How do the moral and physical courage of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Jake Brigance in John Grisham's A Time to Kill compare and contrast?

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tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In John Grisham's A Time To Kill, Jake Brigance shows moral courage by deciding to defend his African-American friend, Carl Lee Hailey, knowing he would likely lose the case and that a loss would cost him his young career as a lawyer. Despite the threat to his career, he makes the decision to defend Hailey because he knows it is the morally correct thing to do.
Hailey's daughter had just been abused, nearly to the point of death, by two white men. Though the men were in the custody of the court, Brigance knows they are likely to be acquitted, just as two white men in a similar case in a town nearby had recently been acquitted. Since Hailey knows the legal system is unlikely serve true justice due to racism, Hailey becomes determined to take matters into his own hands by going on a vigilante killing. Though Brigance begs Hailey not to do anything stupid, he also says he would do the same thing in his situation, especially knowing that the court system was likely to fail him. Therefore, when Hailey is charged with first-degree murder, Brigance agrees to defend him. Not only does Brigance defend Hailey because he knows he would do the same thing in Hailey's shoes, Brigance does so because he also knows that a white man in Hailey's situation would easily be acquitted by a Mississippi jury based on grounds of temporary insanity. But, Hailey is unlikely to receive the same amount of empathy just because he is black. Therefore, in deciding to put his all into defending Hailey, Brigance is challenging a faulty legal system, a system in which a prejudiced jury has full control over the outcome of justice being served. It takes a great deal of moral courage to challenge a faulty legal system and to challenge dominant racial prejudices.

But, of course, Brigance's decision to defend Hailey puts him and his family in danger. Soon, he and his family are persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan, whose members stake his lawn with a burning cross and attempt to bomb his house. In facing the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan, Brigance demonstrates physical courage. In fact, the lives of Brigance and his family are threatened to the point that he must send his wife and daughter to Florida during the trial to keep them safe.

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus demonstrates the exact same moral and physical courage that Brigance demonstrates. Just like Brigance, Atticus also agrees to put his all into defending African-American Tom Robinson because he too sees fault in the legal system. He sees that no genuine evidence exists to convict Robinson, that the only evidence being used in the trial is Robinson's "word against the Ewells'" (Ch. 9), and that Robinson is unlikely to be acquitted, despite lack of evidence, simply because he is black. Though many in the town believe he should not defend Robinson, simply because Robinson is black, Atticus displays moral courage by holding on to his conviction that all deserve a fair defense. Just like Brigance, Atticus also demonstrates physical courage when he faces ridicule and faces a lynch mob.

One significant difference between the two characters, though, concerns their outlook. Atticus never for a moment believes he will win the trial but holds on to the hope of overturning the court's decision upon appeal; his ability to act despite outcome further demonstrates the extent of his moral courage. In contrast, Brigance holds on to the hope that he can make the all-white jury feel empathetic towards Hailey's plight and course of action, and his hope drives his moral courage. In addition, Brigance fully understands the extent of the dangers he and his family face as a result of his decision to fight racial prejudices and legal injustices. He feels the impact of the danger to the extent that he sends his wife and daughter to safety out of the state; his physical courage drives his sound, rational decision to send his wife and daughter to safety. In contrast, Atticus never lets go of his belief in the general goodness of mankind. As a result, he does not fear for his life when faced by the mob nor when threatened by Bod Ewell. In consequence of his naivete, he fails to send his children to safety, and their lives are endangered by Ewell, which shows that sometimes his ability to act physically courageously can sometimes be hampered by his blind, positive outlook.

lrwilliams's profile pic

lrwilliams | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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Jake Brigance in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird show both moral and physical courage. They both clearly show moral courage when they take on the defense of seemingly indefensible men. Societal attitudes clearly indicate that neither man has a chance of going free, and yet these men take on the unwinnable fight and end up shining a a light on the darkness of racial discrimination. They do this because it is the right thing to do. Neither will make money, although Jake will get attention.

On the other hand, both characters show physical courage as well. Attitucs races to the courthouse to save Tom Robinson from a lynching that men of the community are determined to give him. Jake Brigance shows physical courage as he battles the unseen forces attacking him, his colleagues, and his home.

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