Reconsidering Atticus Finch
Tolerance Overwhelmed by Delusion in America Today
A reappraisal of Atticus Finch is urgently needed. Without it, the wise lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird is in danger of falling prey to the growing fiction of contemporary America. And without it, Americans are in danger of losing their grasp on reality.
Atticus Finch is one of the most admired characters in American literature, so much so that many believe he is real. What he represents is real but reality is changing and no one in America is in greater need of re-evaluation than Atticus Finch. Since he can’t do it himself, we must. It is especially important at this point in American history.
Things were different when Harper Lee introduced Atticus to Americans at the outset of the sixties. His arrival was timely. The Montgomery Bus Boycott a few years earlier and subsequent activities dramatically raised awareness of racial inequality and presented the nation a chance to respond. Atticus Finch walked through the door of that opportunity with a simple but profound message.
“…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them,” he said. And he meant it. Over and over again Atticus wisely, contrarily, obstinately and bravely demonstrated his commitment to seeing things the other fellow’s way. It was a process that amounted to tolerance, something the country badly needed.
But America saw tolerance in two entirely different ways. Most of the country, believing it was already tolerant, reaffirmed their belief through the example Atticus provided and moved on to better and worse. Not so, the South.
For most white southerners, tolerance was an ideal they could ill afford because they believed the peculiar circumstances of their culture would not permit it. The fact that Atticus, a lifelong southerner, was tolerant indicated an ideal acceptable to a few, but southern culture itself wasn’t there yet and most concluded they must wait until the time was ready. Tolerance, for them, was an unrealistic ideal.
Tolerance, accepted or not, is where things stood for America, for the South and for Atticus. Until now.
In rereading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in decades, I noticed something new. Forget the hullabaloo about Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s earlier draft that received enormous attention after its discovery shortly before her death in 2016. There is something disruptive right there in Mockingbird.
Two characters in the novel take the lion’s share of attention. Atticus is the super-adult, wise and consistent, who makes the case for tolerance. Scout, his grade school daughter, is the child who seeks guidance for understanding the phenomena of southern culture and American life.
A third character, Arthur “Boo” Radley, makes his appearance only at the conclusion of the book, but his presence, representing the unknown, is felt actively throughout. Atticus is unfazed by Arthur Radley and considers him benign. Scout is frightened by the reclusive neighbor she has never seen and fears him.
A brief summary of the conclusion is required: (For those few who have not read Mockingbird, this bare-bones outline will only make the experience richer.)
Atticus defends an African American man accused of raping the daughter of a man, Ewell, who is portrayed as the worst sort of drunken white trash. Ewell vows revenge against Atticus who does not believe he will follow through. Late on a dark night after a school event, Ewell attacks Scout and her brother, Jem, who is four years older. Scout can’t see because of a costume she is wearing but hears everything well and knows that she and Jem are attacked by an adult. Jem is quickly incapacitated in the attack that breaks his arm severely and renders him unconscious. In the darkness, Scout is aware that another adult comes to their rescue. This second adult, who turns out to be Arthur “Boo” Radley, carries Jem to their home nearby and remains as a doctor arrives followed by the sheriff. As the doctor attends to Jem, Atticus, Scout, Radley and the sheriff have a conversation on the porch to review what happened.
This is the point of critical meaning in To Kill a Mockingbird that is overlooked in deference to tolerance. The sheriff reports that Ewell was killed with a butcher knife, the weapon he presumably intended to use on the children. Atticus is so distracted by walking in the shoes of others that he immediately foresees proceedings that identify his son, Jem, as having killed Ewell. Atticus explicitly assumes that citizens will expect an investigation and anticipates a self-defense argument on behalf of Jem.
The sheriff counters by telling Atticus that his observation of Ewell’s corpse indicates that he accidentally fell on the knife and demonstrates his conclusion with a switchblade that he happens to have taken from a drunk that day. Jem, he said, definitely had no hand in Ewell’s death. The sheriff also informs Atticus that there will be no legal proceeding in the case because he will declare the matter closed based on his investigation and that Atticus has no further say in the matter.
Atticus and his propensity to walk in others’ shoes, his tolerance, is left high and dry on the porch. But the reader is omniscient, or should be, having all the facts. Clearly, Jem, unconscious and with an arm badly broken, could not have overpowered and killed Ewell. The reader is led by Harper Lee to suspect strongly that the switchblade the sheriff said was taken from a drunk had been taken from the dead Ewell, widely known as a drunk. Atticus, blinded by insistence to consider how others see the case, has no constructive response.
Most importantly, at no point during their discussion, is the presence of Arthur “Boo” Radley mentioned. Radley scooped up the limp body of a thirteen-year-old boy and brought him home. Was that Boo Radley’s only mission that night? Of course not. The reader knows better. The reader is aware that the sheriff is simply covering the death of a notoriously evil man by failing to explain everything.
And the reader knows — or should know — that finally, after numerous instances of wisdom, of many examples of propriety, Atticus and his studied tolerance are superfluous. Something previously unknown appears in its place.
That night on the porch, Atticus cedes the future to Scout. Atticus ignores Boo Radley, his role in events and his larger meaning. Scout may not fully comprehend the events, but she embraces their meaning. She accepts Boo Radley.
We last see Atticus, constant and reliable as ever, sitting up all night with his sleeping, injured son. Atticus will still be there in the morning, oblivious to the arrival of a new day. Tolerance had its time, fulfilled its mission.
Tolerance went as far as it could but dwelling in it perpetually creates delusion that blinds us from the next step. Having tolerated, we must now accept. Scout showed us the way, living her whole young life across the street from an unknown that held her in fear. Having realized and accepted that unknown, she can live the remainder of her life in freedom.
in the public domain by Michael Driver (no rights reserved)
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