From Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, how does Atticus define background? How does his definition differ from Aunt Alexandra's? 

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Aunt Alexandra comes to live with her brother's family in chapter 13. Once there, she starts talking about the hierarchy of genetics in Maycomb. Of course she believes that the Finches are at the top and should be considered genetic royalty. Her main reason for discussing such things is because she wants Jem and Scout to understand why they should behave, dress, and represent the Finch name. For example, Aunt Alexandra wants Jem and Scout to be and look better in public because of who they are. Therefore, she believes that if she teaches them everything about genetics, and what makes up good families, hopefully the children will represent the Finch name better. Scout is confused as to why her aunt thinks this is so important by saying the following:

"I never understood her preoccupation with heredity. Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was" (130).

Scout says that "somewhere" she picked up her beliefs that people create their own value and that it doesn't just come from genetics. This "somewhere" has to be from her father, Atticus. For example, when Atticus tells the children the difference between the Cunninghams and the Ewells, he indirectly defines background by praising the Cunninghams for being hard workers and honest with their debts. On the other hand, he defines the Ewells as the biggest disgrace in the county because they aren't honest in their dealings and they are neglectful with their children's upbringing. One difference between these two families is the Cunninghams go hungry because of the Great Depression, not for lack of work ethic; but the Ewells go hungry because of laziness and drunkenness.

Atticus doesn't teach his kids these things so they will be snobs; or just because they have the Finch name; or because their ancestors owned a plantation with slaves. Atticus doesn't teach his kids that since their ancestors helped to establish Maycomb, and were rich, that they should act properly to show it. He teaches his children to respect everyone, to see others from different perspectives, and not to lose their tempers when they are treated with prejudice. Aunt Alexandra only teaches the kids how to demonstrate proper manners in public and how to be prejudiced. She doesn't teach them about love and kindness. Therefore, Aunt Alexandra defines background with genetics, money, manners, and ownership of land; whereas Atticus defines it as someone doing the best they can with what they have.


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To Kill a Mockingbird

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