We still need Atticus Finch

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Tara McCrorey, Contributing Writer

 

photo courtesy of Barnes and Noble
photo courtesy of Barnes and Noble

I first fell in love when I was eleven years old. He was quite the character – much older than I, actually – and his name was Atticus Finch. A community-theater production introduced us that summer, but my infatuation continued across almost a decade, encouraged by two other dramatic performances and four readings of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Over the course of this extended exposure, I found much more to love about Harper Lee’s masterpiece than just the dignified lawyer of Maycomb, Alabama. In the book, his daughter, Scout Finch, narrates three years of her childhood in a small Southern town. Through her wise, innocent eyes, I encountered some of the greatest faults of the human race.
What most affected me at first (aside from Atticus’s gentle virtue) was the shocking intensity of racism in the American South, partly illustrated by the story of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely convicted of rape. Never before had the effects of racial prejudice been so real to me, and there was no better lens through which to view it than Lee’s plain prose. I was struck by another aspect of prejudice when I realized that the hermit Boo Radley had been the victim of years of cruel gossip and defamation. I had believed nearly every word of it, too, until I got to the part where Boo saves the lives of Scout and her brother in the final chapters of the book.
Stepping away from Lee’s captivating fiction, I began to recognize threads of discrimination in my own community, for what Scout discovered was true not only in Maycomb, but reflective of man’s perennial fear of the unknown. As the years went on, I saw the tragedy of Tom Robinson’s trial not just in black-white relationships, for thankfully we have come a long way since the 1930s, but also in the everyday interactions between people of all races, ages and social classes. The injustice against Boo Radley also appeared, everywhere from high-school hallways to church socials.
Atticus seemed to be the only hope for Maycomb County and its problems. He was the hero, a glorious, humble man of righteousness and intelligence who was somehow able to do right in every difficult situation he encountered. Though Atticus lost Tom Robinson’s trial, his vision of justice took hold in his community and grew especially strong in his children. He was the perfect man to temper the sins of his community.
When I last read To Kill a Mockingbird, however, I found myself frustrated with his very presence in the novel. Atticus seemed totally and utterly unrealistic. How could an Atticus Finch appear out of the dominating racism and gossip circles of the backward South? Moreover, how did Harper Lee dare even suggest such a falsified character? I was angry with Lee, but devastated by Atticus.
After a week of general disappointment, I had a relieving conversation with the Commentary editor of this paper. He suggested that I had simply read the book too many times in too short a period of time, and that I, in my near-obsession, had dug too far past what Lee intended. Some reflection convinced me that he was right. Atticus was not a god, Maycomb County was not the depths of hell, and Harper Lee was a novelist, not an historian.
Setting aside the book, we still face the problems of prejudice, discrimination and false judgment in our society. Fortunately on a smaller scale than in To Kill a Mockingbird, these issues are rooted in a fear we can continue to erase by recognizing our universal human dignity. I am still learning how to best accomplish this, but I would highly recommend my teacher: Atticus Finch.

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