Explain Atticus' statements about the following: The use of the word "nigger." His personal reasons for defending Tom Robinson.    

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Lynn Ramsson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Atticus describes the use of the word "nigger" as something his children should avoid because it is "common." This word choice is interesting when considering the character of Atticus Finch, as it almost suggests something about the class of people who use the word "nigger." Perhaps only "common" people use that word, and Atticus has not raised his children, Scout and Jem, to be common, so therefore, they ought not use the word.

If this analysis is true, then Atticus Finch is a more complex character than his choices and behaviors indicate. He is a straightforward person with a clear moral system and a direct manner. He seems to see people as individuals, resisting stereotypes and other harmful and prejudiced ways of thinking. Atticus defends Tom Robinson because he thinks Tom is innocent, and he knows Tom is in a disadvantaged position as a poor, black man in the community. All of these descriptions characterize a good guy who uses his cleverness and integrity for good and not for evil.

But playing devil's advocate requires the reader to question Atticus and his use of the word "common." Isn't Atticus falling into a stereotype himself in this situation by suggesting that only people of a certain social demographic use the word "nigger"? Perhaps, in Maycomb, that is true, but the unfortunate reality is that people of all social classes use hateful words like "nigger." The reader can interpret Atticus here in this moment as an idealist who wants to believe that non-common people don't say "nigger." Alternately, we might interpret Atticus as a classist person who makes assumptions about people poorer and less educated than himself. Either way, Atticus remains a fascinating character in literature for all his truly human complications.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We can see Atticus’ attitude toward the word “nigger” in how he talks to Scout early in chapter 9. Scout has been hearing hateful talk at school about the fact that her father is defending a black man. At home, she asks him, “Do you defend niggers, Atticus?” Atticus tells her not to use the word “nigger” because it’s “common.”

What he means here is that the word is used by people who don’t try to rise above the hateful prejudices that they have grown up with. Inheriting such attitudes is what the masses (the “common folk”) typically do. Notice that Atticus is very circumspect with how he says it, however. He doesn’t do any name-calling or hate-mongering of his own. It’s his style to stay above the fray.

As for defending Tom Robinson, he explains this to Scout in terms of personal integrity. After she asks why he’s defending him, he says,

“For a number of reasons. The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.”

For Atticus, personal belief and morality must always be reflected in personal actions.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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