity. He is a good example of the local and the national in this way: (local) he understands and addresses their personal need, and (national) he is an outsider, that is, he is not a Cunningham or one of the Old Sarum gang, and he comes from the outside to give them aid.

     Therefore, Atticus is a good mixture of the local and the national. He is local, in that he is himself born and raised in Maycomb county outside of Maycomb town on Finch’s Landing, the home of his forefathers. He is national in that he left Finch’s Landing to study law. His understanding of law and principle guides his actions, and gives him the ability to judge things based on the truth, rather than on pre-conceived notions. He is not racially prejudiced as are some of the citizens of Maycomb county, rather, through his education and through his ability to use reason to judge things, he has acquired the ability to rise above the usual prejudices that accompany Maycombians.

 Atticus Finch is also considered ‘fine-folk’ because he has all of the criteria required in the novel: to do the best you can with the sense you have, and to have been living on the same plot of ground for at least five generations—that is, to be a person of background, to have a name or heritage (196). Atticus fulfils these criteria because is a Finch, and comes from a good background (although he has broken away from that tradition somewhat, he is nevertheless a Finch by birth) and he does the best he can with the sense he has. He has all of the cardinal virtues: moderation, courage, justice, and prudence. Atticus is always shown to be moderate: in terms of the consumption of food, he appears strange to Scout and Jem because he never eats sweets. On the morning when the black community of Maycomb blesses the Finches with great amounts of food, Atticus goes to town without eating any of it. It should be noted that moderation is indulging appropriately in bodily pleasures—neither too much nor too little. Atticus errs on the side of too little enjoyment, which Aristotle notes in the Ethics to be very rare in humans—he calls being deficient in the indulgence of bodily pleasures as being insensible. I believe that Atticus, however, is not necessarily insensible, but follow more in the Christian tradition of asceticism. But his moderation extends to how he deals with difficult situations, such as when Bob Ewell spit on his face, he was able to control his passions and not engage in a fight, even though he had been publicly humiliated. His words: “It’s not time to worry” are an embodiment of his moderation.

     Atticus is a man of courage. But Atticus reminds and teaches his children “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 to the end no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do” (149). For Atticus, real courage is not about appearing strong on the outside or being able to threaten others, rather true courage is going forward in the face of fear. The virtue of courage requires a balancing act: one must not be too fearful yet not ignore fear, but have an appropriate reaction to the fear by acknowledging it, and then do what is right, persevering to the bitter end.

atticus-finch1     Atticus is also a man of justice. He is concerned with giving to each person what is owed to them. He does not play favorites, even with his children, but he is also remarkably understanding of them. He knows that they are children and naturally curious, and he does not discipline them in a strict way, but tries to get them to see situations from a rational viewpoint. He leads by example, and the bar he sets is very high. He knows that Scout is just going through a phase when she is using curse words, so he does not give her the attention she is looking for, rather he continues to do what he always does—he does not sink to her level, just as he does not sink to Bob Ewell’s level when Ewell spits on him and curses him. He holds his head high and is a complete gentleman. Once Jem recognizes this, he is overjoyed and his heart leaps up, saying “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!” (131). Moreover, Atticus courageously defends Tom Robinson for the sake of justice, even though it goes against the time-honored code of Maycomb. Atticus cares about tradition, but he cares more for what is right.

     Finally, Atticus is the man of prudence, which is practical wisdom, or knowing the right action in every situation. Atticus is never worried and seldom surprised because he is a man of wisdom and experience: he knows what to do in every situation, and he is always one step ahead of everyone. Therefore, Atticus is the man of virtue, a true gentleman and Miss Maudie Atkinson rightly refers to him as “civilized at heart” (130).

     In the end, this novel is concerned with fixing the brokenness of the town, and on some level, the brokenness of the town is able to be fixed, but it is acknowledged that it will be done in slow small changes. It will be done through education. There is a need to see things from the unbiased viewpoint of a child, and this is precisely why Harper Lee chose to show everything from the perspective of Jean Louise Finch, a child. The novel is about Scout, certainly, but the clear hero of the novel is Atticus Finch, who shows us what it means to be ‘fine-folk’, and what it takes to secure justice for the local population by having moral and intellectual virtues which he applies to practical situations with prudence, courage, justice, and moderation.

Works Cited

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1988. Print.

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2 Responses
  1. Buttercream1 says:

    Dude, for awhile there I forgot you did this blog; glad you’re back at it!
    P.S.- You may enjoy this “Which Shakespeare Character Are You” webpage; it doesn’t give you Beatrice every time:

  2. I’m glad you’re enjoying it Chris! I’ll take a look at the Shakespeare character because I always got Julius Caesar every time (yikes!).

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