In Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, how would Jem like Atticus to do more than Atticus is capable of?

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vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem has very high expectations of his father, Atticus, as the following examples suggest:

  • Jem expects his father to tell him about the Radley family, but Atticus refuses to do so.
  • At the very beginning of Chapter 10 of the novel, Jem feels disappointment in Atticus because (1) he seems too old; (2) he won’t let Jem tackle him when they play football; (3) Atticus’s job seems unexciting when compared to a whole host of other occupations; (4) he wears glasses, which symbolize his defective vision. In addition (as Scout notes),

He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the livingroom and read.

In short, Atticus seems a fairly bland and unexciting father at this point in the novel.

  • Later, Jem is again disappointed when his father can’t (and won’t) play football: the local Methodists

had challenged the Baptists to a game of touch football. Everybody in town’s father was playing, it seemed, except Atticus.

  • Jem is also disappointed in his father – or at least resists his father – when Atticus tries to send Jem home and away from the mob surrounding the courthouse.
  • Later, when Tom Robinson is convicted, Jem is so disappointed in the verdict that Scout even momentarily wonders if Jem blames their father:

He would look up at Atticus, then down at the floor, and I wondered if he thought Atticus somehow responsible for Tom Robinson’s conviction.

Mostly, though, Jem is just stunned by the unfairness of the conviction – and, by implication, at the unfairness of life. Even a lawyer as talented and conscientious as Atticus Finch cannot guarantee justice. To the extent that Jem expects his father to achieve justice in spite of all odds, he is holding Atticus to standards Atticus simply cannot meet.

Something extra: Lee's novel invites attention from the perspective of archetypal criticism, which focuses on the kinds of things, persons, and events that can seem universal. Almost by definition fathers can seem archetypal figures, since everyone has a father and so everyone has expectations about fathers. It is common, in the father archetype, for the father to be a wise person who protects his children and guides them through the viccissitudes of life. The archetypal father figure is strong, resolute, talented, and loving.  Atticus, of course, is all these things. He is one of the great archetypal father figures in American literature. Yet not even Atticus can completely satisfy the tendency of children, at least when they are younger, to look upon their parents and find them lacking in various respects. Part of the charm of Lee's novel is that it is told from the perspectives both of the young Scout and the older, wiser Scout. The latter Scout clearly appreciates her father in a way the younger Scout sometimes did not. Surely the same must also be true of the older Jem.




chelsiver's profile pic

chelsiver | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

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You can see Jem's frustration with Atticus when he asks him if he is going to play football for the Methodists. Atticus laughs, and responds that he is too old. Jem is disappointed that he can't brag about his father to the other boys, because Atticus doesn't do all the physical activities their dads do.

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